Embracing Your Playful Side!

“There is good evidence that if you allow employees to engage in something they want to do, (which) is playful, there are better outcomes in terms of productivity and motivation.”

- Dr. Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play

“When was the last time play or fun showed up on your strategic planning agenda?”  This question, raised by a national speaker for a vibrant communities grant initiative, caught a room filled with over 500 community business and nonprofit leaders totally off guard.  Why did he raise such a question? 

By definition, a state of play happens when you are doing something for fun, without a goal or a purpose. Research shows that play does at least 5 things:

1. Increases Motivation: People have more motivation when they are freed to engage in something playful.

2. Boosts Optimism: When people are freed to be playful they are more optimistic, which is linked to higher productivity. 

3. Levels of Stress Decrease: Stress levels decrease when people laugh and smile, which are both physical responses to play.

4. Improved Focus: Following a period of play, people report improved concentration and perseverance.

5. Creativity Increases: Psychological censors (thought editing) are diminished in a more light-hearted atmosphere that engendered by play thus expanding creativity.

You may be asking “Really?  Who has time for play where there’s so much work to do?” Here are a few examples to consider.

Google employees are paid to play beach volleyball, go bowling, or scale a climbing wall; all activities that Google makes available to employees on their main campus.  At LinkedIn, employees are encouraged to play foosball or ping-pong when they tire of answering emails.  The thing these companies have discovered, according to Tim Brown (CEO of IDEO, a global design company), is that all sorts of creative new connections are made when you’re playing that otherwise would never be made.

Granted, we don’t all have the luxury of working for a creative design company.  But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t search for ways to include play as a vital piece of employee engagement.  No matter if your are managing events, teaching students, or making aircraft parts, the cost of disengagement far outpaces the risks associated with experimenting with new avenues for play to emerge on your team or at your workplace.

Brown believes that creating an environment where people have the security and comfort to play, and not be judged, allows them to take more creative risks.  He goes on to say, “We need to trust to play and to be creative.”

So, if play has the power to do all this, then how do you open space for play to grow on your team? 

Here are three suggestions:

1. Be the Instigator!

Someone has to risk doing something to start the ball rolling.  All it might take is someone bursting into a song that is bouncing around in their head or rearranging someone’s work space when they leave for lunch.  At our office, there are times when we start throwing objects at each other to try to incite an all out war.  Marshmallows work great!  The point is, risk doing something that invites and/or requires others to respond.

2.  Show generosity

A surefire way to get your teammates attention and elicit a response is to bring in their favorite snack or pick up their favorite drink from Starbucks.  Play and fun begins when you take the time to eat and drink together.  Share a joke or something you saw on TV that made you laugh.  Another way to use food is to incorporate it metaphorically in a meeting.  At one end of year review for our staff team, I brought in sparkling grape juice and sour gummy worms.  When we shared strengths and successes of the year, we all toasted and had a sip of the grape juice.  When we shared growth areas and failures we ate gummy worms…and depending on the magnitude of the failure, multiple gummy worms.  The added food metaphor lightened the review and had us smiling, laughing, and with stomachaches – literally.

3. Embrace Awkwardness

There are countless things that happen around us everyday that, when reflected on, can be very fun or funny to recall.  Personal foibles or awkward situations can be reprised over and over with much success for bringing a lighthearted atmosphere into a stressful workplace.  One personal example is the time I was getting up to speak to a group of a 100 people at a Lunch & Learn event.  I miscalculated the height of the stage and promptly did a face-plant with a very loud thud that shocked everyone and had all eyes looking at me as I tried to collect my dignity and start my presentation.