How To Use Leaderboards to Socially Reinforce Performance Results

Leaderboards are a type of gaming mechanism that helps learners with goal setting and instilling motivation for learning and performance improvement.

So, how can you design and use leaderboards to socially reinforce the desired performance results you want in the workplace?

I will outline some of the leaderboard mechanics to be aware of and their implications. And I will provide you with a real-world example of a leaderboard that you can emulate and apply in your workplace. 

What is a leaderboard? 

A leaderboard is simply a scoreboard showing the names and current scores of the leading competitors in any specific activity. You will have seen something like this at a golf tournament showing who is in the lead or in watching a recent Olympic game. 

A leaderboard shows the competency of an individual in some skill, proficiency, or ability. It provides a level of feedback in reaching a challenging goal. It brings satisfaction and motivation to achieve what you have.

Previous gaming research has shown leaderboards are an effective way to motivate users through competition. 

Negative Consequences of Leaderboards 

The downside of leaderboards is they can also have the opposite effect. If you have not shown a high enough level of competence as a performer or employee, then you can feel ineffective and helpless.

A recent study by Sungjin Park and Sangkyun Kim, on Leaderboard Design Principles to Enhance Learning and Motivation in a Gamified Educational Environment: Development Study, (JMIR Serious Games 2021, vol. 9, issue 2), found the following potential concerns with designing leaderboards. Keep in mind that these leaderboard principles are specific to gamified educational and sports environments. 

  • You must design them to minimize an individual’s sense of inadequacy that might develop from them.
  • Design must address minimizing the learners’ experience of failure to minimize downward counterfactual thinking. (Counterfactual thinking is thinking about a past that did not happen. This is often the case in “if only…” situations, where we wish something had or had not happened.)
  • There is a need to maximize a learners’ experience of success to induce upward counterfactual thinking.
  • Design leaderboards that measure learning performance to induce learners to get high scores and compete frequently with others. 

Positive Leaderboard Design Principles

From the same study, the researchers give the following three design principles. They feel these factors should minimize any negative influences of leaderboards on participants. These design principles are ways to improve leaderboard effectiveness. 

Design Principle #1: Use a macro-leaderboard (overall big picture ranking) and a micro-leaderboard (specific targets, goals, and behaviors) together for maximum effectiveness.

Design Principle #2: All the elements used to measure learners’ achievements in an educational environment should be incorporated into micro-leaderboards. 

Design Principle #3: Create a “geeks leaderboard,” a type of micro leaderboard for activities other than learning, should be designed. This principle is very much applicable to learning and non-learning activities or software. 

Leaderboards help those who use them with setting goals, boosting competition, and providing specific feedback. 

Research on leaderboards suggests using two types: macro-leaderboards, which are associated with the overall content, and micro-leaderboards, which display a specific subsection of content.

For example, the macro-leaderboard might show a person’s name and overall rank order, while the micro-leaderboard shows specific outcomes of target behaviors or goals. The more specific these target behaviors are then the individual knows exactly what to do to perform better.

A Practical Example of a Leaderboard

A study was conducted comparing the impact of financial and non-financial incentives on the business unit outcomes of 21 fast-food stores. 

For the financial incentives, all employees received a lump-sum payment at the end of each month for collectively engaging in critical behaviors. They established a scale of financial incentives regarding the successive number of behaviors reached.

With the non-financial incentive group, they posted performance feedback as a leaderboard near the fast-food restaurant’s time clocks. These were charts completed by managers showing the frequency of each group’s performance. The second incentive given was social recognition by the manager to individuals and to the group for performing identified behaviors.

Following are the results for each group’s condition: 

Store Profits

  • Financial incentive group: 30 percent increase.
  • Non-financial incentives group: 36 percent increase.

Drive Through Times

  • Financial incentive group: 19 percent decrease.
  • Non-financial incentives group: 25 percent decrease. 

Employee Turnover

  • Financial incentive group: 13 percent improvement.
  • Non-financial incentives group: 10 percent improvement.

I should note that both types of incentive groups outperformed the control group that had no incentives. 

Researcher comments on the study’s outcomes stated: 

1. Non-financial incentives had less initial impact that the financial incentive. However, non-financial incentives had a steady and sustainable impact.

2. Limitation to the context of a specific fast-food chain restricts generalization to other industries and type of work.

3. The leaderboard concept of performance feedback along with social recognition is not widely used to improve worker performance, even given its minimal direct costs. 

You can use leaderboards within recognition program reporting to show: 

  • Top givers of recognition and rewards.
  • Top recipients of recognition and rewards.
  • Leaders of specific recognition metrics in quantity and quality indicators.
  • Leaders in achieving specific behavioral and target performance outcomes.
  • Recipients of corporate social badges for demonstrating organizational values or achieving strategic initiatives. 

There are so many ways to design and use leaderboards to help reinforce employee performance results.

Recognition Reflection: How will you best use leaderboards in your organization to motivate employee performance?

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