Mark Powers and Shawn McNalis

How can a group of strangers show up on a basketball court for a pick-up game and within an hour assemble themselves into a winning team? How can your staff work together for years and often fail to achieve the simplest goals?

What accounts for the fact that people will enthusiastically endure sweaty, heart-pounding work-outs, propel themselves down icy mountain slopes on two narrow blades of wood, or run around for hours in circles on a hot soccer field, but feel compelled to deliver mediocre performances in the workplace?

People are willing to work harder in their recreation — up to ten times harder, according to some experts — than they are at their jobs. Most likely, they are not getting paid to endure the stresses and strains of their recreational activity. So, if it is not financially rewarding, what accounts for that motivation and how can you transfer that kind of motivation into your office?

According to Chuck Coonradt, author of The Game of Work, not only are employees not motivated properly, but also “most businesses are paying for attendance when they need to be paying for performance.” In most law firms, employees do not know what game they are playing. They do not know what a “win” is, they do not know at what level they need to perform, and they do not know the goals they need to achieve. In the absence of a clearly defined game to play, people tend to focus on activities and processes for the sake of activities and processes. Unfortunately, these may not be the activities and processes that will bring the team to victory — but there certainly seems to be a lot of work getting done.

In order to understand why people will work harder at their games than at their work, let’s take a look at the characteristics that make recreational activities enjoyable. Recreational activities or sports usually include:

  • Clearly defined goals: – These goals are dependent on the individual and can range from winning a game to beating your best time.
  • Better scorekeeping: – Recreational scorekeeping is more objective, self-administered, peer-audited and comparable with past performances.
  • Frequent feedback: – In recreational activities, you know whether you are winning or losing and do not need someone to explain how you are doing.
  • Options: – People tend to gravitate to activities in which they excel.
  • Defined rules: – Before participating in a particular activity, the rules are clearly outlined and cannot be modified.

In other words, there is clarity. The kind of clarity that allows all of the players to visualize the end result and assume the positions that will get the job done. Team members are clear about the game they are playing. No one believes he is playing basketball when he has a tennis racket in his hand. The rules and the boundaries are clear.

When the referee blows his whistle because of a rules violation, there is immediate feedback. The player instantly knows what works and what does not — thus dramatically shortening the learning curve. And when the score changes, there is additional feedback. In fact, the rate at which the feedback is given in sports goes to an extreme degree. Athletes live or die by 1/10th of a second or the fraction of an inch.

You will find that from the casual weekend golfer to the most extreme downhill skier, individuals are always measured, always compared to another team — or to their personal best. Either way, they always know whether they are winning or losing, and how to better their score.

Applying the Motivational Aspects of Recreation in the Workplace

You can improve the performance of your employees by applying the motivational aspects of recreation to your practice. Here are the steps to follow:

Set Goals

Work with your employees to set realistic, measurable goals. As an employer, you cannot alone determine the pace at which employees work or the level they hope to attain. However, you can provide your staff with performance evaluations and feedback on a monthly, bi-yearly or yearly schedule. Frequent feedback helps employees evaluate the status of their goals. Remember, goals must not only be measurable, they must be:

  • specific (how many, how much and by when)
  • written in their own words
  • positive
  • in inflation-proof terms (units of measurement that do not change over time)

Create Games

Workplace “games,” which provide employees with attainable goals and rewards as incentives, will help you better motivate your staff. Focus on areas you would like your firm to achieve, such as:

  • Customer service: – Anytime you receive an unsolicited compliment from a client about a staff member, give all employees a small cash bonus. This approach allows you to reward the entire team without creating too much internal competition.
  • High production: – If all staff members turn in their time sheets with production goals and quotas met, they get to leave early one Friday afternoon.
  • Profit generation: – Reward every employee if the firm’s year-end profit exceeds a certain percentage of last year’s profit.

Rewards do not have to be cash. They can be anything from gift certificates to extra time off or lunches with the boss. It is up to you to decide what incentives best motivate the people in your office.

Generate Team Participation

Make sure you fully develop the game prior to presenting it to the company. The groundwork you lay in the beginning will set the tone for your employees and establish the credibility of the program. Call an office meeting to discuss the game concept and the variables you would like to measure with the group. Explain that the program is designed to provide employees with more clarity in their responsibilities so that they know how to better gauge their results. Emphasize that the new program is about team achievement – not individual achievement – to reinforce the point that everyone stands to benefit. And remember, one of the characteristics of recreation is that the rules do not change. So, set up a game and stick with it!


Part of establishing rules is developing a method of scorekeeping. A scorekeeping system is effective when it is:

  • Simple, objective and favors no one
  • Self-administered
  • Offers a comparison between current and past personal performance

Do not be surprised if you receive some resistance to scorekeeping at first. If the system is implemented slowly, there should not be a problem. According to an article on scorekeeping by John Case in a recent issue of Inc. magazine, scorekeeping allows employees to set targets and determine what rewards or bonuses to give themselves. When employees feel more involved in the game and have measures for results, they are more likely to challenge themselves to meet objectives.


Motivation is the key to success in both your personal and professional life. However, you cannot achieve success without having measurable goals for which to strive. After deciding what aspects of your practice need to be improved, create recreational activities that will provide your employees with the motivations they need to succeed. A system of clearly stated rules, measurable goals, and tangible results will benefit you, your employees, and your firm. Remember the most important part of the game is celebrating the wins!

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