How to Challenge Employees Without Overwhelming Them

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Challenge is at the core of what separates an effective training program from a crappy one.

The basis of challenge is really quite simple: start where your employees are, and continually increase the level of difficulty.

When learning a new skill, the challenge of even a basic task may exceed a student’s beginning level of ability and hence one may feel overwhelmed. To reach flow, the level of ability must increase to match the challenge. Sufficient practice may be needed until the skill is mastered.

Once mastered, a higher level of challenge is needed for one’s skill level to increase yet again. Thus, individuals may progress through increasingly difficult challenges at ever-higher levels of skills.
— Juho Hamari, Gamification Professor

For training to be challenging but not overwhelming, there has to be opportunity for students to practice learning the new skill. The level of difficulty should only increase again once the employee’s skill matches the level of challenge. Or in other words, just before the content becomes too easy.

One way to do that is by adding levels to your training program.

Why Levels are The Best Way to Manage Training Difficulty

When you add levels to your program, you’re essentially saying “you need to know this, before you can progress.”

That kind of distinction helps prevent employees from getting overwhelmed, because it limits the amount of new information and prevents employees from moving on until they master it.

This not only improves learning — it helps keep engagement high.

When employees are challenged but have sufficient opportunity to overcome that challenge, they feel accomplished (intrinsically motivated). And they’ll continue to engage with the program to feel that accomplishment again.

Best Practices for Designing Levels

1. Create Levels Based on Achievement, Not Completion

To make levels work, you need to make sure employees actually master the content before you unlock the next level.

In a traditional eLearning course, you lock content in a linear fashion. Employees complete a “level” once, then move on. But taking a course once isn’t enough for employees to truly master a new skill or learn the information.

So instead of locking levels based on time, it’s more effective to lock them based on achievements.

For example, game-based learning content is typically locked by score. Employees have to reach a predetermined score (based on ability/learning) before they can progress to the next level. This helps ensure employees don’t move on before they’re ready, and also that the level of challenge doesn’t stagnate or increase too quickly.

2. Make it Rewarding to Level Up

Once employees learn the necessary information to level up, make sure the experience is rewarding.

Yes, overcoming a challenge is intrinsically motivating. But adding reward elements — like boosters that help employees progress further in the game — recognizes that accomplishment.

There’s been a lot of debate recently on how gamification elements can actually de-motivate employees. But the reality is that only happens when you reward for something that wasn’t intrinsically motivating in the first place.

Gamification elements are there to celebrate and enhance an actual accomplishment.

Think of them like a celebratory cheer.

When you accomplish something that was difficult, you enjoy -- even crave -- that recognition. But if people around you started cheering every time you answered an email, you’re going to get annoyed. The praise doesn’t mean anything because you haven’t earned it.

3. Build in a Learning Curve

To ease employees into the program and make sure they aren’t initially overwhelmed, you need to build in a learning curve.

You’ll notice this is a common structure in video games. It’s easy to level up at first, but as you progress it takes more work to get to the next level.

When people level up they feel accomplished. And if they level up multiple times within a short period of time (usually twice), they start to get “addicted” to that feeling of progress.

They want to keep levelling up. So they’ll work harder to do so.

Make it easier to level up in the first few rounds of your training. Reward employees when they do to get them excited to level up again. Then increase the amount of work (i.e. learning) it takes to reach the next level.

Just remember this only works when leveling up is intrinsically motivated. Make sure employees are challenged with the content so that when they master it, that feeling of accomplishment is real.

The Bottom Line

Levels can help you set the right difficulty for your training program, and keep employees engaged for much longer than a regular elearning program.

However, levels only work when they’re implemented strategically. You can’t just split your existing content up and add a progress bar at the top.

You need to set levels based on achievements, not completion. The content has to be challenging so unlocking the next level is a real accomplishment. And you need to reward employees when they level up, with elements like boosters that celebrate their achievements and help them progress further in the training.

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