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On a recent holiday, I found myself watching some organised games for a group of young children. After each game, one family would be proudly congratulating their victorious child while thirty others were consoling disappointed and often tearful losers.  It made me think about the messages we give around motivation and reward.

As trainers, we know the value of games for teaching or reinforcing key lessons.  We choose interventions and exercises purposefully, ensuring that the learning is clear.  We eliminate anything that may exclude, ridicule or upset the majority of participants or teaches nothing of value. Yet a review of children’s party games appears to show that the same standards are not applied to our most impressionable group!

We are in danger of teaching our children strange lessons.

“The more I practise, the luckier I get…”

I accept that children should learn about winning and losing. I can understand the father who told his tearful son, “If you want to win Musical Statues, you’ll have to practise and get better at standing still”. It sounds tough, but it’s true and a valuable lesson.

But most of the games the children played relied entirely on luck.  A Heads and Tails type game eliminated groups of children at a time with the “remainers” congratulated heartily and the “losers” banished to the side lines.  A final winner was awarded a prize and much applause.

The lesson I drew was “Be lucky.”  I suppose, at a push, another was “How to lose with grace.”  When 29 from 30 were designated losers, it can be no wonder that we grow up bearing the scars that stop us from taking a running jump at life.  Surely, many will choose to avoid the risk of losing rather than giving it a go. ‘Going for it’ is not about blindly jumping into the abyss, not about chancing to luck. That first little boy knows what to drive for now – he can really go for it, become Musical Statue World Champion – but what have the winners of the luck games learnt?

What really motivates us? 

Fulfilment comes from the achievement of learning something new and getting good at it – Dan Pink says as much in “Drive”, “The secret to high performance isn’t rewards and punishments, but that unseen intrinsic drive— the drive to do things for their own sake.” Or as psychologist and proponent of growth mind-set, Carol Dweck, says “Effort is one of those things that gives meaning to life”. This is the lesson that Musical Statues tells us, that is missing from many other games.

I have heard people say that it is better to be lucky than good. Maybe. But where’s the achievement? Worse still, we end up with people hoping to be lucky rather than trying to get better. With luck, the odds are stacked against you, importantly the winner will have learnt nothing along the way, except how to rub his or her hands with glee. Perhaps also mistakenly thinking they have a special gift and end up “blowing it all on red”. I prefer the world champion golfer, Gary Player’s, outlook who told the interviewer commenting on his luck in the final round, “Yes.  The more I practise, the luckier I get …”

Growth or fixed mind-set

People with a fixed mind-set tend to believe that intelligence, personality and talent are predetermined. Whereas those with a growth mind-set believe in their ability to change and improve their skills and knowledge. The former are more likely to give up on tough challenges, whereas the latter approach difficulties positively, with a belief that anything they cannot do now, they can learn.

Paradoxically, it seems more acceptable to boast about good fortune than earnt success. By striving to be better, we improve and, if we are rewarded, there’s a chance we deserve it. If we want something, there’s a joy in earning it.  As Conor Oberst wrote: “I’d rather be working for a pay check than waiting to win the lottery”.

When children are left to make up their own games, they usually involve skill (hide and seek, skipping) or fun (dressing up, painting).  Perhaps, as adults, we should think a little harder about the games we organise or encourage.  Are they designed to make the children happy, determined to improve, or at least a little wiser, rather than unhappy, unlucky and uninformed?

Equally, the messages we give should provide people with the motivation to do their best work. As we reflect on reward, performance measures and success in our organisations, we should make sure that more than good fortune determines the outcomes.  Surely our cultural values should also be reflected – whether these are around collaboration, integrity, client focus, innovation, technical excellence, professionalism, courage or anything else.

There are few organisations that would set out to promote and reward luck, yet many inadvertently do just that.





Snakes and Ladders image by Jacqui Brown https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/legalcode

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