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Gaming Leadership

by Liz Mellon

Gamification is an ugly word for an important idea. It describes the use of game thinking to engage users and solve problems. Gamification techniques appeal to our natural desire for competition through making the rewards for accomplishing tasks visible to other players, or providing leader boards, as ways of encouraging players to compete. Unfortunately, gamification could also be used to describe aptly the talent and leadership development processes in many businesses. And the way we develop our leaders—through a competitive tournament—makes them ill-suited to the task of influencing others and helping them to own ideas.

It may not intentionally start out that way. But over time, the selection, development, and advancement of leaders typically resembles a tournament. There are many good reasons for this. But there are also some negative consequences.

Gamification gets people to compete in order to find the best possible solution to a problem or to create the best new idea. Unfortunately what works with things (problem solving), rarely works as well with people (getting buy-in). The gamification of leadership produces leaders who need to collaborate and align, but who are more inclined to be combative and compete. They default to command and control rather than to consult and influence.

If we look at the math of getting to the top in an organization, it’s immediately apparent that only a tiny percentage of employees make it. Forbes reported in April 2012 that the largest 2,000 companies in the world produced $36 trillion in revenues and employed 83 million people, an average of 41,500 people each. Assuming an average size of 10 for the executive team, that makes the senior-most leaders to be about 0.02 percent of the total population.

How do you win a race like that? By competing—by being smarter, faster, more dedicated, or harder working than colleagues. It’s a competitive model of promotion, and winners are distinguished from losers on five criteria: good judgments in work performance; early career success; little time spent at any one level of the organizational hierarchy; strong performance in previous competitions; and how fast the candidate has moved in the past (faster is better). It’s literally described as a tournament, and as these executives progress up the hierarchy, they learn that competition works in getting them ahead. They learn to compete to win personally more than they learn to collaborate to win as an organization. Individual, rather than team, reward systems often back this up. Our leaders simply reflect the rules of the game.

Liz Mellon of Duke CE is author (with Simon Carter) of The Strategy of Execution (McGraw Hill, 2013) and Inside the Leader’s Mind (FT Prentice Hall 2011).

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