yukai chou gamification

Gamifying Company Politics: Chou’s Corporate Player Types

Corporate Gamification Player TypesThe Corporate Environment is a Terrible Game

This post is a little different to what I usually write. It is not about my Octalysis Framework (but there are some core foundational principles derived from it), but rather on my observations after working with a significant amount of corporate companies.

Most employees dislike the politics and culture within their corporate environment for a multitude of reasons.

  • Your coworkers and allies are also your competitors.
  • You don’t know who is actually playing nice or pretending to play nice.
  • Sucking up seems to be more important than doing good work.
  • When working between departments, people would spend an hour explaining why they shouldn’t do something that would take 15 minutes.
  • People fight to claim credit and put the blame on others.

This has demoralized the motivation of many employees, which results in low productivity, bad-mouthing the company after work, and high turnover rate.

Of course, being a manager is extremely difficult too. You have to deal with this most fuzzy thing called human emotions. It’s confusing and irrational. Many of the smartest people in the world with ridiculous IQs were terrible at  figuring out human feelings.

I remember many years ago, when my friends first entered the workforce, they would complain how their bosses are incompetent idiots that didn’t understand the business at all. However, I’m almost 100% certain that, besides a few exceptions, now that these friends are managers themselves, people under them are calling them incompetent idiots.

Clearly, it is very difficult being a good manager.

Based on my observations, I’ve created a quick player type matrix for the corporate environment so managers would have a strategy guide to follow. Keep in mind, this is not meant to be some great gamified player type theory that I spent years perfecting. There are many others like Richard Bartle and Andrzej Marczewski who have more robust gamified player type concepts that I highly recommend.

Gamifying Company Politics: Chou’s Corporate Player Types

Corporate Gamification Player Types.001

The key principle in my Corporate Player Types, is that I divide all employees into two characteristics: performance, and politics.

Performance simply means how well the employee can carry out their responsibilities. This factors in work ethics but is focused on end deliverables. If an employee works hard but cannot produce good work, then performance is low. However, this should NOT factor “business impact,” simply because business impact is a result of having both performance and political skills.

Politics means how good (or proactive) the employee is at making friends within the organization. These are people who regularly say nice things to others, ask coworkers out for lunch, and proactively try to impress their superiors. They also tend to make something harsh sound more pleasant to the ear, even if it means sugarcoating the information a little bit, or having slight exaggeration or omission. They aren’t “liars” in most socially acceptable standards, but they are very driven by extrinsic goals and therefore pick what they say carefully and strategically.

Any 2×2 matrix divides people into four different categories: Low Performance and Low Politics, High Performance but Low Politics, High Politics but Low Performance, and High Performance and High Politics.

Corporate Gamification Player Types

Gamified Player Type: Survivors

For the Low Performance and Low Politics quadrant, I call them “Survivors.” Survivors are there simply to collect a paycheck (Core Drive 4) and not get fired (Core Drive 8). As a result, they usually just work hard enough to collect their paychecks and not get fired, and then they stop exerting effort.

Survivors are not necessarily dumber or less efficient at what they do. More often than they are just not motivated or incentivized to do good work. Survivors often like to say things like, “Why should I do this? I won’t get paid more to do it.” or “Last year I did way more work but I didn’t get a bonus. There’s no point.”

Gamified Player Type: Performers

For the High Performance but Low Politics quadrant, I call them “Performers.” Performers are people who do great work and finish their deliverables in efficient and reliable manners. They are often the people that solve problems that no one else on the team can solve. However, they have a natural dislike (or ignorance) towards corporate politics, and therefore never spend the time to make friends or work on other peoples’ feelings and motivations.

Performers also don’t suck up to their bosses and would do career suicide moves like telling their VP, “I can’t go to your dinner party because I need to think about how to execute on the plan next week.” Performers usually dislikes those who are good at politics, thinking them as “phony” and “insincere.” They inherently believe that, “As long as I do a good job, I will be given my fair reward. That will show those fancy-mouth ass-kissers.”

Gamified Player Type: Politicians

For the Low Performance but High Politics quadrant, I call them “Politicians.” Politicians are people who don’t necessarily do great work (not terrible enough to get fired though), but they are good at mingling and making everyone like them. They would regularly invite coworkers and VPs to lunch, share secret gossip as if they were everyone’s best friend, and have a knack for claiming credit and recognition.

Politicians love having meetings to show how important they are, and often are very outspoken, especially with higher-level managers in them. When it comes to delivering the agreed work from the meetings, they often defer that to the Performers, and then report all the great things about it in the next week meeting, which makes it seem like they are doing good work again.

Politicians are not necessarily amoral, and organizations need them as people lubricants. They are simply keen on taking the most frictionless path to improving their careers. Politicians often contemplate “I need to invite the VP out for lunch this week and let him know how important of a role I took in the project.”

Gamified Player Type: Stars

Finally, for the High Performance and High Politics quadrant, I call them “Stars.” Stars are usually the individuals who rise to the top of an organization. They are great at delivering great work, but are also great at factoring in everyone’s feelings to make things happen.

Stars strive not only to perform on an individual level, but they try to get the entire group to perform too. They see work as their game, and they often work night and weekends to achieve the highest score they can possibly get. Stars often think of challenges like, “how do I get all the VP teams to cooperate so we can beat projections this year.”

Corporate Gamification Player Types

Observations from the Gamified Player Type Matrix

Above is the groundwork of the Corporate Matrix. With that laid out, there are a few things to note within these four groups.

First of all, in almost all organizations I have seen, the Survivors are the vast majority. Most people are not passionate about their companies, their work, or their bosses, but see these as a necessity to make a living. In comparison, the Performers and Politicians are the minorities within an organization, but they are usually the people that are making things happen. Finally, Stars are the extreme minority, and often there are only a handful of them within an organization.

More often than not, Performers look down upon Politicians, and believe that only hard work and great output should be rewarded. On the other hand, Politicians often like to make friends with Performers because they are “useful” for getting the deliverables out. “Even though the guy is arrogant and hard to work with, we put up with him because he can do amazing work.” They are also good at giving encouraging words to the Performers, “Hey Jennifer, it’s time to do the brilliant magic you do again. I don’t know how our group survives without you!”

Stars also like to work with Performers because of their strong and reliable deliverables, but they also utilize the skills of Politicians to push their agenda forward in meetings.

One of the most important things to observe through this Corporate Matrix, is that how you reward the Politicians completely determine the company culture. If Politicians are rewarded more within the organization, the Survivors then strive to become politicians themselves. Some will become successful, while some will not, but since the Survivors are the vast majority of a company’s workforce, now the majority is thinking about how to network with others and claiming credit over delivering good work.

What’s worse, is if the organization rewards the Politicians the most (which is often the case for those that know how to make superiors emotionally happy), Performers will drop down and become Survivors. This is because most Performers I have seen still have a distaste for playing politics, but now they no longer see the point of working hard. As a result, they stop exerting themselves and simply work hard enough to get a paycheck.

Gamified Corporate Player Types

So as you can see, when an organization rewards those who are good at political skills, not only will they have more Politicians, but they will have less Performers, which massively increases bureaucracy and decreases the firm’s market competitiveness.

Dominant Strategy within the Gamified Corporate Matrix

Corporate Gamification Player Types

With the key observations above, there are a few recommended dominant strategies to take if you find yourself in such an organization.

  1. Motivate your Survivors to become Performers. Again, Survivors aren’t stupid, just not motivated to work hard. With this group, it is important to motivate them through good Human-Focused Design (8 Core Drives of Octalysis and Gamification) so they work harder and deliver great results. Give them more Core Drive 1: Epic Meaning & Calling, stronger senses of Core Drive 2: Development & Accomplishment, as well as Core Drive 3: Empowerment of Creativity & Feedback. If not, they are probably using their creativity in being amazing within the games they are playing outside of work anyway.
  2. Discourage your Politicians. Politicians are fine, but they should not be the cultural focus for the organization. It’s good to say nice things, have lunch with coworkers, and develop better relationships with your superiors, but that should be done for Intrinsic Motivational Purposes (Core Drive 5: Social Influence & Relatedness is a Right Brain, hence Intrinsic, Core Drive). If employees do it for Extrinsic Motivation (Core Drive 4: Ownership & Possession, which is a Left Brain, hence Extrinsic, Core Drive), then it is no longer genuine nor productive for the organization.
  3. Reward and Train the Performers. The Performers are doing great work for the organization, so they should be rewarded for it. However, their limitations lie in the fact that they are less good at leading and motivating others. Because of that, they should be given more leadership and interpersonal training (consider reading my Gamification book on Octaylsis 😉 )  so that they can eventually becomes Stars of the organization.
  4. Reward and Empower the Stars. Most organizations are pretty good at doing this, mostly due to the credit of the Stars themselves, but it is important to heavily reward the Stars so they are retained and not snatched off by other companies. In addition, they should be empowered with more freedom and autonomy to move the company to greater heights.

Can you relate to this Corporate Matrix in your work place?

One of the reasons why my Octalysis Framework is so popular is because people can relate the knowledge to their own lives and the choices they have made. My hope is that people will feel the same way for the Corporate Matrix if they work at a large company.

Do you see the same tendencies in your workplace? Or do you see completely opposite trends? Do you agree with the suggested strategy, or have even better ways to deal with the workforce? I look forward to learning from you in the comments below.

If you’re looking for an astronomy-based approached to employee engagement, read this from The Octalysis Group: The Astronomy of Corporate Employees: Stars, Proto-Stars, Novas, and Black Holes.


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10 thoughts on “Gamifying Company Politics: Chou’s Corporate Player Types”

  1. Interesting 2×2 matrix, good for fast consulting. Options open up by adding a 3rd dimension. That allows you to change your definitions. E.g. Politicians can be those who are skilled working the system & relationships with their eyes wide open. The added dimension would be intent and transparency, whether you are motivated by greed for example or actually trying to achieve worthwhile results for other people & the company. In the latter case, you are working with a more comprehensive knowledge of the corporate system, culture and its rules.
    Short version = “Politics is not necessarily bad”

  2. While Atlas Shrugged suffers from Ayn Rand’s beating you over the head with her philosophy of Objectivism, I empathized with the main characters who were “Stars” overwhelmed by the world of “Survivors” –so much that they withdrew from society to their own secret purely capitalistic Shangr-La. She would surely agree with this matrix of employees.

  3. Hi guys, personally I had working experience in different countries, as manager or simple employ working force.
    I must say that this frame seems to work both in Italy and Israel, where I am actually working.
    The only difference seems to be in the number/percentages of people covering different roles in the Matrix.
    In Italy for example, especially in big corporate (I have been working for Mercedes Benz Italy), people tend to be Survivors or Politicians, there may be Stars of course, and they are still the Extreme Minority (even if honestly I never had the privilege to meet one ) but I would say everyone has some political skill, even survivors. People like to mingle there and show they are good while all they do is surviving.
    The few performers joining the company are very soon dumped down by survivors which, accuse them to make them look bad in front of Managers, and if the performer resist, he is easily isolated and left alone, which of course eventually influence negatively his performance, until he leave the company, get fired or eventually learn some “politics” or survival rules.
    I would say therefore the dominant CD is 5: Social influence and Relatedness.
    Israel is different, there is no much place for politics, every company I have worked with was very performance oriented with some few shining stars too.
    Pride seems to be the main driving force here, even survivors dream about opening their own startup some day, only a few, usually young and still students or people above fifty who didn’t try “their way” are real survivors who just work for their pay check.
    Main tendencies here in Israel are CD 2 and 4.
    Same Matrix, different motivation Drives and dynamics.

  4. Hi Yu-Kai,

    I wonder what your frame of reference was for this article seeing as that to my understanding you did not work as an employee yourself in any large corporation or am I mistaken?

    I am also wondering if this article os written specifically for the american market or if it applies globally.

    Interesting read, and valid in many points from my own experience, just left me wondering about those two things.


  5. I once worked at a company where they gave “Employee of the Month” awards out. There were several issues with these awards that were obviously wrong with them, such as:
    – Because they were required to be given out monthly, some months people got them for minor, seemingly insignificant (or far in the past) reasons.
    – Frequently the awards went to someone who obviously broke a frequently stated company value of Work/Life balance (e.g. the person who left their family at Disney World to run an important report for a client).
    – Employees found out how to “game” the system. I had two guys in my dept. who argued about how the nominees and eventual winners of Employee of the Month were selected. So they made a public bet (in front of the entire team), as to who could get themselves nominated and win each using their own publicly stated methods. Keep in mind that neither of them had ever been nominated before nor had their performance stood out or changed in any way. One believed that it was the volume of nominations one received that caused them to be the winner, while the other one believed that it was the ranking of the employee who nominated you that mattered (VP vs. Supervisor). So they set out to blatantly ask people to refer them. One going for volume and one going for high rank. They were both indeed nominated and the one with the high ranking referral won. The entire team thought it was hilarious, in a dark sort of way. Although they laughed about it for a long time, the effect was to eliminate any illusion that the “monthly award” had any meaning at all. These two employees were at one time Producers and after this event became Survivors and both were eventually fired for under-performance. I have never forgotten this experience. While it is easy to blame the cynical employees who gamed the system, the true responsibility lies with the lack of a well-thought-out reward system.

    1. That’s true – it is the experience designer’s job to make sure that, when (and not if) people try to game the system, it does not demoralize the experience for others.

  6. I really enjoyed reading this post and it was a good description of what I have experienced in the past. The problem within organisations is that politicians tend to survive major changes (of which there are many nowadays), while performers are either being forced out for not being connected enough or they leave because they see politicians being rewarded. So maybe it is time not only to train performers to become better at social interactions or politics but for senior management to foster a true performance culture where performers and not politicians reap the rewards. A gamified culture could do this well as transparency will increase, raising the profile of the performers, while politicians will suffer as they will need to become stars or performers to not end up as survivors (unless they find ways to cheese the system). Organisations will always fail epically if politicians outnumber performers so be aware…

    1. Thanks for the thoughts Mattias,

      The issue is that, our right (emotional) brains like politicians more when we are executives. Our left brain knows that we should reward better work, but often it is overcome by emotions. As a result, it is almost impossible to have an organization be purely performance based. I think organizations can improve SUBSTANTIALLY if they at least head towards that direction though.

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