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What Leaders Can Learn from Computer Games


Key Takeaways

  • Intrinsic motivation is a significant success factor for leadership and agility
  • Leaders should walk away from actively trying to motivate people and start creating working conditions that inspire intrinsic motivation
  • In a complex or agile working environment, intrinsic motivation is encouraged and has a performance enhancing effect
  • If you work on tasks which require complex thinking, creativity and problem-solving skills, extrinsic rewards may not be beneficial or even hindering
  • You can boost intrinsic motivation by satisfying three human basic needs: relatedness, competence and autonomy

Why are computer games often more successful than leaders? A question and comparison that may sound a little strange or ironic at first. But I claim, from this comparison you can deduce a significant success factor for leadership and agility. However, before I give an answer to this question, I want to provide some more context.

The Candle Problem

Let’s start with a test called “The Candle Problem”. It is a cognitive performance test created by the American psychologist Karl Duncker in 1945.

Fig. 1: Experiment one (Source)

In the picture (Fig. 1) you can see the set-up which was provided for the test. On the left side is a wall which is made of cork and on the table is a box full of thumbtacks, some matches, and a candle. The task in the test was to fix the candle with the present things on the cork wall in such a way that no wax will drip onto the table below when it burns.

Based on this, Sam Glucksberg, a scientist and professor from the USA, conducted an experiment in 1962. He had two groups of people solving the task – a test and a control group. The test group was promised a sum of money for whoever would solve the task the fastest. The control group was not offered any monetary incentives. They were simply instructed to solve the task within 15 minutes. What do you think? Which group was faster?

The test group (with the incentives) took on average 3.5 minutes longer than the control group to solve the exercise. Then he conducted another experiment. In the second experiment (with other subjects) the table was prepared as in this picture (Fig. 2):

Fig. 2: Experiment two (Source)

The only difference to picture number one (Fig. 1) is that the thumbtacks were taken out of the box. The subjects were again divided into the two groups. They were given the same instructions. This time, the test group (with incentives) did much better than the control group. Exactly the opposite as in experiment number one (Candle Problem, 2021). One way of solving the task could look like in figure 3. You attach the empty box to the cork wall with a few thumbtacks, put the candle on it and light it with the match. 

Fig. 3: Solution (Source)

“The Candle Problem” test measures the influence of functional fixedness on the capability to solve problems. The concept of functional fixedness describes the tendency in problem situations to perceive objects only in their original function. The difficulty lies in recognizing a new function for the object and thus solving the problem. The first set-up (Fig. 1) is about overcoming this functional fixedness. Everyone who saw the box here only as a holder for thumbtacks and not as a platform, could not solve the task. In this situation, complex thinking, creativity and problem-solving skills were required. The object "box" had to be recognized in its new function as a "platform". The result of the first experiment shows that in complex situations, external incentives such as money can have a negative effect on our performance (Pink, 2009).

In the second picture (Fig. 2), a less complex problem situation is presented. The goal is much clearer. For these types of narrow-focus tasks, where you have the goal right in front of you, extrinsic motivators can work well. They can have a positive effect on the performance. Summarized, the experiments show the impact of extrinsic rewards in two different contexts.

Extrinsic & intrinsic motivation

This experiment can also be transferred to the context of working environments or types of tasks. But before we take a closer look at this, let’s make a quick deep dive into motivational psychology: Motives are the reason for a certain course of action, whether conscious or unconscious. They are our inner driver. Extrinsic motivation refers to a behavior that is driven by external rewards. These can be tangible, such as money or grades, or intangible, such as praise or fame. Intrinsic motivation refers to behavior that is driven by internal rewards. In other words, the motivation to engage in a behavior arises from within the individual because it is experienced as satisfying, exciting or interesting by nature. Basically, intrinsic motivation is considered the stronger and better driver. If the motivation comes from within yourself, you are more efficient, more committed, and also more able to overcome difficulties or to remain motivated even in very challenging situations (McClelland, 1987).

However, both motivation types can often coexist when you are working on a specific task or within a specific context (cf. Fig. 4). If you are working on tasks with a clear goal, narrow focus, routine activities, or kind of automated or repetitive, extrinsic motivators can be performance-enhancing. This is a simple working environment in which the requirements (what) and the realization (how) are known. That means following rules, "just do it" and working through lists or steps. Task types that fall into this are usually easy to understand. An example of this would be closing packages on an assembly line. If you are working on complicated tasks, which are in general quite hard to understand and don’t need that much creativity (e.g. creating employment contracts), extrinsic motivators are predominantly a better driver. Experts who have undergone special training in this field often work on such tasks or in such complicated systems. A complex working environment means observing, trying out, adapting and gaining experience through experimentation. This requires complex thinking, and creativity. Most of the work in the digital area belongs to the complex domain, where agile ways of working are often used. In this case intrinsic motivation is a much better driver, but you also need to consider some extrinsic motivators. When you have unpredictable and volatile conditions, usually the requirements and the realization are almost unknown. This often requires decisive and quick action to stabilize the system and, at best, to transform it into a "complex" one. This is where excellent problem-solving skills, creativity, a lot of stamina and intrinsically motivated people are needed. Too strong or too many extrinsic motivators can reduce performance in this context (Diehl, 2021). In summary, you always need both types of motivation. Sometimes more, sometimes less.


Fig. 4: Working Environments & Motivation

The answer

When it comes to motivation, a very frequently asked question that I hear again and again in my daily work is: "How do I motivate my employees?” Douglas McGreror (1966), an American management professor who has contributed much to the development of the management and motivational theory, answered this question as follows:

The answer to the question managers so often ask of behavioral scientists „How do you motivate people? is "You don’t."

Does he mean with his quote that you cannot motivate people at all? There are even some voices that say that real motivation can only come from within a person. External motivators only make people move, but they never spark real motivation. An interesting thought in my opinion. So, what is a better or maybe even the right question when it comes to motivation? Edward Deci (1995), an American psychologist and motivation theorist, said:

The right question is not "how can we motivate others?" but "how can we create conditions in which others can motivate themselves?"

What we should take away from this quote is to stop actively trying to motivate people, but to create working conditions or environments that ignite and foster their intrinsic motivation.

Now, back to the initial question. Why are computer games often more successful than leaders?

My answer to this is: Because they create an environment where intrinsic motivation emerges. Computer games can make you feel addicted. When I was young, “The Sims” was the latest hype. I got hooked on this game. Creating virtual people, building and furnishing houses, preventing your Sims from starving or burning. A very difficult and important job – that’s what it was to me. 

Thomas Malone (1981), an American organizational theorist, laid the foundation for the study of intrinsic motivation in digital game environments. His research contributed to the prevailing theories of motivation that now inform the development of serious games. He and Mark Lepper, an American professor of psychology (1987), postulated a theory of intrinsic motivation that states that computer games are intrinsically rewarding and motivating due to a combination of challenge, imagination, curiosity, control, recognition, competition and cooperation.

Another very present motivation theory in this context is the self-determination theory by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan (1985). Deci and Ryan are two American professors of psychology. According to their theory, human behavior always depends on the extent to which three central basic human needs are satisfied. These are relatedness, competence and autonomy. If these needs are fully met, intrinsic motivation arises. The prototype of self-determination. 

Human basic needs

Relatedness is about being integrated into a social community, to interact, and experience caring for others. In the context of computer games, for example, it can be about being part of a gaming community, talking about the game, sharing insider tips, and meeting and playing with other players virtually or in person to achieve common goals.

Competence includes the feeling of having achieved something and being successful. For instance, reaching the next level, earning points or virtual money, unlocking new features, etc. The adaptive design of computer games, i.e. an optimal increase in difficulty in many games, also leads to an increased competence experience. The impact of your effort is immediately visible. People need to gain mastery of tasks and learn different skills. If they feel they have the skills needed to succeed, they are more likely to take action to help them achieve their goals. 

Autonomy describes the feeling of overall psychological liberty and freedom of internal will. It is about the feeling of having control over one's own behavior and goals. In computer games, you usually choose your own approach. You can do what comes to mind and what you think is the best way to play the game. If a behavior is autonomously motivated, it increases creativity, problem-solving ability or stamina. Do you remember it? These are exactly the skills which we need in a complex working environment. In addition, autonomously motivated behavior also has a positive effect on our mental health and well-being (Olson and Chapin, 2007).

It can therefore be deduced from Deci’s and Ryan’s (1985) scientific theory that human beings have a natural motivational tendency feeling connected to other people, to function effectively in this social milieu and that they can act autonomously and proactively. To this day, the development of numerous computer games and gamification is based on the self-determination theory. They create intrinsic motivation in users by promoting relatedness, competence and autonomy in the games. This is what makes them amongst others so attractive and successful.

Agility & intrinsic motivation

Let’s see how agility contributes to these needs. If you take a look into the Agile Manifesto, you can see that all three needs are covered a bunch of times: "Business people and developers must work together daily (…) face-to-face conversation (…) self-organizing teams (…) etc.” and last but not least “Build projects around motivated individuals” (Beck et al., 2001). And if you look at Scrum, you will notice that relatedness, competence, and autonomy are kind of capped as well. 

A perfect agile team ...

... sits closely together (best case in the same room), has clearly defined roles (fosters commitment), is cross functional (fosters collaboration) and has a common goal/vision. If we are talking about goals, it is important that everyone in the team understands the common team goal or product vision and his or her own value add. This satisfies the need of competency as well as social belonging. In particular, sprint goals can have a highly motivating effect because they seem more realistic to achieve.

... works in short iterations and it makes their achievements/ results visible, because of this short cycle it celebrates successes on a regular basis (e.g., in Sprint Review or Retrospective), it continuously re-adjusts, learns and improves, inspects and adapts, therefore competence and effectiveness are noticeable and visible for every team member. 

... is self-managed, respects that other team members are independent and capable, courageously makes decisions and works through problems, takes responsibility and owns the "how" when it comes to the product development. When they can do this, they get the feeling of freedom of inner will and autonomy.

Fig. 5: Intrinsic Motivation & Agility

Let’s summarize it - what exactly is the connection between agility and intrinsic motivation? Or let's say: Who needs or drives whom? And here is the thing! It works both ways: Agility needs intrinsic motivated people, but agility also drives intrinsic motivation. If I have to give an answer to the question "what leaders can learn from computer games", I would say: Create a social (agile) environment for your employees where they can act autonomously and can prove their competence. Encourage your team members to discover their own strengths, achieve a higher level of autonomy and self-determination and trust them to make the right decisions. Give intrinsic motivation a space to flourish!

Within the last paragraph, I want to focus on two models, which can inspire you how to create an environment where the need for competency can be satisfied and intrinsic motivation can arise.

The optimal level of difficulty

The first model is the Atkinson's risk-choice model. It deals with the question of which level of difficulty is chosen in a specific situation. Atkinson says (1957), the choice is determined by the tendency to strive for success (= pride) and/or the tendency to avoid failure (= shame). The easier a task, the greater the probability of success and the lower the incentive value. So, if I want to avoid failure, I am more likely to look for an easier task. And if I am driven by success, I am more likely to look for more difficult tasks, but here the probability of success also decreases. Basically, if you are intrinsically motivated, you must have the optimal level of challenge or difficulty. And that is the case when there is an optimal discrepancy between the demands of an activity and the individual skill level of a person and the task is perceived as neither too easy nor too difficult. Means, look for tasks which have an intermediate level of difficulty for you. 

Fig. 6: Atkinson’s risk-choice model


However, science says that it takes more than just the right level of difficulty to feel motivated. There is a mental state that can trigger an enormous amount of happiness because you are completely absorbed in an activity. Nothing distracts you and you work with high concentration, dedication and energy. And afterwards you feel totally satisfied. I am talking about flow. Flow is the driving force that makes us perform at our best, that makes us completely absorbed and highly concentrated and energized, that makes us forget about our human needs, and makes us feel happy and satisfied. In other words, becoming so engaged in an activity that time stands still and you get lost in the flow of the activity (Csíkszentmihályi, 2015). Do you remember it? This is exactly the condition I was talking about when I told you about my "The Sims" computer game experience! Computer games have the danger of becoming addictive. The reason for this is sometimes that they can bring us into a state of flow. This is achieved through an interplay of stress, action and positive feedback. Figure 7 shows a model when flow can occur. 

Fig. 7: Flow Chart 

The x-axis (cf. Fig. 7) displays the Individual level of skills or capabilities from low to high. The y-axis represents the subjective challenge from low to high. In the red area we may feel stressed and overloaded. Above the red line, the challenge might be too high for the level of skills we have. The motivation is low. Below the blue line, you probably feel bored and under-demand. Your skill level is too high for the challenge. The consequence of this is also low motivation. Flow is right in between the red and the blue line, and as skills and demands increase together, the zone of flow becomes larger. Flow is like an expanding stream. When we are in this zone, we tend to work very efficiently, focused and productively. The feeling of making a difference and being competent comes. You almost blend into the task or activity.

The Hungarian psychologist Csíkszentmihályi (2015) also says four elements are needed to get into flow: Firstly, the challenge and one's own abilities must be in harmony (cf. Fig. 6). Flow occurs when an activity is optimally adapted to a person. The second element is a clear goal. Thirdly, you must receive immediate positive feedback, which is above all visible or audible. Musicians probably know this situation. If you play an instrument well, which means you get audible positive feedback, it makes you feel even more inspired. Whereas crooked tones, means negative feedback, make us feel uninspired more quickly. The fourth element is a natural intrinsic motivation that you should bring to the activity. When all four elements are present, we can experience a state in which space and time are forgotten.

This model can also help you to discover why you're not achieving flow, whether you need to improve your skills, or increase the challenge or certain tasks, to help achieve flow. My personal tip for getting into flow in your day-to-day business is to set blockers in your calendar where no one disturbs you. I recommend at least two (up to four) hours in a row. Otherwise, it is difficult to get into this mental state. Especially when you work creatively or have complex tasks, you need some time to get into flow. Find a task that is meaningful and challenging for you. Mute all chats and the phone. Take some breaks in between, distance yourself from the topic after the blocker is over, and repeat the session e.g. another day in the week. Give flow a chance to arise and give intrinsic motivation a space to flourish - like computer games do!


  • Atkinson, J. W. (1957). Motivational determinants of risk-taking behavior. Psychological Review 1957, 64 359–372.
  • Beck, K., et al. (2001). The Agile Manifesto. Agile Alliance.
  • Candle Problem (2021). In Wikipedia. 
  • Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2008). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. USA: Harper Perennial Modern Classics.
  • Deci, E. (1995). Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation. New York: Penguin Books.
  • Deci, E.L., Ryan, R.M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. New  York: Plenum.
  •  Diehl, A. (2021). Cynefin-Framework: Kontext is King
  •  Malone, T.W. (1981). Toward a theory of intrinsically motivating instruction. Cognitive Science, 5(4), 333–369.
  •  Malone, T.W., & Lepper, M.R. (1987). Making learning fun: A taxonomy of intrinsic motivations for learning. In R.E. Snow & M.J. Farr (Eds.), Aptitude, learning, and instruction. Cognitive and affective process analyses (Vol. 3, pp.223–253). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  • McClelland, D.C. (1987). Human motivation. Cambridge University Press. 
  • McGregor, D. (1966). Leadership and Motivation: Essays. Cambridge: M.I.T. Press.
  • Olson, K.R., Chapin, C. (2007). Relations of fundamental motives and psychological needs to well-being and intrinsic motivation. In Zelick, P. (Ed.), Issues in the psychology of motivation (pp. 133–145). Hauppauge, NY: Nova Science.
  • Pink, D. (2009). The puzzle of motivation. TED Global 2009. 

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