When Play Makes Good Work

It’s obvious that play outside of work  ̶  through sports, games, family activities and community functions – is essential. What is less obvious is our need to play at work, as we work. Playing as we work can energize us, help create stronger bonds with others, help us to see new patterns, spark curiosity and trigger ideas and innovation.

What kind of play is appropriate at work? You don’t have to engage in off-site team-building games to play at work (although those too are occasionally beneficial). But there is a playful mindset that doesn’t involve elaborate planning. It simply means to step-back, to see the humor in things, to appreciate things from a different perspective, to play with possibilities, words, observations, and to allow openness.

Newsletter15A playful attitude gives people the emotional distance and open-ness to rally. Often the problem is not the problem itself; it’s how we react to the problem. Usually for clients struggling with big issues, I see that their focus is on the turbulence, rather than how to make the (usually unavoidable) turbulent ride more manageable or even, heaven forbid, enjoyable. But reframing and deliberately changing things up truly has benefits.

I worked recently with a CEO who wanted to reboot the company’s working culture to create a trusting and sharing environment focused on performance. The strategy was not to rely entirely on “serious” vision discussions, coaching and training but to also use games and informal sharing to move to the objective faster. We introduced visual cards and story-telling games to facilitate and reframe discussions on values and to fast-track trusting and emotional risk-taking so that real communications could take place within the team.

Playing in this way accelerates cooperative socialization and nourishes trust, empathy, caring and sharing. Perhaps one of the biggest advantages is that it stimulates individual creativity and imagination. In the case of the client above, these meetings provided the leadership team an opportunity to have deep and meaningful discussions with each other ( for which they never had the opportunity in their day to day business meetings). As a result, this entire team emerged re-energized and with stronger bonds to each other, ready to take charge and drive the cultural transformation of the company.

In my work, I often find people a little reluctant to play. There’s a fear of being perceived as flippant, or of inadvertently offending someone. I get it, but I have also always found the reward to be well worth it. What do you think?

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