A common method for “motivating” learners in L&D is to utilize competitive leaderboards. In a typical application, a group of learners are tasked with completing a number of learning tasks and a digital leaderboard is constructed that shows the performance of each individual. Individuals who have completed more tasks or achieved higher performance on tests are displayed toward the top of the leaderboard, whereas those who have completed fewer tasks or achieved lower performance are displayed toward the bottom of the leaderboard. The explicitly defined goal is displayed at the top of the leaderboard.
The assumption, as stated on many L&D vendor websites, is that leaderboards lead to “healthy” competition that enhances motivation and engagement. Although research (summarized below) supports this claim for some individuals in the population (approximately half), it is blatantly false for the other half, and, in fact, decreases motivation and engagement. Two bodies of research are important and are listed below.
Competition vs. Cooperation
The scientific data are clear: On average, women tend to prefer cooperation to competition, whereas men tend to prefer competition to cooperation. Although the cultural and societal underpinnings for these gender differences is beyond the scope of this report, these differences exist. Whether we are talking about men and women or are comparing individuals with personality traits that tend toward cooperation or competition, the fact remains that some individuals find competition motivating and engaging and others do not; in fact, finding it unmotivating and disengaging.
Motivational Style and Task Incentives
About 10 years ago, I was awarded a $1 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to examine the relationship between motivational styles and task incentives during learning. By combining several existing lines of research, I theorized that an alignment between an individual’s motivational style and the task incentive will increase cognitive effort, and ultimately learning. On the other hand, a misalignment between an individual’s motivational style and the task incentive will decrease cognitive effort, and ultimately learning. The brain science is complex, but suffice it to say there is evidence to suggest a motivation-incentive alignment enhances processing in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, leading to increased attentional focus, working memory capacity and learning. On the other hand, this same research suggests that a motivation-incentive misalignment attenuates processing in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, leading to decreased attentional focus, working memory capacity and learning.
Therefore, individuals who prefer competition and are incentivized to compete (e.g., with competitive leaderboards) are in alignment and will learn effectively, as will individuals who prefer cooperation and are incentivized to cooperate (e.g., with cooperative leaderboards). On the other hand, this also means that individuals who prefer competition and are incentivized to cooperate (e.g., with cooperative leaderboards) are misaligned and will not learn effectively, as will individuals who prefer cooperation and are incentivized to compete (e.g., with competitive leaderboards).
To test this hypothesis, I conducted several studies that measured aspects of personality such as whether an individual was more likely to be motivated by competition or cooperation, then placed these individuals in one of two learning situations. In one situation they were incentivized to cooperate, being told to maximize the group-level performance. In a second situation they were incentivized to compete, being told to achieve the maximum performance relative to their peers. The task was similar to a hard skill learning task in the corporate learning space and required cognitive effort (i.e., working memory and attention) to be successful.
The results were clear. Learners in motivation-incentive alignment conditions yielded accuracy and completion rates that were anywhere from 10 percent to 40 percent better than those observed for learners in motivation-incentive misalignment conditions (Maddox & Markman, 2010).
The implications of this research and the likelihood that leaderboards are systematically biased against anyone with a cooperation-based personality, including women, are serious. It is incorrect to assume that leaderboards lead to “healthy” competition in all people. One size does not fit all. In fact, leaderboards are “unhealthy” for anyone with a cooperation-driven personality. Acknowledging this simple fact and working to measure motivational style and align it with incentives is relatively inexpensive to implement, and is dwarfed by the increase in ROI from enhanced corporate learning.