The Power of Play

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One Secret to Motivated, Energized and Productive Teams

Work can be fun, but should it be playful? You might be thinking:

  • Work is not fun; that’s why they call it work.
  • Play is not good for my leadership image.
  • Sometimes, in the right context.

We invite you to consider an alternative. Laughter is a signal of organizational health. It doesn’t mean your company becomes a circus; it’s an indicator that people are healthy, enjoy their work, and can be their most productive.

Play For Connection
Karin had just been promoted to manager and head swim team coach of her neighborhood pool. She and her staff had spent the week brushing algae off tiles, making bulletin boards, and organizing schedules. They were ready for the launch of an amazing season.

She locked up her bike and unlocked the gate, a bit nervous; she was excited to lead the first practice of the season. The kids arrived, and after a few complaints about the extra cold water, jumped in to begin their warm-up.

Suddenly, sweet “6-and-under” Ned splashed and screamed like he’d seen a shark. “Miss Karin, Miss Karin, Come quick! I saw a fish!”

“Ned, calm down, you didn’t see a fish. Put your head in the water and keep swimming,” Karin replied, knowing that she needed to stand firm to keep her credibility as a new coach who was not much older than most of the swimmers.

Just then, her assistant coach, John, who had gotten in the water with the kids to show them it couldn’t be that cold, pulled himself out the pool and came running over. As he dripped on her sweatshirt, he whispered, “Uhhhh, Karin. There really is a fish.”

She quickly got everyone out of the pool and discovered that there was not just one fish, but three. The kids all jumped back in and tried to chase them with their bare hands. Ned ran home to get his fishing rod. The phone rang.

It was Peter, the head coach of the rival swim team. “Just calling to congratulate you on your first day as head coach and pool manager. How’s it going?

“OMG, there are fish in my pool!” As soon as she said the words, Karin realized who had put the fish there.

Well played. A great start to a great season. Their rivalry turned from competitive angst to collaboration and real friendship. Now, you may be thinking, sure that stuff works for lifeguards but not in the corporate world. Or, you know, he was probably flirting with her, right?

Well, actually it can work in the corporate world. We both have seen humor and fun work as a powerful prescription for employee engagement. And, yeah, in hindsight he probably was.

Play for Results We both get to work with very different companies with unique cultures. One company Karin worked with developed a Jimmy-Fallon-meets-training-videos way to keep their reps up to speed on breaking news and key initiatives. It’s funny, upbeat, engaging, and most importantly sends a clear message about key priorities.

The videos stream live to employee’s computers every few days, and they look forward to the next edition. After watching a short segment, reps know what’s important and what to do next.

Their chief operating officer said that one of the managers who plays the “anchor” is normally very serious and results driven. She’s glad to see him leveraging the lighter side of his personality to engage these young reps. He’s a well-rounded manager using all his strengths. Results are on an amazing upward trajectory.

When employees have fun, they are more creative, more connected, and less stressed. One telecom sales team launching the Droid phone rented professional Star Wars costumes for the management team, which drove hundreds of miles visiting their retail locations to fire up the local sales reps and create intrigue for customers. It inspired the team and the customers loved it.

We’ve both worked with clients who organized citywide scavenger hunts to reinforce organizational purpose while giving everyone a chance to have fun, work with different people, and problem solve together.

And we’ve both known executives willing to dress in costumes, change the words to a song, grab a microphone, or do a rap. Of course, this is not every day, but a sprinkling of play can go a long way. It’s refreshing to see managers have fun with their teams.

One client was told that having such fun could damage her “authority” with her team, that she should laugh with them less and keep a professional distance. She thanked the feedback giver (remember to respond to feedback with a “Thank you”) and kept on playing, but with a more careful view of who was watching.

You see, their results were skyrocketing in the middle of what appeared to be an impossible challenge. Their laughter had a powerful uniting quality. Her ability to play while focused on results caused her team to respect her more, not less.

She learned to take on a more serious stance when visiting headquarters, but when they were in the field where the real work gets done, she kept up the ruckus.

Silly Sells
Perhaps the riskiest use of strategic silliness we’ve seen was by Robert, the chairman of an international company. Robert’s company was pitching a new client on a highly strategic project. Robert’s team had all traveled quite a distance to discuss this important deal that would lead to solid revenue and potentially open the doors for significant work in the future—nothing to play around with. The potential client, Lynn, was impressed with the company but had some valid concerns. Robert began with a serious expression commensurate with the importance of the meeting.

He began, “I know you’ll be very impressed with what you see here today. We’ve got a great track record of results, and numbers to back it up. I can’t wait for the team to share more about our programs. But before that, I’ve written you a little song.”

He pulled out a piece of notebook paper with the song he penned, and began to sing. His a cappella serenade included why Lynn should give them a shot. The mood was instantly lightened by his silliness. Her guard dropped a bit.

He sang. She listened more deeply.

After applause and laughter, Robert’s team launched into a highly professional presentation with data, video, tours, and sitting side by side listening in on calls. They proved they were the best. Lynn hired them. Not because of the song, but not in spite of it either. Silliness has serious benefits. Robert had done his homework: He knew Lynn appreciated fun songs and so came prepared to have productive fun. Well-timed silliness can:

  • Break the ice
  • Show you’re real
  • Show you are bold
  • Energize the meeting
  • Showcase creativity
  • Build relationships
  • Create memories

Strategic Silliness Precautions
After her standing ovation to his song, Lynn responded: “Great stuff. Never do that at our corporate headquarters.” They both grinned knowingly. To be effective, these types of silly and fun activities:

  • Must be timed well, with a receptive audience
  • Work best with kindred spirits
  • Can’t stand alone (surround them with great results and execution)
  • Work because they’re unusual and infrequent
  • Are tasteful

Humor and silliness are powerful energizers when done well. However, approached the wrong way, they can suck the life force out of an employee so fast that it’s difficult to recover the relationship.

When Play Goes Too Far
Gary, the president of a Fortune 50 company, had been talked into doing a karaoke night as part of an off-site management meeting. Gary is about as straitlaced as you can get. We can’t imagine he has ever sung karaoke in his life. In fact, we’re pretty sure that his vision of hell includes being asked to sing at work. The only explanation for this choice of team builder could be that some executive coach convinced him that this would show his lighter side and help him connect with his team.

Gary stood with his back pressed against the farthest wall from the microphone, sipping a diet Coke. Everyone could see his discomfort, which of course was contagious.

In an effort to ease the situation, several of Gary’s vice presidents started coaxing their teams to sing. Renee, one of the more outgoing managers, was approached by her boss. “I know you can sing; go help Lisa,” who was one of Renee’s peers.

Now Renee knew that Lisa had already had one too many chardonnays.

“What’s she going to sing?” Renee asked.

“You Gotta Fight for Your Right to Party! You, know, the Beastie Boys.”

Renee stopped her and didn’t give it a second thought. About a year later, Renee’s boss brought up the incident as evidence that she needed to be a better team player.

Don’t Play to Patch Problems
You can’t play or team build your way out of fundamental problems. We hope you don’t ever say, “People are upset; we need to do something fun.”

No, you don’t. You need to solve your communication problems. Or fix the process issue that’s preventing people from doing their jobs.

Play is like the icing on a good cake. It makes good things sweeter, but it’s no substitute for the cake itself. Imagine trying to spread frosting over a mushy, half-baked cake. It’s impossible, and you’d end up with a sticky mess.

When there’s a problem, fix the problem. Then have fun together.

When the Powerful Prescription Turns into a Dangerous Drug
Recently, David was at a family party, a baby shower, and broke one of his own rules. When someone said something poking mild humor at herself, he piled on with a comeback at her expense. Everyone laughed or took mock offense, as he had hoped, but afterward he wished he hadn’t said it.

In this case, he’d tried to be funny at the expense of his own mother.

At some point, most of us use irony, sarcasm, or jokes at others’ expense. For many, it’s a part of their family or organizational culture. We rely on this type of humor for several reasons:

  • We want to feel better about ourselves, either by making ourselves look clever or diminishing the other person.
  • We want to cover insecurity, another form of trying to feel better about ourselves.
  • We indirectly try to address a real issue. Rather than speak directly about a difficult subject, we use sarcasm or negative “jokes.” Chaucer and Shakespeare both point out the use of jesting to speak truth.
  • We protect ourselves. Some people use sarcasm to push others away or avoid their own fear or pain.
  • We don’t know how to do anything else.

We lack the skills to address issues effectively. If you want to influence other people, using sarcasm and humor at others’ expense is full of problems. Bottom line: as a manager, this type of humor will undermine your mission to win well. Here are just a few of the problems with using sarcasm and jokes at others’ expense:

  1. It creates shame in the target.
  2. If you shame a person when you have positional power, you have put that person in a difficult fight-or-flight position.
  3. You get the opposite of what you want. A very skilled, self-aware person might come and talk to you about it, but another person might find a way to “get even”—perhaps resorting to similar “humor,” undermining you, reducing the amount of work he does, or stealing.
  4. You give permission for everyone to do it. Before long, your clever comeback has turned into a caustic workplace where negativity reigns. (At the extreme, this can even cause human resource problems with hostile work environments.)
  5. It doesn’t build anything. You might make someone stop doing something by being sarcastic and shaming her, but you’ll never create a new positive behavior this way.
  6. You limit creativity. Consistent sarcasm creates an atmosphere where no one will try a new idea. The risk of failure and incurring shame is too great.
  7. It drains energy. We do our best work when we’re in the zone—feeling competent, challenged, and ready to do our best. Sarcasm and humor at another’s expense create doubt and negative energy.
  8. It destroys trust.

How to Avoid Humor Pitfalls
When you want to use humor, ensure it will resonate and not make the situation worse with these five strategies.

Start with Results.
When you’re tempted to use sarcasm, stop and ask yourself what you really want. What results are you looking for? Encourage, inspire, teach, coach, demonstrate—these are always more effective than using sarcasm.

Address Issues Directly.
Never use humor to deal with behavior or performance problems. As we’ve seen, it creates more problems and does nothing to help the situation. Address these issues directly and professionally.

Use Humor Effectively.
Any comedian can tell you there is always one safe target to make fun of: you. Self-effacing humor displays humility and tells your people that you don’t feel like you’re better than they are and that you don’t take yourself too seriously. It builds trust because people know you own your problems and understand your shortcomings.

Deal with Your Own Junk.
If you’re carrying around hurt or insecurity and regularly mask it with sarcasm or making fun of others, take some time to reflect on what’s going on there—maybe work with a coach. If it’s deep, talk with a counselor.

Clean Up.
If you have potentially hurt others in the past, apologize and make it right. When teams come together and have a strong sense of identity, they can often start to pick on others who are outside their team. Maybe it’s the competition or a team in a different department. As a group, poke fun at yourselves but resist the urge to joke at others’ expense.

Human beings are wired for play and love to laugh. Making space for a bit more fun in the workplace is a powerful way to build connection, improve engagement, and positively impact the bottom line.

About Karin Hurt 2 Articles
Karin Hurt, CEO of Let’s Grow Leaders is a keynote speaker, leadership consultant, and MBA professor. A former Verizon Wireless executive, she has over two decades of experience in sales, customer service, and HR. She was recently named on Inc’s list of 100 Great Leadership Speakers, AMA’s 50 Leaders to Watch in 2015, & Top Thought Leader in Trust by Trust Across America. Her next book, Winning Well: A Manager’s Guide to Getting Results-Without Losing Your Soul is being published by AMACOM this Spring. She recently released a state of the art online course Results That Last 7: Roles Every Manager Must Master.

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