What's Your Story?

Biz Narrative Blog by Ruth Halpern

Observations and anecdotes about business narrative in the corporate world.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Want to Improve Workplace Performance? Play a Little!

I had the privilege recently of leading an ice-breaker session for a board retreat of high-level legal managers. We spent half an hour playing together as a warm-up for their annual retreat. When I say "playing," I mean it in the best sense of the word: Experimenting, taking risks, making mistakes, and laughing our heads off.

We make such a grave mistake, suffer such an immeasurable loss, when we ignore the value of play in the business world.

My techniques for leading people into this world are drawn from improvisational theater, storytelling, and group process. And I know what people think when I suggest that we play catch with an invisible ball--they think it's ridiculous, unprofessional, a complete waste of time.

How can I tell?

Well, of course I can read it on their faces and in their body language. But I also hear the condemnation in my own head, a sinister whisper telling me that having this much fun can't possibly be considered "legitimate" work.

Here's the great news, though. Play is the very most vital, legitimate approach to coming up with new ideas, building healthy, resilient teams, and staying engaged and creative when the going gets tough. Many kinds of research have shown it--one of my favorite books on the subject is The Levity Effect by Adrian Gostick and Scott Christopher. Short summary: Studies have shown that laughter pays off. That the most profitable, efficient, and effective business teams are those that laugh together, play together, experiment and explore together.

So why haven't more businesses rushed to embrace this great news? I think there are a few factors:

  • First, in order to laugh, we have to have a certain amount of emotional abundance--the freedom, the time, the expansiveness to let loose and laugh. When times are rough, and people are focused on scarcity and loss, laughter feels like an extravagance that no one can afford. But in fact, we can't afford NOT to laugh. Laughter lightens the mood and replenishes us so we can get back down to business with renewed energy and enthusiasm.
  • Second, I think there's an element of The Emperor's New Clothes in the business world--no one wants to admit that they can't quite see the seriousness and portent in every business procedure and detail, for fear that they'll appear frivolous, incompetent, or addle-pated. So we all put on our stiff suits and our stiff upper lips and act as though everything we do is deadly serious.
  • Third, I think that more traditional businesses, with more traditional, top-down management styles, are reluctant to try anything that doesn't have concrete, measurable results. If it's not rational, linear, and quantifiable, it can't be real.
But we cling to these beliefs to our great detriment.

Playfulness Gets Results

After half an hour of circle games, imagining ourselves in strange worlds, free-associating, and sharing stories about our most passionate non-work interests, the group was energized, galvanized, and ready to begin some of the most creative work of all: developing a vision of the future, and agreeing on a strategic plan to make that vision a reality.

Could they have prepared themselves just as well using a 40-slide PowerPoint and a few flip charts? I doubt it. After all, the meeting took place after lunch. Everyone knows what happens to a human being with a full stomach when the lights dim for a presentation.

If you'd like to learn more about bringing playfulness into your workplace, contact Halpern & Associates at 510-338-0241 or by writing info@rhalpernassociates.com.

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