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73 / The Competence Ramp: From Efficacy to Mastery

Hosted by Sean Flaherty and Paul Gebel



Scott Rigby Guest Speaker at Product Momentum Podcas

Scott Rigby, Ph.D.

Immersyve Inc.

Scott Rigby, Ph.D. is an author, behavioral scientist, and founder/CEO of Immersyve Inc., a company focusing on the application of behavioral science to organizations, products, and services. Scott and Immersyve work with both small and large companies on culture and the development of motivational best practices. He is a leading authority on predictive measurement of motivation and engagement, as well as on interventions to improve organizational culture. Clients include Prudential, Amazon, Warner Brothers, Johnson & Johnson, and Disney.

Scott has authored numerous publications including the highly rated book Glued to Games: How Video Games Draw Us In and Hold Us Spellbound. He is the creator of the “Personal Experience of Need Satisfaction” (PENS) model, a widely used engagement model in interactive design. Scott’s work on understanding engagement and motivation has been featured by Wired, ABC News, BBC, National Public Radio, National Geographic, and Scientific American, among others. He is also the co-creator of, a platform that empowers organizations to build greater employee engagement and stronger cultures using motivational science. In addition to his commercial work, he has also served as the principal investigator on multiple grants awarded by the National Institutes of Health exploring the role of behavioral science to improve engagement and wellness.

Scott Rigby, Ph.D. joins Sean and Paul for the second in a three-part series on Self-Determination Theory – specifically, the basic human needs of Autonomy, Competence, and Relatedness. In this episode, our conversation centers around Competence: the need to be effective and successful at what we’re doing. It doesn’t come easily, or immediately; rather, it’s part of a continuum that develops over time through a series of stages.

As product managers, we can think of these stages as a ramp, or an evolution, that begins with “understanding the schema” – i.e., the rules of the game. Schema frames the question, what can I do inside this experience? As learning occurs, competence deepens. And users gain comfort in knowing they possess the ability to be successful. This efficacy leads to skill – that is, a sense that not only can I accomplish this task; but I’m really good at it. Efficacy and skill form the foundation upon which we build a sense of growth in pursuit of mastery –  the sense that I’ve reached a level of competence where I can create new ways of using this application or interacting in this environment, or I can be training others.

Catch more of our conversation with Scott, and learn to apply the Competence Ramp in building successful user experiences through your products. And be sure to tune in to part 3 of our conversation on Self-Determination Theory – Relatedness.

Sean [00:00:19] Hello and welcome to the Product Momentum Podcast. This is a podcast intended to entertain, educate, celebrate, and give a little back to the product leadership community.

Paul [00:00:32] Hello and welcome to the pod. Today we are excited to be joined by Dr. Scott Rigby. He’s an author, behavioral scientist, and founder and CEO of Immersyve Inc, a company focusing on the application of behavioral science to organizations, products, and services. Scott, in immersive work with both big and small companies on culture and development, motivational best practices. He’s a leading authority on predictive measurement of motivation and engagement, as well as on interventions to improve organizational culture. Clients include Prudential, Amazon, Warner Brothers, Johnson and Johnson, and Disney. He’s authored numerous books. You can find him at, a platform that empowers organizations to build greater employee engagement. This is episode two of three. If you missed the first one, make sure you head back and listen to episode one on autonomy.

Paul [00:01:19] All right, welcome back. We’re going to get into Competence and go deep on that today. One of the things that we ended the last conversation with was this notion of a rationale, specifically as it applies to engagement, and we meant that in the sense of like employee engagement on teams and how to create sort of organizational growth and competence. But I think in terms of competence in the grander sense of self-determination theory, there’s this great tie-in from where we just left off in sort of how Competence is really this connection point in the theory. Can you center us for a moment, Scott, on what competence is and specifically how it relates to the other two aspects of Self-Determination Theory? What is this thing called Competence as a rough definition as we start out?

Scott [00:02:02] Sure. Well, first, Paul, Sean, great to be back on again for the second chapter. So Competence in some ways was is the eldest child of the basic psychological needs. This is one that has been kicked around even before Ed Deci and Rich Ryan started to assemble Self-Determination Theory into ideas like effectiveness, motivation, and other things that go way back because it’s the most observable of what we know from looking at almost all living things is that living things want to be successful. There’s clearly an evolutionary advantage to being the one that gets the food and is able to avoid the saber-toothed tiger and whatever might be. And that’s really when we talk about our basic psychological need for Competence, we’re talking about that need to be effective and to be successful at what we’re doing.

Scott [00:02:51] You see this, of course, we used the example of kids in our previous chapter on Autonomy, but you really see this around Competence. You see, as kids develop, they go from crawling to walking to running. You don’t often hear a parent say, “Look, I trained my kid to walk,” because you didn’t train your kid to walk. Your kid learned how to walk. And that’s an example of this intrinsic need to be successful at play. It’s also, another dimension that’s traditionally assigned to this need for competence is the idea of growth and development. We don’t just want to be successful at the same thing every day. We want to be elaborating our skills, elaborating our abilities. So this is another dimension that is probably important to talk about at various levels.

Paul [00:03:38] Yeah. As a product leader, as a manager of people and both a contributor on teams, one of the things that I know product leaders, speaking for those on teams, on scrum teams, shipping features, innovating daily, I think pervasive in our industry is this concept of imposter syndrome. And competence and imposter syndrome is kind of the yin and yang. We want to become masters, we feel like we’re making a difference, and we know that we’re in a place where we can effect change. But product leaders often have this struggle where there’s a perception that they’re not necessarily the master, even though they are the right ones in the job to do the task that needs to be done. And I wonder, how do we know that we’re competent? How can we start to address this imposter syndrome that starts to drag on product leaders and organizations?

Scott [00:04:31] Yeah. Well, you’re definitely activating my clinical psychology background when you talk about imposter syndrome. My first thing is well, imposter syndrome, therapy wouldn’t hurt, right? But I know that’s not what you mean. So just for the audience, I don’t know if the audience knows, the imposter syndrome is the experience that some people have, and a lot of people have, particularly a lot of highly successful people have, that their success is kind of just a fluke or lucky or they managed to trick everybody, i.e. they’re an imposter. They’re not really, you know, getting the job done the right way.

Scott [00:05:06] And it’s something that, when you think about the dynamics of how to give people the experience of Competence and need fulfillment, it definitely can help to at least move people successfully through even if they’re struggling with those kinds of internal imposter syndrome impulses. Because a lot of what we talk about when we talk about supporting Competence is a few things. First, give people strong what we call informational feedback that lets them understand their effectiveness and also gives them the feedback they need in order to grow. And so informational feedback is the feedback that helps even if you weren’t fully successful in what you just did, right? So we didn’t hit the deadline on time or something broke or whatever it might be, informational feedback has to be feedback that isn’t about, “you did this right or wrong,” which can kind of fuel or exacerbate those imposter syndrome feelings.

Scott [00:06:02] In other words, if somebody has imposter syndrome, you’re like, “Wow, you’re really smart” or “You did really well, that was great,” that’s not going to help them with the imposter syndrome. That’s going to fuel it because you’re just, you know, you’re making this attribution like, well, I managed to trick you yet again, right? But then similarly if you tell people that they fail or this or that, it just kind of activates, you use another psychology term, it just gets their ego involved. If instead we focus on what happened and give information about it, then we have the opportunity to grow. You know, “I think what happened there is that by, you know, trying to push one more version of the code before we wanted to deploy, that that was a little too ambitious because we didn’t have time to do X, Y, and Z,” you know, and then there’s a conversation that comes from that.

Scott [00:06:46] But now, you know, even though we’re talking about a criticism of the work that was done, we’re dealing with the details so that somebody can learn and grow from that. And if you focus on that learning and growth, then the underlying need for mastery, or Competence, sometimes we call Competence Mastery, that underlying need gets satisfied. “I’ve learned something. My skill is developing. I’m getting better at this.” And so to always be focused on that, you know, at that level of detail and information versus being evaluative. And everybody’s probably heard of some version of this, right, we hear in our kids, “don’t tell them they’re smart, tell them they’re hard-working.” You know, or talk about something specific that they’ve done well. And it’s the same principle that’s at hand here.

Paul [00:07:33] It’s kind of “do, not say.”

Sean [00:07:35] Well, you know, the flip side of the imposter syndrome that Paul just mentioned, you have this concept of Dunning and Kruger’s work, right, so overconfidence. Like we tend to have more confidence in our abilities than we actually have in competence. And I think that the original studies were done around humor like we all tend to think we’re funnier than we actually are on different scales of humor. It’s like riding that balance so that you actually get the growth. That’s, I think, what you just tapped into, Scott. You know that direct informational feedback around where you actually are on the Competence curve. You know, Competence is somewhat asymptotic, right? You start out, learn a lot, and then becoming an authentic master in any domain takes a long, long time. In theory, you never really achieve it because you’re always learning. You never stop growing. I loved what you said about focusing on the growth so the need isn’t necessarily the actual Competence. The need is the growth. Like, to see that you’re growing and learning and achieving and that the competence that you bring to the table is actually valuable to the task at hand. Yeah?

Scott [00:08:38] Yeah. I would say, like, particularly on that last point, that I think effectiveness is important in there. So I think that if somebody is always kind of falling short of the goal, there’s going to be issues there. But then I think if you have informational feedback around that, you’ve got the basis to have a conversation and say, “All right, you know, we’ve run into a lot of walls. What do we need to do about this? What kind of larger structural things do we need to do?” But when I say what we need to do, I mean, in order to make you and the team successful because this isn’t working, and by giving that informational feedback, you’ve provided the foundation for that, right? And so I do think that overall, even when you’re talking about effectiveness, always, to your point Sean, in the larger sphere of growth when we’re talking about teams and organizations. Yeah.

Paul [00:09:23] So Carol Dweck’s milestone book Mindset talks a lot about the growth versus the fixed mindset and sort of the ability for people to be both at various tasks, at various levels. And, you know, I think as a leader, as both a leader of teams, as a product leader who’s crafting and influencing experiences that users have, that this concept of growth is intrinsic to competence and mastery. Kind of like Sean just said it’s not necessarily the destination of mastery, it’s the journey along the way. And I wonder, are there ways that we can both identify areas that are fixed in our own areas of growth and help those areas in others? Are there tactics that you found successful, specifically in organizational settings? We were talking about engagement a moment ago. What are ways that we can empower teams to be more growth-focused and identify those areas if they’re blind spots?

Scott [00:10:16] Yeah, I think that’s the whole ballgame. And I think, again, just to come back to some of the underlying jargony stuff that we’re using here because I don’t know if your audience is aware of all these theories, you might have a real smart audience, if so, that’s great. But you know, the idea of a fixed mindset versus a growth mindset… Dweck’s work is, you know, fixed is kind of feeling like, “Well, I’m not going to be able, you know, growth really isn’t a thing. I can do what I can do and that’s pretty much it.” Versus a growth mindset, which is obviously that I can learn and adapt, et cetera.

Scott [00:10:46] And, you know, we don’t use that language a lot. As a matter of fact, I don’t find a lot of utility for kind of these classifications, because to your point, Paul, the reality is that depending on the circumstances, depending on the levels of support in the environments, like, we can feel stuck or we can feel growthful. Right. So, you know, there’s always that opportunity. So I tend to not think about the people on my team or customers where it’s like, “Well, they have a fixed mindset” or “they have a fixed mindset about these things.” It’s more that you observe this sense of that they feel stuck. They feel like they lack competence.

Scott [00:11:26] And that to me, and of course, this is the perspective of our framework, is they’re lacking some kind of supports or something that’s misaligned here. And so then we intervene at the level of those basic needs, right? Are you feeling stuck because, in the last session, we talked about Autonomy, we talked about the idea of narratives. Are you not seeing pathways for growth so your motivation is flagging? Or are you feeling stuck because you haven’t had enough experiences of success, you haven’t had those experiences of efficacy, or you’re not sure where to go next because, you know, you’re not getting the informational feedback and those loops to help you kind of learn and grow in those ways? Chances are, if you just pay attention and address those fundamental issues around basic needs support, you’re going to always optimize for moving people to growth mindsets over fixed mindsets. And if that’s not the case, then again, and something I alluded to earlier, I do think in organizations you get kind of this misalignment, right, where somebody is not quite right, either in the organization or in the team or there’s something larger going on. But at least you set the groundwork for having kind of a conversation at that level. And in most cases, you’re going to find that people get, I’ll air quote this for, I’m saying I’m air quoting this because it’s a podcast, like, unstuck from where they happen to be.

Sean [00:12:46] Yeah. Well you said it earlier, and what resonated with me around this concept of growth versus fixed earlier was the focus on the learning and not on the accomplishment itself. That’s I think, where there’s a lot of flaws, you’ve mentioned in gamification, right? So like, “oh, I got a badge.” Great. But really, where’s the value? Is it in the badge? No, it was in the toil that produced the badge. That’s where the need is met is in the toil when you actually see this work that you did actually adding value to the ecosystem, it added value to yourself, it added value to your team. That’s the real nugget.

Sean [00:13:21] All right. So bringing us back to Earth here in the context of product development. So in the first episode, we talked about Autonomy. We framed it up as like, “Hey, we’re organizing a bunch of people that have money to give us this money to construct a team of people, smart artists, and engineers that are going to go build a product for a bunch of people.” Now, in the context of an audience, we know that this is really important, especially early in the relationship, like when you’re onboarding. Think of, I know, Scott, you’ve done a lot of work in games, right? When you’re onboarding users in context, you got to give them those quick wins. So I think this concept of Competence, and the nugget again that you’ve struck, at least to me, is that the toil is important. I’d love to hear some lessons from you in the context of onboarding people into a new product.

Scott [00:14:06] Well, you know, we often think about this as a series of stages with Competence sort of almost like a ramp. And I think this works both at the level of, if you think about the customers of, you know, a game or product, you know, the consumers as well as thinking about folks on teams. Which are, you know, the first thing that happens is you need to understand what you can refer to as the schema for this experience, for what’s going on, which is, “what is this about? Why am I here? What does this thing do? What does this game do? What does this application do? What is its purpose and what kind of the rules of engagement for this whole process?” Right?

Scott [00:14:45] And so you need to understand the basic elements of schema. A lot of the things that get a lot of strong focus, like the user interface and, you know, kind of human factors will often fall into that early kind of schema, just understanding the rules of the universe. This is why, by the way, when you see people go into a video game for the first time, one of the first things they do is that they try to break everything. You go into a room, they’re really just like, you know, to the uninformed observer, It’d be like, “everybody just wants to be violent. Why does everybody want to be so violent?” Well, they’re just trying to understand the physics of the game. Like, “What can I do? What are the verbs I can use in this experience?”.

Scott [00:15:25] And so this idea of what are the verbs in this, you know, those are a lot of things around the game. Once that is figured out, then you have that basic efficacy, which is, “OK, can I successfully do the tasks here? Can I get across the finish line on the tasks?” That’s different than skill. Efficacy is, “can I get it done?” Skill is, “am I good at it?” And those are kind of two different experiences. And so you need to have schema before you can have a sense of efficacy. Then you need to have efficacy before you can have a sense of skill. And it’s sort of like schema and efficacy form the foundation on which you can kind of launch a sense of growth. And so now I’m developing skill. I’m good at this. And then this is where you start to see people wanting to set goals for themselves where they can kind of structure and become more skillful and better. And then we also think about another thing, which is this idea of mastery, which is kind of skill leads to this sense of mastery where it’s not just that I’m good at this, I have developed a narrative where, you know, I’m extremely competent as such that I can create new ways of using this application or interacting in this environment, or I can be training other people. You know, it’s almost like, because I’m a Star Wars nerd, you know, the student becomes the master, right? Whatever that line was. “Once I was but the learner, now I am the master.”.

Paul [00:16:43] Exactly.

Scott [00:16:43] It’s that idea. And this is what you see in a lot of entertainment applications. If you think about it, it’s a really nice model for understanding, you know, how to onboard people and to think about their journey specifically in the competence domain.

Paul [00:16:57] Yeah. One of the things that I heard you say there about schema and efficacy specifically as it ties to onboarding is this concept of, “what are the verbs that I can use? What are the limits, sort of the physics of the space that I’m in?” And in the context of a video game that makes perfect sense, but in an ERP in a business enterprise platform, in any kind of digital experience where a user is trying to get something done, whether it’s a business task or mastering a song on Guitar Hero, there is a competence ramp that you need to enable visible progression through, and the user may not even be aware that they’re going through it. They may just be there to rebalance their 401k and a financial app, but they need to understand, “what are the verbs that I can use? What is the thing that I’m trying to understand? What’s the task that I’m trying to get done?” So I think in video games it definitely has a much more upfront component to the experience. But even in the most corporate settings, the experiences that we build all have the same fundamental ramp.

Scott [00:17:53] Yeah. And I mean, I use games as an example not to say things should be like games. There is a danger in that that it’s like, “Oh, yeah, but we’re talking about serious real-world adult stuff here.” But the reason is that people don’t understand a lot of times why they’re such a great study for just building software generally, and it’s not about the fun, it’s about, these are incredibly complex voluntary experiences that, you know, draw people in, some of the most complex pieces of software out there, you know, with multiple overlapping systems and everything else which people engage in voluntarily. So they’re kind of a great model to look at to these kinds of overall mechanics that can be motivational. And I think the idea of hunting for the verbs, right, every user’s hunting for the verbs, is true everywhere.

Sean [00:18:38] I think that’s universal. One of the things that struck me, particularly that I’d never heard before, is that people in new environments go in and they try to break everything, at least in this voluntary scenario at the game, because they need to understand what it’s going to take to be successful. So I think that can perfectly be applied to any business scenario like, “Hey, what are the things that they should be trying to break so that they can be successful and how can we create that competence ramp to create a more joyful, more powerful experience in any area?”

Scott [00:19:07] Yeah, they’re trying to figure out the shape of the environment itself and how they’re going to be able to act within it.

Sean [00:19:13] Yeah. So thank you, Scott. This was a great episode. I got a lot out of it myself. I hope the audience does, too.

Scott [00:19:19] Are we done already?

Sean [00:19:20] I think we are. You want to keep going?

Scott [00:19:23] Always. But that’s OK. I know your listeners need to move on with their lives.

Sean [00:19:29] We’ve got one more episode to record on Relatedness. So stay tuned.

Paul [00:19:34] Thanks, Scott.

Paul [00:19:37] Well, that’s it for today. In line with our goals of transparency and listening, we really want to hear from you. Sean and I are committed to reading every piece of feedback that we get, so please leave a comment or a rating wherever you’re listening to this podcast. Not only does it help us continue to improve, but it also helps the show climb up the rankings so that we can help other listeners move, touch, and inspire the world just like you’re doing. Thanks, everyone. We’ll see you next episode.

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