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Tag: Ryan & Deci

Psychology of engagement – in chewable sentences and in boring psychological language

Psychology of engagement in chewable sentences

I am looking forward to the video of Jane McGonigal at TED Global 2010. Followers and psychologists of work, experience and other such related things will recognize her model and the underlying ideas of Ryan & Deci, Hackman & Oldham, German action theorists, positive psychologists, positive organizational scholars and mytho-poetic chroniclers.

This is is nicely stated, summarized brilliantly by Julie Lasky, who also writes on the need to used short pithy, memorable language.  I must learn.  My resolution for 2010: write chewable sentences.

Why are games so attractive?

Jane McGonigal explains why games are so attractive (and in contrast) why so much of modern day life is not (” reality is broken”).

Urgent optimism

An energetic willingness to attack a problem the gamer is confident of solving

Social fabric

Cooperating with other players builds trust and affection

Blissful productivity

WoW games spend an average of 21 hours a week in th

eir virtual world

Epic meaning

Gamers are super-empowered, hopeful individuals” who “believe they’re individually capable of changing the world,” McGonigal says.

Psychology of engagement in boring psychological language

Urgent optimism

We have urgent optimism when we have “crossed the Rubicon” from “wish to intent”. We become driven, goal-oriented, and focused and probably develop “tunnel vision”.  This behavior is highly valued at work and in clinical settings when we want people to do our bidding (e.g., lose weight). It is greatly helped by settings SMART goals and is facilitated by self-efficacy which is itself raised by experience, vicarious modelling, social support and coaching.

We also like being in this state.  Hence the high interest in personal productivity, GTD, procrastination, etc.  We like being active.

The corollary is that we are active when we feel able to begin, able to do, able to finish.  When those conditions are met, and only when those conditions are met “we go like a train”.  [Come to think of it, fellow psychologists, we know there is an association between our perceptions of the fit of a task, but has there been any research on the necessary and sufficient conditions of action?  Not also that work on necessary and sufficient conditions require a process model not a variance model.]

Social fabric

I love the wording “cooperating with other players builds trust and affection”.  What a loaded sentence!

Yes, we work so much better on common projects provided they don’t interfere with the autonomy needed to sustain “urgent optimism”.  When young people work in groups, they actually develop “language of initiative”.  They use more active language and conditional language (if-then).  Willful declarations of positive thinking (and vacuous laws of attraction), give way to thoughtful, engaged, responsive statements of exploration that has moral purpose.  We come alive.

I like the active verb and the cause-and-effect.  We “cooperate”.  Tasks exist on a social terrain that we navigate, explore and construct.  That helps us understand our own task, and raises our motivation to do our part and to work with the group.

Belonging, team dynamics all fit in here.  What psychologists often miss is the systemic links between individual action and group action that sustains the whole.  This is what games capture. How can we do more work like the “language of initiative”?

Blissful productivity

Flow with a good dollop of learning.  Being competent and developing competence.

Feedback is one of the most neglected concepts in work psychology.  Funny that, as it was key to behaviorism.  We are not the worst offenders, thought. Management textbooks even lose the feedback loop from system diagrams.

Blissful productivity is recognized in the outcome – frequent long stretches of absorption in a task.  The key mechanism that allows this absorption is feedback.

Old work psychology used to research “knowledge of results”.  Feedback certainly raises performance by the order of several hundred % and even in the order of 30% for high performers.  Feedforward and concurrent feedback allow us to “enter” a task.

Well-constructed tasks, and popular games are well constructed, allow us to learn as well.  Well-constructed games have first order feedback (what shall I do next) and allow second order feedback.  They allow us to learn the rules and get better at what we do.

Jane McGonigal’s alternate reality games allow, I suspect, third order feedback.  What is really important in life?  What is it important to get good at?

Why or why, have psychologists put aside this important aspect of their work?  I suspect our neglect is political. We don’t want to challenge our political & economic masters who are “feedback thieves”.  My view is strong. Do no evil.  Depriving people of feedback is immoral.  It should be illegal. Because depriving people of feedback stops them learning, stops them taking control of their lives, usually subordinates them and induces learned helplessness.  Learning how to manage feedback loops should be mandatory in our training as psychologists.

Epic meaning

Psychologists haven’t been good on epic meaning.  I have my suspicions that this is also a political bias.  We don’t want people getting above themselves.  We do do narratives, but for people who are trying to hold lowly lives together, not for people who might take on the world.

Meaning is not on the Ryan & Deci list. It is on the positive psychology list which has “pleasurable, engaged, meaningful”.  But in positive psychology meaningful means “social”.

Epic meaning – I like it. A series of events. On each, we could fail.  Often we are terrified that we are failing. We do fail. But we learn.

Of course, games are “fair”.  We have a chance at succeeding.  The world should be fair too.  But we know it is not.  We have to learn to deal with unfairness too and that is hard for an individual.  Dealing with unfairness is triple loop learning. It involves the emotion “this can’t be happening to me”.  Disentangling that emotion from what we could do is very difficult. That’s where parents, coaches, mentors and therapists come in.

But too often, we advise people to dismiss unfairness.  Yes, we can over interpret threat as ‘personal, persistent and pervasive’ and panic unnecessarily.  But often unfairness must be dealt with on its own terms and by its very nature, unfairness will not cooperate.

What we learn from supporting oppressed groups is that the most important response when we feel threatened is to ‘organize’.  Reach out in solidarity to other victims to unite. Not to rehash the victim story.  But to write the winner’s story.  Not vacuously but to engage with the oppressor who we should not turn into a victim but at the same time, who will respond to our generous spirit by refusing to give up their powerful status and capacity to vicitimize us.

Conscious engagement is important.

Of course, not everyone is involved in the same issues that we are.  So they may not respond to our overtures. It is important not to think that our issue has global importance.

Hmm, I like epic meaning.   I don’t think we have the whole answer to unfairness.  But we can begin.  Look for ways that people build epic meaning into their activities. Facilitate their story telling and organization.

Psychologists so rarely do any work in this domain.  We need to think about this.

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Reality is broken. Games are great. What do you dislike about games?

Game designers are better at psychology than psychologists

Jane McGonigal, games designer extraordinaire, has long pointed out that games are better designed than most jobs.   I agree with her, but oddly I still prefer work.

Nonetheless, agreeing that games designers make better use of work psychology than psychologists do, I’ve been deliberately playing games from beginning to end.

Orientation that gives control back to the audience

Getting into games, the autonomy dimension of Ryan & Deci’s ARC model is clear.  We need to be be able to see what to do at glance. We shouldn’t need elaborate instructions or encouragement.

Something for the audience to get their teeth into

I am stepping through the levels quite doggedly.  That should be the competence dimension of Ryan & Dec’s model.  In truth, games are quite fun while I am figuring out the rules – or when I think I can push myself to a new level.  But they also get boring quickly.  Dogged is the feeling I have!

A way for us to play together

I think I don’t use the social aspects of games sufficiently. Social or relationships, is the third component of Ryan & Deci’s ARC model.

I am probably not very sociable because my motives for playing games aren’t social.  But, equally, I probably get bored quickly because I am not being sociable.

Bringing our own rules to the game

What has interested me more has been the way my preconceptions affect my game play

In a game in which I played the role of explorer in Africa, it took me a long while to realize that I could deliberately kill people and even longer to do it.

In Mafia Wars running on Facebook, I am yet to start a fight. I am yet to invest in armor.  I only do jobs against an anonymous enemy.  When someone attacks me, I just clean up and take out some more insurance.

In Farmeville, I would like to share my tractor.

Does social mean more than sending gifts and energy bonuses? Are our ‘identities’ and ‘values’ also important to us?

Sometimes it is useful to have our values challenged.  Sometimes it is useful to see that we impose rules that other people don’t care about.

Then we have a choice.  Do we want to play by those rules?  Maybe we do.

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3 models to re-design jobs to add-value during the recession

Tell your MP you support the Flexible Working Hours Bill


Image by Finsec via Flickr

How is your business coping with the recession?

  • Are you taking a cynical view of less business, less of a talent shortage, less work for me?
  • Or are you being asked for ways to improve productivity and be more attractive to customers and employees?

Do we know how to design jobs to enhance productivity?

To coin a phrase, Yes, we do! And we have known for some time.

1. Hackman and Oldham (1976)

Before Gen Y were a gleam in their father’s eye, American psychologists, Hackman and Oldham published the Job Characteristics Model. It is a five point model which is handy for reviewing a job and for designing “events” such as lectures which must be comfortable for each of the 400 students in the audience.

a. Is the task a whole task? Is it designed to be started and finished by the same person or team?

b. Is the job important? How does it relate to the work of other people?

c. Does the person doing the job get feedback? Are they able to tell how well they are doing the work from the task and from the people who use the results?

d. Is the job contained? Does the person doing the job have control over the resources including the way the job is done and when it is done?

e. Is the job interesting? Does it call for a variety of skills and is the person doing the job able to learn new skills?

We are NOT talking about Taylor as you can see.

[A C F C V : Auto Connect Friends Responsibly & Variously]

2. Job design and Gen Y

I notice that much of the talk about Gen Y follows this very same agenda. So hats-off to the young. Maybe we will get well designed work at last!

Of course, Gen Y haven’t thought this model up for themselves. The model is embedded into two phenomena that older people love to hate.

Social media, like Facebook, allow

1. Autonomy: the choice of taking part on your own terms, personalizing your input, and managing your time and attention.

2. Competence: tasks that encourage deep engagement, flow, internal goals, internal feedback and intense concentration.

3. Relatedness: multiple ways to interact, collaborate, share, express gratitude, and expand one’s social network.

3. Computer Games develop similar attitudes

1. Bottom-line, results orientation: how am I doing and is the ranking fair?

2. Collaboration with dissimilar others: who do I need to complete this task with me and where and how can I work find people with the skills I need?

3. Problem solving in novel situations: experimentation to learn the rules, and to experiment with the rules.

Devil’s Advocate

If I am to play the devil’s advocate, I can ask:  does every one respond well to a game-like environment. No ~  some people do like utterly repetitive boring jobs. I am sure you will recognize them if you meet them. But I suspect you might have difficulty finding them.

More importantly, people of the 21st century don’t like being “gamed”. They will play the game, but the game must satisfy their interests. If they feel “gamed”, they are likely to resort to passive aggression.

People like taking responsibility and if you ask them to do the impossible, you will stress them – visibly.


What benefits might you expect from improving job design. These are benefits I have seen:

  • The burden of day-to-day management fell away and managers were able to spend their time on problems outside of the firm: negotiating power, fuel, major deals, etc.
  • Employees passed messages from customers to the right people. Customers satisfaction and sales shot up.
  • The percentage of work passing quality control increased by 12x and workers pushed aside deficient work which they fixed for free on Saturdays.
  • Production increased 3x and workers were able to go home at noon (an effective pay increase!)

Practical steps

Would you like a working heuristic?

One side of paper only

1. Require managers to delegate all the goals for all their subordinates on one side of paper. The brief should include the bigger picture (the boss’ boss’ goal), the boss’ overall goal, a goal for each subordinate, any non-standard resources, how they will coordinate.

Communication is in the mind of the receiver

2. Check that each employee knows how to reach their goal (and has done something similar before), and can list their resources, authority and main professional guidelines.

Concentrate on coordination rather than control

3. Check each employee knows when they should signal that they are ahead of schedule and could affect other people’s work, or behind schedule and need more resources.

Concentrate your efforts on redesigning the manager’s job

4. If the manager interferes with the work or does not respond immediately to requests for rescheduling, redesign the manager’s job! They have too much or too little to do!

Count & celebrate!

5. Record the group’s progress. And celebrate!

And then to fine-tune the system:

  • Order tasks on a 1, 2, 3 system. The first time we learn, the 2nd time we polish, the 3rd time we get bored.
  • Allow people to rotate. Someone might have to go to round 4 before a rotation comes up. Never mind! It is better than no rotation.
  • Allow people to set internal goals and improve their work. Someone may want to stay longer in job because they are working on a way to do it better.


Organizing the workplace.

  • Gen Y are savvy about modern media. Let them use it. Review your confidentiality policies with them, of course, and let them design security!
  • Give people private places to work where they control access to their desk, their time, and their attention. And communal places to meet informally and formally.


The return on investment depends on your starting position. Because the investment is minimal, we can look at improvements as our return.

Remember you will have constraints: machines go at maximum speeds and may be erratic too. Production may produce, but can sales sell. Do start in a sensible place and take into account the way sections feed into each other.


If you have done any job redesign, I would be really interested in collaborating with you.

UPDATE: For an HR Managers perspective on the Recession, I have written a summary on a new post.


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