6 Things We Learn From Games About Rewards and Recognizing Our Employees

Over the past two years, corporate America has experienced a massive shift in workplace values and dynamics. Historically, this country has watched as employers and managers hold all the power and employees…

Over the past two years, corporate America has experienced a massive shift in workplace values and dynamics. Historically, this country has watched as employers and managers hold all the power and employees have been expected to have the attitude of “just be grateful you have a job”. As the Great Resignation continues to sweep employees away in record numbers, employees have become empowered to stand firm in their convictions, ask or demand what they believe they deserve in terms of compensation and recognition, and change the face of corporate America as we know it. 

In light of this shift, managers and employers are struggling to bridge the gap by cultivating a workplace dynamic where employees are not only happy to stay but can grow and thrive in their careers and their personal development. While oftentimes compensation is to blame for employee dissatisfaction, the reality is often a more deep-rooted issue. 

As human beings, we want to be recognized and praised for our efforts when we succeed. It feels good, it gives us a sense of pride in our work product, and gives us a sense of meaning and purpose in our day-to-day tasks. Psychologists call this The Rule of Esteem; recognizing that all humans need and want praise, recognition, and acceptance. Acceptance and praise are two of our deepest cravings that can never be fully satiated. 

When we understand the psychology behind why we are the way we are, we can begin to understand how to help and encourage others and develop a sense of empathy for their desires. For employers and managers, this is often a concept that is looked over but is imperative to understand and apply to cultivate a happy and healthy workplace that employees desire.


So knowing this, what are some non-monetary ways that employers can engage, inspire, and empower their employees to boost morale and retention? We often see the memes and stories online of failed attempts to address this ever-present need for recognition and praise. We’ve all seen it — the employee who worked long hours week after week for the betterment of the company just to be met with a virtual pizza party or happy hour. While these things are nice and certainly can be done as a team-bonding exercise, these bandaid solutions are not a one-stop fix for employee recognition and rewards. 

A creative concept that is often overlooked in this particular area is bringing the game theory into the workplace. Think about it, by nature we are incredibly competitive beings. There is a reason that professional sports exist, it satisfies our desire for competition and camaraderie. So when we bring the concept of games into the workplace, we actually increase employee engagement, participation, and interaction to set a baseline for collaboration and success. 

So how do we apply the game theory in the workplace to reward and recognize employees? Let’s first define what game theory is. As it relates to the workplace, game theory applies participation to reward complex that requires different levels of strategy, collaboration, and interaction to incentivize performance among employees. 

Think about any game you played growing up. Whether that’s a board game, a game on an old Super Nintendo, or a game on the playground as a child — certain behaviors and skills reap rewards. Rewards can be literal prizes in the form of a trophy or a prize, or they can be mere bragging rights and a boosted sense of esteem; whatever the case may be, we have been conditioned from the time we were children to work on participation to reward scale. 

Yu-Kai Chou masterfully outlines the 6 types of contextual rewards most commonly found in games when analyzing the relationship between behavioral design and gamification. {https://yukaichou.com/marketing-gamification/six-context-types-rewards-gamification/}  

This game theory concept expands far beyond the typical format of video games, it can be applied for B2C businesses, B2B businesses, and most importantly within the core of businesses themselves. Leaning on what we already know, let’s outline the 6 types of contextual rewards and how we can strategically tie these concepts into the workplace to cultivate an environment where employees can thrive. 

rewarded employees

1. Fixed Action Rewards 

Fixed action rewards are very straightforward; to get A, you need to do B. Think of Starbucks coffee rewards program, frequent flyer miles, or punch cards at your local frozen yogurt spot. You know exactly what you need to do to obtain your reward and there is little to no grey area on that path to success. 

In the workplace, fixed rewards can vary by department due to their nature of participation+task=reward. For example, in a sales team, this could be a rewards program for hitting a certain quota, signing a fixed number of clients, or reaching a specific benchmark in revenue. In marketing it could be reaching specific campaign goals or reaching a fixed number of impressions, email opens, click-throughs, and anything in between. 

Fixed action rewards are the easiest concept to integrate into the workplace as each department can set KPIs or key performance indicators that employees strive to reach to obtain specific rewards. One common reward system for meeting KPIs is unlimited PTO. If employees consistently meet their KPIs, they are allowed unlimited paid time off rather than staying within the confines of 2 weeks. 

2. Random Rewards

Random rewards follow the same ideology as fixed action rewards, but with a catch. The random rewards model rewards an individual for completing a certain task, but the individual has no idea what the reward is going to be. The purpose of this type of reward is to encourage engagement, participation, and friendly competition. Participants in a specific competition or a campaign are incentivized to perform well knowing that there is a lofty prize at the end. 

Applying this in the workplace can be a bit tricky, so ere on the side of caution here. Managers, put yourselves in your employee’s shoes here. No one wants to bust their behind working to meet certain goals only to be let down by the prize. If you do choose to implement a random rewards program, please be sure that you either have a big enough prize to spur excitement, or you do not over-hype what the prize is. Doing this could hurt employee participation in the future. 

3. Sudden Rewards 

Sudden rewards are rewards that are not advertised and the participant does not expect when taking a specific action. While this type of reward does not create the hype that other rewards do, it does have a unique purpose. Sudden rewards spark immediate joy, surprise, and excitement. Sudden rewards make the recipient overjoyed and will create a sense of pride and encouragement to maintain or replicate the behavior or task to receive another reward. 

An example of this in the workplace could be implementing a behind-the-scenes rewards scale in management that is not communicated to employees but regularly carried out for meeting certain benchmarks or performance markers. 

rewarded emoployee

4. Rolling Rewards

Rolling rewards are awards given to a select number of winners by chance after taking a certain action. A perfect example of this that is commonly used throughout society is gambling. 

Have you ever been to Las Vegas and seen row after row of slot machines filled with individuals with eager eyes just hoping and wishing for a prize? The drive behind rolling rewards is the hope of receiving that, “jackpot”. It is the thought of “well someone has to win, so there is a chance it could be me”. 

Applying a rolling rewards program in the workplace is a quick and easy way to increase employee engagement and satisfaction. Let’s say, for example, you are giving away 3 more days of PTO in a raffle lottery. To gain raffle tickets, one must meet a specific goal or participate in a specific task. The more raffle tickets, the more likely that individual is to win. Raffling off something larger in scale creates a deep sense of drive and hope as employees proudly participate to reap their rewards. 

5. Social Treasure 

Social treasures are the rewards that one cannot buy or earn, they are given by referral or vote. Think of the popular TV show American Idol. The fate of the singer rests in the hands of the judges and viewers to move forward to the next round. Ultimately, the American people decide who will win. 

In the workplace, social treasure rewards can be things like referral programs to incentivize employees to bring in more team members. Another example of this could be an employee of the month system where team members vote for their peers based on performance and attitude. 

If you’d like to take it a step further and make things a bit more fun for the workplace, consider implementing a company superlatives vote. Think of “The Dundies” in the beloved TV show The Office — little trophies awarded for being funny, having the whitest sneakers, etc. 

6. Prize Pacing 

Prize pacing rewards are rewards given out in small portions at a time, but participants must collect all portions to receive the full award. A simple and famous example of this is the McDonalds Monopoly-style sweepstakes, where customers had to collect Monopoly pieces via their purchases to hopefully cash in for free food once they collect them all. 

So how can prize pacing be brought into the workplace? Well, for larger organizations, this concept can be done from department to department as members collect pieces of the main prize to compete with other departments for the grand prize. Let’s say that the grand prize is a group trip. Each member of the organization would have to participate and complete an outlined task to obtain a piece of the reward, and the first department to collect all pieces wins the vacation. 

These are all concepts that have been taken from what we know about human psychology and the impact that games have on our psyche. We are creatures of habit who thrive when praised and recognized, so applying this logic in the workplace breeds opportunity for boosted morale, higher employee retention, and a heightened sense of camaraderie. Although monetary prizes and salaries are a leading factor in employee satisfaction, they are not all that matters in maintaining a happy and healthy workplace. As employers and managers, there is a world of opportunity through game theory to cultivate an environment where employees enjoy their work, provide high-quality work product, and genuinely enjoy their place of work.

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