The Power Of Play

Are we having fun yet?

All too often, this is a question asked sarcastically and derisively in the face of turmoil and uncertainty. The implied answer is a resounding “no.”

It doesn’t have to be this way.

In fact, “are we having fun yet?” is a useful and important question to genuinely consider. And if we’re not having fun, we probably want to most consider doing something about it.

A couple of weeks ago, I delivered a webinar entitled “Faking It ’til You Make It: A Viable Strategy?” I went in to developing the presentation thinking one thing. I came out of it believing something very different.

This entire journey started in a previous presentation, one my partner Peter de Jager and I deliver on our favourite books of the previous year. One of the books I discussed at the time was “Act Like A Leader, Think Like a Leader” by Herminia Ibarra. The basic premise is that as we develop as leaders, we don’t think our way into a new way of acting (despite the vast majority of leadership programs built around that very premise). Instead, we act our way into a new way of thinking. We take on different behaviours, and our experience with those behaviours leads to a different set of beliefs.

Peter presciently asked, “Isn’t that just another way of saying ‘fake it ’til you make it?’” And I had to confess that yes, indeed, it probably was. And so a presentation emerged.

Overall we don’t like when people fake things. It looks insincere, contrived or manipulative. What we are usually reacting to here is motive. We think of the slimy salesperson, out to say anything, assert everything and promise the moon in order to make a sale. Whatever we want to hear, they’ll find a way to tell it to us.

At the same time, Ibarra’s observation is important. As human beings, we learn by doing. It’s through experience that we find new understanding. We try something out, have an impact (positive or negative) and work through that impact to figure out what happened and what we might do differently next time.

That means that we try doing things we aren’t qualified or capable of doing. We step out of our comfort zones. We take on new roles, exercise different skills and face new and more complex challenges. We stretch ourselves beyond what feels comfortable,and in doing so, we grow. Success, failure or muddling through, we work through unfamiliar situations until we develop new strategies that work.

Stretching our comfort zone is different than shattering it, of course. This isn’t about doing things we are eminently unqualified for. But it’s taking on roles, seeing opportunities and facing challenges that require us to move past the familiar and comfortable. We do things that scare us, that challenge us, that make us grow.

We used to do this all the time. Learning as children, there were a host of things that we didn’t know how to do. We tackled them with gusto, unencumbered by the fears of inadequacy or incompetence that we develop as we grow into our adult selves. And that’s the thing. When we’re kids, learning is a byproduct of serious play. As adults, learning is altogether more serious, period.

There are a number of reasons driving why we take development more seriously. There’s ego involved, for starters. We don’t want to fail, we don’t want to be found wanting and we want to look competent in our roles. And we’re developing leadership skills. Professional skills. Job skills. Work and careers are supposed to be serious, right?

The challenge is that when we take what we are doing seriously, we take the consequences of what we are doing seriously as well. Performance matters. Results matter. Failure matters. Trying something new, where success is not guaranteed, becomes an easy road to frustration. And when we are frustrated, we tend to give up.

The simple answer—though often hard to process—is not taking ourselves so seriously. To enjoy what we are doing. To play. To draw on some non-work-related-examples, I’ve invested time in recent years in learning to golf (something I do not do well at all). I’ve also invested time in learning to ride a motorcycle (something I do with altogether more competence than golf). If you are tense and rigid, if you tighten your grip on the club shaft or the handlebars, if you try to hard, you are going to fail. Neither the motorcycle nor the golf ball are going to where you want them to.

The secret to both? Relax. Enjoy it. Don’t try so hard. Don’t take yourself quite so seriously.

That works in the workplace as well. I’ve spent a lot of time facilitating in one way or another over the past few months. Some of the conversations have been high stakes, with significant consequences for people, projects and organizations. I could have approached those discussions with all the theoretical seriousness such conversations merited. I could have been focussed, purposeful, matter-of-fact and humourless.

And when I say “could have,” it is with absolute confidence that I can bring that energy into the room. I can be a no-nonsense, driving force of nature when I put my mind to it. The problem with that is that the results that I get are no where as good as when I thank my inner tyrant for his services, send him packing, and get on with the business of being my usually happy and fun-loving self.

When I facilitate from a place of comfort, I’m relaxed. I’m confident. I’m usually quite funny (at least in my own head). What’s more, the rest of the room lightens up and engages on a different level as well. The stakes might be high and there might be a lot riding on successful conclusion of the conversation. That can intimidate and frighten people, or it can inspire the need to find different perspectives and different possibilities. Our inner capacity to do that is enhanced significantly when we are playing in a space of creativity and comfort. Give people permission to relax and experiment, and the possibilities and potential solutions become altogether different.

Play is important. A sense of play, an openness to experimentation and a willingness to suspend seriousness can fundamentally deliver better results. That’s not to say that we need foosball tables in the cafeteria, lava lamps in the conference rooms and stuffed dinosaurs hanging from the ceiling of our offices (although I’m not going to object on principle if you want to go there). But even—and particularly—when the stakes are high, we need to strive to relax. We need to tap into that inner, playful, confident sense of self that we know we can be when we are performing at our best. Because when the stakes are high, we need to be performing at our best.

The biggest challenge is that we can’t actually force this. And trying to force it produces the opposite effect. We need to find strategies to remind ourselves to relax and be open to being playful that don’t look like us demanding fun and creativity on cue. We also need strategies to help others open up and find their (very literal) happy place.

How we do that varies from person to person. A lot of it comes down to going into situations with some level of expectation of having fun. Although that can feel cognitively dissonant when you feel like you are going into one of the most important meetings of your career. One person I know wears a red clown nose around his neck on stressful days as a reminder to not take himself so seriously (this may or may not be considered acceptable attire in your workplace). Several people in my acquaintance dress for the part by donning crazy socks; it’s their way of subtly reminding themselves and others to have fun. All of this goes back to attempts to find professionally acceptable versions of “getting into costume.” And costumes can certainly play a role.

What perhaps plays the biggest role—and is the easiest way to shift the mood of yourself and others—is laughter. Real, genuine laughter can be a game changer. Not only does it signal a shift in mood, but it has been demonstrated by research to improve performance and memory, and reduce stress levels.

The focus on “genuine” here is key. We’ve all seen instances where attempts at forced humour have fallen astonishingly flat. Where inappropriate humour has left a group more stressed and uncomfortable than if they’d just been left to their own devices. We can’t force laughter and we can’t mandate it. But we need to create the circumstances where it’s possible. And we need to embrace it when it happens.

Bottom line, there’s a reason that it is important and valuable to build a personal connection before engaging in the serious work of being serious. Just getting down to business, while it might feel efficient and focussed, usually doesn’t produce the same results. Being open, playful and relaxed helps us learn better. It helps us perform better. And it has the added bonus of making us more enjoyable to be around. There’s a lot to like in that.

“Are we having fun yet?” doesn’t have to be a cautionary admonishment. It can be a positive reminder that yes we should be, and yes we are.

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