The Psychology of the Leader Board. Is it working?

Do you use a leader board to track your team’s progress? In the 21st Century we are hell-bent on data. And this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The old adage that ‘What Gets Measured Gets Changed’ is a good one. Although to be more accurate - what gets measured gets attention…. it doesn’t necessarily change unless we do something about it.

But often attention is all we need. As leaders we are constantly trying to get our team members to focus their efforts on the things that matter, instead of the things that don’t really make a difference (or maybe just the things that are comfortable?). And Leader Boards definitely do this. But what does the research tell us?


Do Leader Boards Work?

Here’s what a lot of the research tell us:

Leader Boards are almost always good for those just near the top.

They are not always good for the actual leaders.

They can be terrible for the people at the bottom.

They are probably marginal for the team members in the middle.


In a classic piece of research related to basketball, statisticians looked at halftime scores. Turns out, your team has more chance of winning if you are one point behind, as opposed to being one point up. Teams with a slight deficit go on to win games more than those with a slight lead.



A slight deficit drives motivation. It allows you to start playing to win. You take some calculated risks, but you don’t want to do anything that gets you further away. At this point your levels of dopamine (motivation chemical) and adrenalin (attention chemical) are all in good balance. After all, you could win!!


A slight advantage, however, causes what is known as ‘loss aversion’. Teams in this position are often not trying to win - they are trying not to lose. They become driven by fear. They have high levels of adrenalin, but they don’t have high levels of dopamine. The lack of that feel-good motivation chemical reduces their performance and stops them from making great decisions.


Now, imagine if you are twenty points behind at halftime (or even worse, at the three quarter break). You’re not going to win. In this case, the coach will often rest their best players so they can recover and have a better performance the next day. And in the workplace, this is what’s happening to your team members at the bottom of the ladder.


They’re probably not going to win, and whether they come middle of the pack or closer to the bottom probably makes no difference (especially if the leader doesn’t manage this well). So they just keep doing what they’re doing. Or maybe they hold off on some results until next month, where they might have a chance of doing better.


Elite athletes and employees have the same reaction to leaderboards and ladders: if they are easily the best, then, short term, they’ll probably continue to be the best. But if they are just in front, then they are likely to be knocked from their perch. And if they’re just behind, they are most likely to win. But if you are at the bottom, you are probably going to give up.


But all this changes if the team leader manages the process extremely well. If they know each individual and their motivational drivers. If you can do that, then you are more likely to be able to move people up the ladder, bit by bit.


** Tony Wilson is a Workplace Performance Expert. His insights into performance science and it's application in the workplace will make you re-think the way that you approach leadership, culture change, high performance and productivity. Tony has an MBA and a BSc majoring in physiology and delivers workshops and keynote presentations around the globe.