Leading Change with Playfulness (Part 3)

Tonight, my husband and I are hosting a team party for a dynamic group of leaders who recently ‘failed’ to achieve our collective goal. At least ‘failed’ is what ‘the lead’ in the local newspaper read. Yet, I’m holding a fair amount of skepticism about that word.

Photo by Roman Kraft on Unsplash

Alas, we’re going to celebrate! It will be good to be together. Our hearts will be buoyed by what we tried to create and how we did it. It was audacious and noble.

When we embark on a change process, the pilgrimage holds inherent risk and we may find the door closed at the end of the day. Or, one door may close, as another better alternative opens. Change often has patches named ‘trials’ and valleys named ‘hostility’ and jungles named ‘not this way.’ But, movements and forward motion weren’t initiated by the fearful.

So, we might as well laugh, find joy in each other, eat good food, and commune in togetherness. We need to play to find release from the tension and close the stress cycle. Play stamps out burnout. Play transforms fear. Our playful spirit will create just what we need to manage the terrain.

Children Show Us

Here’s a visceral example from my home.

As school days approached in the post-lockdown reality, I could see my grade-school daughter working through her feelings about being back in person and attending class.  

So she created a school.  Her school had cardboard furniture, including desks, organizational office furniture, and a place for snow boots (important in our part of the world).  Furthermore, she spent hours in her little school room, kindly teaching her stuffed animals, and creating elaborate literacy experiences as she remembered them from months before.

Through play, she was adapting to what felt like too much to bear: the return to school amidst a pandemic. Children naturally use play as an outlet. We can learn so much from them!

Truly, she was exploring her feelings, engaging in a growth mindset, and activating curiosity and wonder.  This imaginal approach to her experiences both past and future served as a mechanism of adaptation.

Play for Managing Emotions

Change is an emotional process and play is a vehicle for experiencing those emotions.

Dr. Gordon Neufeld (2021), a prominent developmentalist and attachment theorist, describes the seven properties of true play:

1 – Engaging – captivating 

2 – Not outcome-based – not concerned with where the activity leads 

3 – Expressive – comes from the inside out

4 – Not for real – not work-based

5 – Safe – feeling safe, relaxed, and mutuality

6 – Freely entered – isn’t imposed on others

7 – Clear Parameters – has a beginning and an end

Of course, wise teachers know intuitively how to engage children through play.  

Here’s How It Plays Out

And, the older we get the more we need to play.  Here’s how it plays out with adults (pun intended).  

I also use this strategy with adults in change processes.  I create a ‘playground’ for change. 

With a twinkle in my eye, the invitation sounds like an enthusiastic, “Let’s just ‘play’ with this _____________(change) for the next__________(amount of time).” 

It means, I’m inviting and there’s no evaluation or expectations for a particular outcome.

Whew!  Freedom to try and fail.  Freedom to take me a little less seriously.  Liberty for being creative and innovative.

Recently, I approached a software integration into our mastermind groups of school leaders with a playful spirit.  I invited leaders from across North America to log into the platform and just ‘play’ for a whole month.  The spirit of play invited us to, “try things, make mistakes, and not worry about getting it right, but to have fun with clicking here and there.”  It worked.  The groups who just dove in and started to play learned quickly.  

The low-stakes environment allows for risk-taking amidst change.  Play is inherently low stakes.  Play invites adaptation.

If you’re leading change, consider the lens of play. How are you infusing this powerful solution to the stresses and emotions of change?