Before discussing about the hot topic of employee engagement, let’s play an imaginary computer game together.
It is based on the popular Vietnam war inspired movie “Rambo”, played by Hollywood superstar Sylvester Stallone.
In this game we get to play John Rambo who has been deployed by Colonel Trautman on a secret mission in Vietnam to sneak into a Vietnamese military camp to release American hostages.
On level 1 Rambo, still in the jungle, is only armed with his iconic sand-blast-gray survival knife.
On level 2 he is ambushed by a patrol of enemy soldiers, he pulls one and snatches his pistol. Now he can shoot enemy soldiers.
On level 3 he approaches the camp and snatches a guard’s bazooka. Now he can shoot moving vehicles too.
On level 4 he usurps a machine gun which he uses to eliminate groups of soldiers.
On level 5 he releases the hostages, gets everyone aboard a Mi-24 Hi helicopter loaded with bombs and spreads havoc while ascending into freedom.
Rambo and the hostages escape.
Now, imagine the following alternative.
While still in the jungle on level 1, you type in this specific sequence of characters on your keyboard:
This sequence activates a secret cheat by which Rambo gets immediate access to the Mi-24 Hi helicopter as well as unlimited lives, bombs and ammunition.
You get Rambo on the helicopter, grab the controllers and set everything and everyone on fire all the way from level 1 to level 5.
In fact, you’ve just killed your desire to ever want to play Rambo again.
As somewhat of a computer geek, I’ve played hundreds of popular games in my life.
A key principle employed by game designers to get people hooked and engaged for hours without getting bored is to gradually increase the level of complexity and difficulty from level to level.
The game developers arrive at the golden formula of difficulty vs skill on the various levels based on feedback they receive from thousands of beta testers who volunteer to play the game for free before it hits the market shelves.
This ensures that the players gradually build up their level skill while progressing through increasingly more challenging levels into the game.
The same principles apply in the workplace. It is no coincidence that according to Gallup, a long time researcher in the field of employee engagement, more than 80% of employees globally are not engaged.
A significant contributor to low engagement is the glaring mismatch between the level of challenge vs skills in the workplace combined with the ever-dissipating attention span and the ever-shrinking patience of newer generations of employees.
Striking the right balance between challenge and skill is more difficult than it seems:
Give them tasks whose level of challenge far outweighs their level of skill and they will frazzle and perhaps panic, losing all motivation to work productively; on the flip side, employees get easily bored and slip into passivity mode when they are not stimulated enough with tasks and activities that not only match their skills but stretch them a bit as well to keep them on their toes.
There is no fixed formula or textbook answer on how to achieve the optimum balance; in fact, solving the puzzle of motivation is more like learning to dance a tango between challenges and skills.
Keeping a highly motivated workforce requires (a) evoking the right amount of challenge and arousal in employees by giving them interesting problems to solve (combined with more autonomy and space gradually given to them) and (b) affording everyone with learning opportunities to polish their skills further thus leading to higher states of engagement, growth and personal fulfilment. Such a paradigm is a win win proposition for organisations and individuals alike as it also translates into higher productivity in the workplace as well.
On the learning part, organisations not committed to a genuine lifelong learning strategy are doomed to wither and fail in the longer run by virtue of the inevitable impact of the law of entropy. The law provides that all things tend to gravitate towards disorder unless positive, creative effort is invested to counter entropy – this is the work of leaders. For this reason, organisations are encouraged to provide ample learning opportunities to all staff on all levels as well.
So instead of calling John Rambo next time, leaders may seek to keep dialling the performance knobs knowing that on the magic intersection between challenges and skills lies high employee engagement and substantially improved productivity.
ps I devote an entire chapter in my leadership book “The MARVEL of Engagement: Turning Passive Employees Into Active Ambassadors” on the correlation between challenges and skills and their link to engagement.