Motivation in Virtual Teams: Lessons from Virtual Worlds

Last week I read a report called Leadership in Games and at Work: Implications for the Enterprise of Massively Multiplayer Online Role-playing Games (MMOGs), put out by an organization called Seriosity (condensed report, full report). Their study investigated the lessons that MMOGs might have for leadership in the workplace, with the suggestion that experience in MMOGs or virtual worlds crosses over to real work and leadership situations. The report suggests that MMOGs are useful for developing skills that apply to the work we do today because MMOGs have several features that increasingly parallel workplace characteristics. For example, interaction in MMOGs is virtual, collaborative, and social, with players who have never met each other relying on teamwork more than individual performance to accomplish tasks. This could also describe the essential characteristics of a virtual team.

It’s clear that MMOGs and virtual teams share some important characteristics, but what can virtual team leaders learn from the research Seriosity has done in MMOGs? Motivation is at the heart of this issue. For decades business leaders and academics have explored the relationship between individual workers’ motivation and the rewards that exist in the workplace. Although virtual teamwork puts people into a new and seemingly foreign context, motivation is still key to virtual team effectiveness. A team member is bound to ask “what’s in it for me?” before committing to any significant work during the project. Let’s review the major points about motivating team members.

There are different sources of motivation. Some people are primarily intrinsically motivated — they are interested in the work itself or in experiencing a sense of achievement. Others are primarily extrinsically motivated, and respond very positively to external rewards such as money or praise. In the Seriosity report, we see a lot of intrinsic motivation in the words of the guild leaders. They talk about wanting to feel the satisfaction of pulling together a team and achieving a task, and how good it feels to meet the challenges of the game. But clearly there are some players who are more extrinsically motivated since we also have reports of members protesting if earned loot is not divided up to their satisfaction.

So the first step for virtual team leaders might be to figure out which primary source of motivation drives each team member. This is better discerned by listening to people talk about themselves and their interests than by asking them directly. When you ask someone which type of motivation moves them, they may be correct or their response may be affected by a social desirability bias. Many people aren’t consciously aware of what motivates them. However, if you listen carefully to people talking about their hobbies, their previous job experiences, and their career aspirations, clues to this question emerge. For example, when career choices are discussed, if a person talks about salary, this is one piece of evidence that the person is primarily extrinsically motivated. If another person talks about being very interested in the challenge of the work, he or she may be primarily intrinsically motivated.

There is one warning for team leaders – try to avoid classifying people, especially based on only a few pieces of evidence. Think of it more as an ongoing investigation. If you really get to know your team members over a period of time, you will have lots of clues and a better understanding of each person’s primary source of motivation. Also, keep in mind that I’m not suggesting you ask a series of thinly veiled questions about your team members’ motivation and satisfaction. When will you have time to listen for clues about motivation? Perhaps you have the opportunity to schedule an informational meeting with each team member before the team assembles. By sharing information about the project and asking each team member how they see the project fitting in with their work and career goals, you will gain some valuable initial clues about what motivates them. Maybe you plan to have some icebreaker sessions, or even a face-to-face meeting when the team project commences. Certainly we will recommend, here and in other blog entries, that virtual team leaders should very intentionally maintain frequent communication with team members. In any of those interactions, you should listen for motivation clues without prompting team members.

The other thing for virtual team leaders to keep in mind is that the context also influences an individual’s motivation at any given time. Even if a person is highly intrinsically motivated, there is a threshold for extrinsic motivation factors below which they will not go. Such a person may love the content of their work, but exit the situation if yearly salary increases are too low or if opportunities for advancement do not exist. The opposite is also true – a person who usually chooses jobs based on compensation may pass one up because the content of the work isn’t intrinsically interesting enough. This may be particularly challenging for virtual team leaders who are not the everyday managers of their team members. In such a case, you may have little control over rewards such as bonuses, salary levels, or the content of a team member’s everyday work. The context is complex enough that you will have to stay attuned to the individual’s satisfaction level and get creative in order to have an influence on that level. For example, perhaps you can’t control a team member’s salary and bonuses. You may, however, be able to give feedback to the person’s regular supervisor that will influence performance evaluations. If the team member is extrinsically motivated, share your positive feedback with him or her also – praise is a form of extrinsic reward that can be as powerful as a salary increase.

Another simple suggestion is to assign work in a way that will maximize the effectiveness of each individual and the team. If you know what each team member’s strengths are and play to those, chances for good performance are increased. Chances are intrinsically motivated people will be satisfied with the resulting success. Extrinsically motivated people will get positive performance reviews, also boosting satisfaction. There’s no simple panacea for team leaders, but if you are able to stay attuned to your team, there are many opportunities for you to match motivation and rewards. In fact, the Seriosity report found that the most crucial of four leadership skills for success in MMOGs was relating – this includes listening carefully in order to understand others.

Effective leaders understand that not all team members will be happy all of the time. Sometimes there are demands on the team that prevent each individual from getting precisely what they want. But an effective leader knows how to keep motivation from dropping too low, even when a team member is temporarily not too satisfied with rewards.

Whether your challenge as a leader is to maximize performance among a willing group of virtual team workers, or to start using virtual teams, these basics of motivation and rewards are a great starting point. Understanding how people are motivated can make the difference between effective leadership and team failure. Remember, you must lead for each member of your team.

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  1. Motivational
    Motivational at |

    If only all managers / supervisors are required to learn a thing or two about motivation, maybe fewer of them would be so incompetent. Hm..

  2. Project Shrink Links 23-01-2008 | Bas de Baar - Project Shrink

    […] Motivation in Virtual Teams: Lessons from Virtual Worlds “Last week I read a report called Leadership in Games and at Work: Implications for the Enterprise of Massively Multiplayer Online Role-playing Games (MMOGs), put out by an organization called Seriosity. Their study investigated the lessons that MMOGs might have for leadership in the workplace, with the suggestion that experience in MMOGs or virtual worlds crosses over to real work and leadership situations.” […]

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