All Articles Leadership Workforce Dopamine-driven gamification to motivate your teams

Dopamine-driven gamification to motivate your teams

Gamification can improve productivity but must be done with an inclusive focus to support a team's diverse talents, writes Gloria Folaron.

6 min read



Prostock-Studio/Getty Images

headshot of Gloria-Folaron

The pursuit of productivity within an organization is an ongoing journey toward achieving higher-quality work, improved outcomes, streamlined processes and increased revenue. Although the specific route to enhanced productivity differs from organization to organization, one universal truth remains clear: the key to this journey is closely intertwined with the individuals responsible for the work. 

Let’s explore how gamification can impact productivity and its relevance in motivating your teams.

The drive for a productive workforce

It’s easy to think that productivity boils down to goal + doing the work = outputs. And, in theory, it could be over-simplified this way. This way of thinking fails to capture the uncontrollable variables. 

What components are essential for productivity? Motivation + people + execution + process. 

As a company, the things you can most easily impact and tangibly measure are execution and process. Motivation could be more precise, predictable and often tied unmeasurably to the people. This is true even for ourselves as leaders when one day we feel on top of the world, and the next we’re ready to pull the covers over our heads and stay in bed. Motivation is intricately linked to our human state.  

So, how do we motivate our teams as leaders while we’re off fighting fires, making big decisions and driving strategies? 

The role of dopamine and the 2 types of motivation

Dopamine, often dubbed the brain’s feel-good chemical, plays a pivotal role in motivation and reward. When we experience a dopamine release, it reinforces the behavior that led to it. Dopamine can be used in the context of both types of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic.

Extrinsic motivation is the type of motivation you develop with bonuses, peer pressure or even delegation. This motivation is often unsustainable and can even require increases in dosing to get the same results. Intrinsic motivation, on the other hand, is internally driven. In pure biology, it could be the drive for thirst. In our more evolved states, it’s personal goals, interests, contributions to the bigger picture or the things that drive you internally. 

As for productivity, the challenge lies in sustaining intrinsic motivation — doing tasks because they are inherently rewarding. One way organizations have tried to tap into motivation is through the art of gamification. 

Gamification: More than just points

Both as a founder of a productivity tool that uses dopamine-driven gamification to drive intrinsic motivation and as someone with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder who with her dopamine, I’ve both seen and lived the productivity impact of combining motivation with gamification. 

Our traditional work environments are often absent of dopamine-stimulating rewards. We’re often demotivating the intrinsic motivation of our teams. This is usually done unintentionally through things as simple as assigning tasks to the people with the slightest interest in it or by not communicating the goals and value of their work clearly enough.

Gamification transforms this by infusing work with game-like elements, such as points, badges and leaderboards. The goal is to strategically use game elements and principles in non-gaming contexts to engage, motivate and reward individuals for desired behaviors or tasks.

But before we can rush off to create a leaderboard, we must have a good grasp on the problems, processes and team needs before implementing game-like elements. It’s crucial to move beyond superficial gamification and create experiences that genuinely resonate. We can’t do that without fully understanding what we’re trying to accomplish.

When gamification goes wrong

In 2008, a Disneyland Resort hotel implemented electronic tracking of its laundry services and followed through with identifying names of workers on a leaderboard. If you met management goals, your name would be highlighted in green. If you were slowing down, it’d be yellow. If you were behind, it would be red. The hotel also began monitoring the work at the washing machines and used a similar color structure to identify the rate of the work. 

The employees called it their “electronic whip.”

Injuries went up. It became a race. People stopped going to the bathroom. The friendliness of the staff declined because they were now in competition rather than working together.

The likelihood of your gamification efforts failing is high. In fact, in 2012, Gartner released a statement that 80% of gamification attempts would fail due to poor design, and failed gamification reportedly costs US businesses over $700 million. 

Doing gamification correctly requires a deliberate approach that encompasses understanding, active listening and definition of what you are trying to solve with the gamification. 

Making gamification personal

In 2013, Omnicare was looking to improve the number of closed support tickets. Executives implemented a leaderboard approach with higher numbers of closed tickets resulting in awards and prizes. The problem with leaderboards is that they often set the pace for productivity: If the lowest person is too far from the top or unlikely to place higher, they will usually not try anymore. 

One way that Omnicare addressed this was to focus their prizes and games around things that were important to the people on the team. Looking at local events and activities, such as sports games, the leaders were able to frame the leaderboard games around winning tickets for those events. They made closing tickets about “hitting a home run” relevant to their work. 

This approach tapped into the intrinsic motivation necessary for sustainable gamification. By looking at things that mattered to the employees, they could create a level of engagement that would not have been captured otherwise. But this wouldn’t have been done without understanding the environment that their gamification was going into.  

A new era of productivity

While not all forms of gamification are created equal, driving intrinsic motivation and pairing it with dopamine-promoting elements creates more sustainable outcomes. When done correctly, it can also create a more inclusive environment for your neurodivergent employees or those needing the dopamine boost. Gamification for us, however, looks more like ensuring that the user sees their progress, works on things they enjoy and feels like part of the journey. 

No matter how, or if you decide to implement gamification in your work environments, know that it can bring in a new wave of productivity for your teams when done correctly. As leaders, embracing this approach can not only drive results but also promote a more engaging culture that values and supports diverse talents and interests. 


Gloria Folaron is a trailblazing figure at the intersection of science-based workplace experience solutions, technology and neurodiversity. As a nurse-turned-product manager, she brings a unique perspective and passionate commitment to innovation. Folaron is the founder and product manager of Leantime, a platform that embodies her dedication to prioritizing neurodiversity in project management.

Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.


Take advantage of SmartBrief’s FREE email newsletters on leadership and business transformation, among the company’s more than 250 industry-focused newsletters.