The Game of Work: Unlocking Employee Engagement and Energy | with Chuck Coonradt [Transcript]


Link to podcast episode:  The Game of Work: Unlocking Employee Engagement and Energy | with Chuck Coonradt

Jesse Lahey: Welcome to the show, Game Changers.  This is the show for CEO’s, HR Executives and other business leaders to learn about internal gamification.  Over the course of the series you will hear examples and pitfalls, discover how to assess when it’s an appropriate strategy and learn to evaluate gamification partners and game design ideas.

I am Jesse Lahey and our guess today is Chuck Coonradt.  Chuck has been called, “The Grandfather of Gamification.”  He is the author of the book, The Game of Work, first published in 1984 and frequently updated.  Since 1973, Chuck has been teaching companies game-based principles that unlock keys to employee involvement, engagement and energy.

Jesse: Chuck, welcome to Game Changer.

Chuck Coonradt:   Thank you.  It’s a pleasure for me to be with you today, Jesse.

Jesse:      Chuck, you’ve been exploring game designed principles and using game based principles much longer, many years longer than most people have been talking about it.  How did you originally come to some of those principles?

Chuck:  Well, like many things, it was not what one would call strategic where you’re well planned.  It was serendipitous and an epiphany that I supposed all of us has a couple of in our lives.  This was a real, pardon the phrase, game changer for me.  I was doing consulting and calling on a company where they were building houses in a factory and they moved them down the line like Henry Ford did with cars only much slower.

I was in the second story window with the plant manager who was mid-fifties, mid-career, not happy about either and giving me the kids’ today lecture.  “The kids can’t work, kids don’t care, and kids don’t have the same values we have,” which I guess have been every generation to every generation forever.

He brought me over to the window, pointed down on the factory for and said what do you and your magic box of stuff going to do about that and what that was, was eighty twenty something working on a house  to describe their pace you would need words like arthritic snails and wet cement.  They look like mimes that had been drugged.

“So, what are you going to do about that?  That’s my problem.”

If you ever sold anything, you know that when somebody gives you an objection and you don’t have the answer, you’re pretty dumbfounded and time kind of stops.  I was in that category.  Then I was rescued by the lunch bell because at that moment the lunch bell rang.  I watch these eight guys drop those hammers like they were electrified and take off like somebody hit them with high voltage cattle prods where they ran fifty yards down the factory floor and found a basketball hoop.

Then I watched them play 42 minutes worth of four on four, shirts and skins.  With the intensity of a game seven NBA finals, when at twelve forty two, magically, and again, no manager, no strategic plan, no instructional manual, they just knew what to do.  Everybody had his or her jobs.  The intensity was interesting, and at twelve forty-two, they stopped the game, picked up their sacked lunches, their coats and started walking back to the job where at one o’clock they were back on the clock, arthritic snails and wet cement.

Probably the most meaningful hour of my life because I looked at this manager, and I said, “I don’t think it’s a raw material problem.”  I saw something here that and we coined the tongue twister, “Why is it the people will actually pay for the privilege of working harder than they’ll work when they’re paid and we call that recreation?”

I just said, “What did I just see?”; “What were the differences?”

Over a period of time and counseling with my team and staff, we identified five principles that we call, “The Motivational Recreation,” and it all came of that principle.  The interesting thing about that was that it occurred in 1977, a full 30 years before people started claiming to have invented gamification.  So, we’re taking an interesting look at that from a distance.

Those five principles that we identified were number one: the feedback was more frequent in recreation than it was at work.  You got feedback every time you took a shot with that basketball or any time you’d swing a golf club or a tennis racket, flick a fly rod, and pull a trigger on a shotgun, rifle or a pistol.  That feedback is almost instantaneous.

Where at work we may do sales weekly, PNL’s on a monthly basis and the overall bane of everybody’s existence, the annual performance appraisal.  So, we realized we have real gap in the feedback piece and that feedback really is a daily human nutrient.  If people will get the right amount, they will change their behavior in many instances in a bad way.  So feedback was great.

Number two: is that the score keeping was, I guess, the big word would be contemporaneous.  We just said that the players knew the score while the game was in progress.  So, they could change their behavior to win before time would run out.  The difference between hockey, where that is true, and figure skating were you don’t get a score until you’re after done.  You can’t do anything about it.  We found to be a significant element.  Therefore, that’s principle two.

Jesse:       You know, can I just interject something there, Chuck.  One of the things this reminds me of, is the similarity with lean management and the whole Toyota productions in their emphasis in keeping this visual management, keeping the score right where everybody can see it.  Now you’re saying it’s, if you can have always be updated, that’s even better but at least it needs to be always visible.

Chuck:  Absolutely.  High visibility, communication of what that score is, is critical.  If you ever watched a power failure in a stadium, when the score board goes down, people just panic.  Why would we play if the scorecards were not there?  So, high visibility in the Toyota — there’s a lot in the Toyota process that fits gamification.  Like our work in the 1970’s, the Toyota process really started to gain popularity in the seventies and the eighties.

In the seventies, we had something called, “Management By Objective.”  So, it was all about finding goals and measuring progress.  So, I’ve never really claimed that this is some unique thing that Chuck Coonradt invented.  It’s more that I’ve discovered parallel universes, I guess.

The dichotomy between the way we treat these bi-principles in recreation and the way we just obliterate them in the work place.  It’s no wonder that we have two thirds of the American work force disengaged in their work and a half of them are severely disengaged, according to Gallup.

Jesse:   That’s right.

Chuck: The interesting thing is we haven’t changed that.  We haven’t really moved that number very much.  This is also somewhat scary.

Jesse:           You’re right.  Well, go ahead and what’s number three?

Chuck:    Number three is that the goals are more clearly defined in recreation than they are at work.  For me, “Goal Clarity,” the best example I can think of, just imagine 22 kids in a school that don’t speak the same language.  No two of them speak the same language.  You can give them two soccer goals, a ball, referee, a yellow card, a red card and everybody gets it.  You can take 16 strategy thinkers and a super computer put it in a room and they have a hard time deciding where to go to lunch.

So, all of the goals in recreation are clear.  You don’t start on a golf course until you see the map of the course.  You don’t stand up to tee until you understand that it’s a par four, par five, par three.  What are the distances?  What are the pitfalls?  What are the things that drive that?  So, the goal clarity is critical and it kind of marries up to principle four, which is the coaching, which is more consistent in recreation.

Parenthetically, we say, they don’t change the rules on to the middle of the game.  So, we’re very committed, recreationally, to the consistency of a bat.  You know, Sammy Sosa got in trouble for corking a bat.  We’re going to make sure the square grooves and the square wedge aren’t too disadvantageous.  Now the PGA is all uptight about belling the anchored putters, you know we’re very big about consistency.

Whereas, at work too often we go from today we’re chasing profit, tomorrow we’re chasing sales.  Now we’re going to do quality then we’re going to be safe.  So, by taking and prioritizing the goals in business you get that consistency of coaching.  Last, but we don’t believe least, is that there’s a higher degree of personal choice in recreation than there is in work.

We found that people will acknowledge management’s right to set goals and to set ultimate outcomes.  What people will fight you to the death over is their ability to have their own methods to achieve those goals.  When you grant people personal choice, you get that all important word that we call, “Buy-in” that everybody is chasing with every new process, anybody has ever tried.

So those are the five principles and we identified those principles in ’77 and they still remain to be core principles in gamification today.

Jesse: They do ring true to me as I think about both work situations I’ve been in, in companies I’ve worked with, as well as just even in games that I have liked over the years.  When I was a kid, as a very young kid, you like games like “Candy Land” or the card game “War.”  By the time you’re five and seven, you’re already moving past them because they don’t have any element of a personal choice.  So just as an example there, that’s one of the five where if you don’t have personal choice, it’s really not a fun game.

Chuck: Yes.

Jesse: That obviously links to some intrinsic motivation factors of what makes work engaging for us if we have a level of autonomy, we’re more likely to be intrinsically motivated in the work that we’re doing.

Jesse: Absolutely.  One of the pitfalls that I’m seeing in the gamers’ approach to this if you will, because since 2004-2007, depending on what source you look for, the term gamification came out of the video game players.  That discipline has attempted to impact on workflows and processing in business.  That’s really gamification in a nutshell as we look at it today.

The interesting element that I’ve watched the gamers missed is this element of personal choice because it’s inherent in video games in that if I pick, “World Warfare,” I demonstrated my choice.  You can’t put a gun to my head and force me to play World Warfare.  That’s not the way the system works.  However, when you try to bring the elements of gamification into the work place, the thing that many of the technologists have missed is this element of providing choice to the players and to the employee.  So, it’s a big part of what our listeners need to take into consideration as they do gamification in their business.

Jesse:   It’s interesting, that example of World Warfare, which I have not personally played.  I’ve heard that it appeals to lots of different types of people part of this because they have to make a wide range of choices inside the game, too.  There are some people that really want to go in, compete and kill people or whatever you do in World  Warfare.

Then, there are others who are really more about exploring that world.  I think, every time I’ve ever used a flight simulator video game, I’ve always just tried to see, “Can I drive this thing off the map?”  I just want to go explore this virtual world.

So, you got the choice to whether or not play at all.  Then inside, you’ve got variety of choices to make. So you’re saying that’s one of the downfalls, especially of work place based gamification where that’s not something that’s often designed into the system.

Chuck:  That’s true.  Even to the point of being able to choosing my own avatar, the one I want to be.  Do I want to be Mister Muscle?  Which one of America’s hero do I want to be like?  I get to pick and choose those things.  There’s a high degree of choice in the electronic gamification.  When people bring it to the work place, there is sort of a historical absence of choice that workers get.

What we found is that in our work is that when you get in and ask people about their methodology, “How do we get to this point?”; “How would you help us get to the goal?”  You get engagement.  I know that sounds simplistic.  But in life, I think most of us would register the fact that we have simple principles.

Physical responsibility, how you get wealthy in America.  Pretty simple principles.  I think if we stay with the simple principles in a gamification process, you are going to get much greater acceptance.

Jesse: Now, you’ve been practicing these principles since the 70’s. From your opening illustration, it was not video game based.  There were very few video games in the market at that point.  So, I am guessing that for a long you work was maybe not so influenced by video game, I’m wondering if you’ve seen your work change over the years.  Generally speaking, when people talk about gamification now, they are talking about what we’ve learned from the world of video games.  I wonder if you’ve seen that affect your work over the years.

Chuck: Well, it has a little bit.  Interestingly enough, the first IBM personal computer was done in 1981.  When I saw Lotus one, two, three get introduced in 1984, I absolutely looked like an aborigine watching a Polaroid picture develop.  “Wow.”  I hope that’s politically correct then.  But I was like, “Wow, wow.”  My life just got great now.  What has been really interesting is that we recognized that there’s a kinesthetically earning sensation.  You can get that at the joystick.  You can get that of a computer keyboard.

But you can also get that with a piece of paper and a ruler and a four function calculator, putting together the most simple visible score cards.  So, honestly, Jesse, that’s where we started.  It was like “Plot, draw a line, plot and run an average.”

So elemental but we find that even today that people trust what they can touch.  If you can get somebody on that, talking about that Toyota line and contemporaneous score keeping, if you get somebody who is over there almost literally marking on a wall when they have completed the next run or somebody is going back and saying, “We just had another safe day in this plant.  We’re going to go to the wall and put up safe, ‘one more safe day’.”  We’re going to move from a hundred to hundred and one safe day of operations.

Those kinds of kinesthetic learning are really critical to get in people’s engagement.  Many people love to trust what they can touch.  If you watch somebody with a controller, if you watch somebody with the Wii games, I mean any of this stuff that gyroscopically allow you to play tennis, bowling, golf and all of the things that we have right now.  All of that is emblematic or symptomatic, if you will, of this kinesthetic learning.

Think of the huge engagement that you get from people of all ages.  What’s kind of interesting is that you’ll watch people who have never played on a controller or joystick, you give them a Wii controller in their hand, tell them to use it like it were a golf club or a racket and they are drawn in like quicksand.  To me it’s just a manifestation of engagement at these simple levels.

Jesse: Just a quick pause from this interview with Chuck Coonradt to tell listeners about a game we’re playing and have some fun throughout the series.  First, we’re giving away five copies of Chuck’s book, The Game of Work.  To win one of the copies of the book, send me a Tweet at Jesse Lahey mentioning this episode number six.

This episodes’ clue, which is the letter, “D” as in Daniel, and whether you prefer a hard copy or a kindle e-book if you win.  We’ll pick a winner at random from the first 50 emails we receive.  Also there will be other tests include in each of the first 14 episodes in the, Game Changer series as well as in, Engaging Leaders podcast episode 38 featuring Kevin Werbach .

From those 15 clues, if you can be the first person to guess the secret phrase, you will win $100 gift card from Amazon.  Everyone who guesses it correctly will be honored on our Game Changer Genius Board.

Jesse: For employers, what are some useful areas to apply Gamification approach?  Do you have any case study to share with us?

Chuck: Well, sure, if we have another two days we could do a case study.  There is some obvious one.  People have said, “The Sales Game” is a big one.  One of the things that we’ve been very successful with is the scorecard, which we call “Mean Days Between Sales.”  For the person who’s not going to sell every day, for the person who’s not in a call center where they’re going to get some multiple transactions.

But for the large process seller, for the real estate seller, for the car salesman and for the person who’s been doing large scale industrial stuff, we have designed the game, if you will, “The Scorecard”.  So that a person goes back and looks at their history sees how frequently they have been successful and starts to measure how long it takes them to get the very next transaction and whether that individual is getting a transaction every five days in some situation or maybe its 50 days.

The game allows them to post each day as getting closer to their objectives.  We’ve seen 200% and 300% improvements in sales as a result of that.  Looking at how well you do each transaction in a production field.  Say we did a major amount of work in soft drink industry with both of the big two and a number of others.

One of the things that happen in any production process where you fill in stuff up, is that you have that change over at your work.  It’s easy to produce if you’re making 12-ounce diet soft drinks and those things run for a day or a day and a half on the same product line in the same container.  You can be really productive.

But when you’re trying to run a three liter grape, the sales of which are not significant enough to even matter but we still have that product line.  You have to change that product over you got to get different stuff in the filler, you have to change the test.  So, change over times is very critical in terms of productions.

Going back to your point about the Toyota process, once we have several opportunities to track what’s happened in the past, we then have an inherent goal setting processes which, “Just to be better than we used to be,” and you celebrate doing that changeover in less time and with less complexity than you did in the previous area.  That hangs there, somebody brings it up, “It’s what we are intending to do,” we know the game before we start and we celebrate better than we used to.

Those are some of the things that you have to keep simple, tie it absolutely to the business at hand and make sure that the game, the gamification or the process is not something that draws us away from the business but something that draws us into the business.

Jesse:    Speaking of the potential for unintended consequences, let’s say drawing away from the business; are there some pitfalls that we should be aware of?

Chuck:  Well, there are probably three of them.  Number one is the one we just talked about and that is that you don’t want to go do a game for game’s sake.  Somebody said [inaudible 00:24:27], “Boy, you know what I think what we can do?  I think we can do, “Fast and Furious Four,” relative to our maintenance guys.  We can get them jacked up and they’ll be excited.  However, if they’re not doing their job with the game, then that’s a huge problem.

The second biggest pitfall that I see is that you have to make sure that the feedback that’s coming from the game is the same feedback that’s coming from the coach.  If I’m out and I’m building up badges or I’m running up a leader board or any of the other things that are analogous to Mario collecting his little gold coins, if you remember.

But I’ve got a manager who does not engage in that process and is saying, “Oh, that’s a bunch of young kid crap that you’re just doing and I don’t think it’s driving our production up.  Why don’t you forget the computer, get your butt over here and let’s get to work.”

If you’ve got feedback coming from the person who’s going to do your performance appraisal and your income changes is not consistent with the game then you’ve got fundamental errors.

So, we always work in rolling out the game of work from the CEO’s down.  You have to cascade the implementation throughout the organization from the top.  If I’m looking at the feedback and the gift of feedback, if you’ll think about it in that way, as a management privilege because they’re closer to the information and then I’m going to share that gift of feedback where the people are actually doing the work because I want to improve the workplace experience for the team.

Jesse: That’s interesting that you come back to this principle of feedback, which was the first of your five principles.  Is it first because it perhaps signifies a priority there?  Is it the most important?

Chuck:  I have to confess, as John Wooden said, “It’s what you learn after you think you know it all that really matters.”  When we wrote the book, Jesse, we have goals for first: score keeping second and feedback, I wouldn’t say it was an afterthought but it wasn’t really a primary discovery for us at the early epiphany.

But the more we implement it, the more we shared and the more we recognized what it took to change and the more we saw the difference between work and recreation.  Feedback became our number one principle because it is the difference between work and enjoyment.  It’s the feedback that you get.

If you’ve ever been involved in a process where you were working against the deadline, you were trying to get a broadcast put together.  You were trying to open up a grocery that’s kind of industry that I came out of.

You see that you have this huge energy and this huge effort because people are getting very frequent feedback about what’s going on.  I loaded grocery trucks for three summers to work my way through Michigan State and this is—you don’t really want to know how long ago that was.  I like to try to tell people the game of work was a junior achievement project in [inaudible 00:28:07].  It’s not working so well for me.

We used to have ten thousand pounds, per man-hour, that we were loading in these trucks.  So, you would load a forty thousand pound truck in four hours, I still remember that.  But it was a big deal to make those numbers and get that stuff done and we celebrated it as we finished out our shift.

Yes, I suppose that that had an impact on how my thinking came to be.  But feedback, and here’s another thing, I don’t want to take you down too many trails, if you think about it in our society, the denial or the withholding of feedback is the most severe psychological punishment we inflict on someone.

So, you can go back and look at solitary confinement, you can look at brainwashing as a first step or solitary confinement as a first step in the brainwashing process.  The Greeks call it being Ostracized, our military academy call it, “The Silent Treatment,” around most houses they call it the, “Big Chill,” you know you walk in, “Hi, how are you?”


“What’s wrong?”


“Can I do anything?”


So, when you take feedback away, it’s painful.  There’s lot of research around that.  What’s interesting is, that’s true in every place except at work where we think it’s standard operating procedure.  If it isn’t today broke, don’t fix it and no news is good news, which you don’t know can’t hurt you.  So, if you go around and look at either the formality of a Gallup survey for employee engagement or just go out and talk to folks, you will find that no one feels over appreciated.  So, we have a huge feedback gap and appreciation gap in America.

Jesse: Well, I’ve heard Gallup report that the least engaged employees are those that get zero feedbacks from their managers and the ones that get, even if they only get negative feedback, they are actually pretty well engaged.  They are well over that fifty percent level.  Of course, the most that you can guess are the ones that get both positive and negative feedbacks but that negative feedback is much better than no feedback in terms of engaging people.

Chuck:   Absolutely, that’s one of the—we have six principles of feedback and that’s the sixth one, is that people would rather take negative feedback than get no feedback at all.  We see it on kids who act up when you come home at night and they try to tell you about the room being clean and what they did in pre-school today.  Then you go, “I’m sorry, I’m reading a paper.”;“I’m cooking, I don’t have time.”

You know, the next thing you’re going to hear from that kid is broken glass or a sibling’s scream or a half sob laid on a dining room table like.  But that kid’s going to get some feedback.  So, that’s why we are so zealous, I guess, about changing the way we deliver feedback in the workplace.

The border for us, the keyword, the key adjective is that the feedback needs to be appropriate.  So, it’s not that it’s all rose colored glasses and all Pollyanna and yes, Johnny and everybody gets a ribbon for showing up, it’s not that.  It’s that the feedback is appropriate to the behavior and the behavior is what drives the results.

Jesse:           Chuck, where can people find out more about you and your work?

Chuck: Well, thank you for asking.  Our web page is  You can email us at  One of the things that people can do with that email is to request an executive summary of our book, The Game of Work.  Happy to send that along to them electronically and our 800 number is (800)438-6074.

I’d be happy to engage with anybody out there who’s struggling with their own gamification and see what kind of help we can give them over the phone and see what else we can do to share this, it’s almost 40 years now that we’ve been playing the game.  One of the great joys of having that much experience is to share with people and help them avoid some of the pitfalls that we’ve dropped into over the years.  So, we love it.  We love giving back and we appreciate the resurgence that gamification is enjoying today

Jesse:       Fantastic.  Chuck Coonradt is the author of the, The Game of Work.  Chuck,  thank you for joining us on Game Changer.

Chuck:  Thank you for having us.

Jesse:       And we’ll provide the contact information and links that Chuck mentioned in our show notes, which you can find at, as in Game Changer Episode six.  That wraps up today show, Game Changers.”  Don’t miss our next episode when we’ll feature our next interview with a plug and play gamification solution provider focused on health and wellness.  We’ll be talking to Blake Squires, the CEO of Movable, which is an activity awareness program with social and rewards components.  Don’t miss it.

If you have enjoyed this series, be sure to check out the weekly leadership podcast, Engaging Leader.  Where my guest and I share more ways to communicate, engage and lead with greater impact.  Until next time, remember, life is short.  So, keep it fun.

Link to podcast episode:  The Game of Work: Unlocking Employee Engagement and Energy | with Chuck Coonradt

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