Use Me, Don’t Abuse Me

My daughter and I are excited to see the second Hobbit movie. We expect to be scared, worried, excited, and comforted. We look forward to that swell of music as the brave team finally sights the lonely mountain. We plan to put ourselves in Peter Jackson’s hands and feel all the emotions you can feel.

We also like to feel silly yet strong when we play Plants vs Zombies, we like to be frustrated and puzzled when we play The Room, and enchanted when we play Drawn. We agree to be manipulated, both mentally and emotionally when we open these games, and crave the heightened experience. We don’t complain when the tools to give us those experiences are used, be they points, leader boards or swelling music in the background.

These are complicit manipulations. We have handed our brains over to someone else to be played like a grand piano, in exchange for pleasure.

But when I go to work, I’m serious. My livelihood is on the line. My work is a big part of my waking life and a big part of how I see myself. We say “I am a designer” or “I am an engineer” and our pride is tied up in that. I choose a job the way I choose a spouse, with care and commitment. And when that job chooses to not trust me to do my best and seeks to manipulate me into greater performance, I feel as betrayed as if my husband had tricked me into saying”I love you” more often.

If we act as if our employees are donkeys* and give them carrots and sticks, they will act like donkeys do. They will swiftly do nothing that isn’t accompanied by a carrot or stick, and sometimes not even then, requiring more carrots or more violence with the stick to do what they might have done for a kind word before.

If we treat our employees as humans, as partners in our enterprise and if we are clear in what is needed to make our joint effort possible, no points or “walls of shame” are needed. Everybody seeks meaning, and more than not work is a place we hope to find it. Butchers are pleased with a well-cut piece of meat, engineers with clean code, call center representatives with a relieved “thank you” as a problem goes away. What badge can touch that?

There are exceptions, of course. Not all humans are built the same way. Some people in some jobs love competition, and gamification has found some foothold there. Sales teams, for example, are sometimes made up of people motivated by money, and they enjoy pulling in greater and greater numbers. But even then, no point system can replace their need for rewards with teeth: bonuses. It just manifests clearly the progress they already suspected they were making and drives them forward. Or demotivates them as they fall too far behind.

And what of the bad employee, you ask? How can I get him to perform? Try the old fashioned way: honesty. Have you sat down and clearly laid out what was needed of him? Have you sat down and pointed out clearly the ways in which he is not provided what is needed? Have you illustrated those points clearly with anecdotes and feedback from peers? Have you given him a reasonable amount of time to turn it around? Have you the courage to fire him, if the fit is not right?

There is no game on earth that can replace doing your job as a manager.

Work can be play, and often is. There are so many joys to be had in a job well done, done with people who care as much as you do. But it is not a place to install a Pavlovian game to try to eke out a bit more productivity. Do your job as a manager. Let your people know how they can be great, and help the company succeed. And then trust them until they prove you can’t. Then talk to them.

Save the manipulations for the theater.

Queue music.

*I have no doubt would tell me it doesn’t really work on donkeys either.