Who said your job needs to be all work and no play? Daniel Cogan FCPHR is applying the principles behind behavioural science and gamification to change employees’ behaviour and create more productive workplaces.
When Daniel Cogan was five years old, he turned to his mother and asked, “When will I know everything?” It’s his youngest memory of being a highly inquisitive person and wanting to acquire as much insight about the world as possible.
“It’s funny looking back on it now. It was obviously misguided, but I think it speaks to how curious I’ve always been as a person,” says Cogan, who is now Manager of Human Capital and Organisation Transformation at Deloitte.
“I love trying to understand other people’s opinions, especially when they’re different from mine. We all have a range of influences shaping our thoughts and behaviours.”
When he took on a role as an HR Business Partner at Deloitte in 2016, Cogan’s passion for understanding human behaviour led him to take on a range of employee experience projects including the organisation’s wellbeing strategy. He later transitioned to a role in organisational transformation – with a human focus.
“I wanted to have a bigger impact on organisational change and culture, and to shape and influence employees’ experience. It’s rewarding to help make work better for humans, and humans better at work,” he says.
Driving behavioural change at work
A pivotal influence that led Cogan to explore behavioural science and transition from HR to management consulting was an episode in the Freakonomics podcast, ‘People Aren’t Dumb: The World is Hard’, with Nobel Prize winner and founder of behavioural economics Richard Thaler.
“One of Thaler’s famous quotes is, ‘If you want people to do something, make it easy.’ The uncomfortable truth is that changing behaviour is really hard,” says Cogan.
“I’ve often found HR leaders – and I’ve been guilty of doing this too – rely too heavily on training or communication with employees to foster behavioural change. However, on their own, those interventions tend to only be marginally successful.”
He says such training tends to not lead to long-term change because it overlooks a critical piece of the puzzle – that environmental factors can have a larger impact on employees or leaders performing the behaviour(s) and therefore realising the benefits of the change you’re trying to achieve.
“Humans have the best intentions – they might want to give an employee feedback, fill out their timesheet or exercise more. But there’s a gap between the intention of the action and the action itself.”
Behavioural science plays a role in bridging that gap. Often, it can be plugged with simple and low-cost interventions, such as nudges.
“Most people are busy and time-poor, but if your device nudges you to take an action at a specific time, you’re more likely to do it. Or if you receive recognition for performing a task, you’re more likely to do it again.
“We need these prompts. Motivation alone only gets us so far.”
Bolstering engagement with gamification
Enthusiastic to apply his behavioural science learnings at Deloitte, Cogan helped to roll out gamification, which is the process of applying game-like principles in non-game settings to shift behaviour.
“Gamification can be a very effective way of fast-tracking behavioural change by making it fun,” he says. “People often dislike change because it requires them to do something different. But if you engage people in a game and make it easy for them, they’re more inclined to change.”
At Deloitte, gamification was introduced in 2020 and has since been applied to improve onboarding, increase engagement in leadership programs and to aid client relationships and sales. The difficulty Deloitte faced was that many junior employees felt selling wasn’t within their role responsibilities, and that they didn’t have the skills to sell successfully.
“Digital badges for L&D are popular now because people feel proud when they receive the recognition. They experience a surge in dopamine, and that encourages them to keep performing the behaviour.” – Daniel Cogan FCPHR
Gamification provided the ideal platform to overcome this challenge.
“The internal sales competition is a really good example,” says Cogan. “Our senior team members are generally the ones who sell, but we wanted to get everyone engaged and helping with sales and relationship-building.”
Through gamification, Cogan and his team broke the sales cycle down into achievable activities and employees received points for completing each one.
“Rather than our junior employees taking the view that they don’t know how to sell or that it’s not part of their role, gamification made it clear that they have a role to play and can help. It also made it fun and got them learning a new skill.”
In the leadership and development space, Deloitte introduced gamification in the form of badges, leaderboards and progress updates with status symbols to increase uptake of its leadership training program for executives.
Gamification drove strong results, including a 50 per cent decrease in the average time to complete the program and a 47 per cent increase in the number of users that return to the website each day.
“Digital badges for L&D are popular now because people feel proud when they receive the recognition. They experience a surge in dopamine, and that encourages them to keep performing the behaviour.”
How can leaders ensure they are getting gamification right?
For gamification to produce the desired results, there are a number of factors to keep top of mind.
“Create novelty by regularly releasing new activities,” says Cogan. “Before you launch a change program, think about what embedding it into your workplace over a sustained period of time looks like. How will you keep the activities fresh, interesting and different so people stay engaged?”
Motivating employees through recognising individual as well as team performance will help to drive success. This will ensure there is more than one motivating reason to engage in gamification, he says.
“Not everyone is individually motivated or competitive, but they tend to care about their team and want to do their part.”
Regular communication about how the gamification effort is progressing in the company – and which teams and leaders are embracing it – is also key.
To this end, a powerful way to continue driving engagement is to share stories and recognise success.
“People will be more inclined to join something if they hear a real story and feel an emotional connection, rather than reading a promotional and generic statement about it. Give shout-outs to employees who have taken gamification on board and are excelling. For example, you could publicly recognise those who earned the most points in a given week or have completed a high value activity.
“You need leaders to role-model any new initiative. People value something when they see their leaders doing it. If leaders are visibly doing it, you’re already on the path to success.”
A longer version of this article was first published in the April 2023 edition of HRM Magazine.
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