Reclaiming Play (at Work)

[Reprinted with permission from DePaul Workplace Learning blog]

If you are like most of us, you likely got the idea along the way that work and play are incompatible. Work is serious, focused and productive while play is silly, unfocused and unproductive. This belief was socialized into us from a very early age with parents and caregivers who shooed us away when we attempted to recruit a playmate with “Not now, honey, can’t you see I’m working?”

Pamela talks about putting more play into work in this recent First Business Interview

As it turns out individuals and organizations that chose not to believe that work and play must live in separate domains are thriving. Google, one of the most successful businesses of all time, lists on its website one of the “Top Ten Reasons to Work at Google”: ‘‘Work and play are not mutually exclusive: It is possible to code and pass the puck at the same time.’’

Google and many other organizations embrace two forms of play:

—   Diversionary

—   Engaging

Diversionary play is when we take a short break to play a game, stretch, participate in a contest. This type of play refreshes and energizes us, while building social bonds that are crucial to getting work done. Research also shows that when people return from diversionary play or short warm-up activities they are more creative and engaged (Conti, Amabile, & Pollack, 1995).

Engaging Play is when the work itself becomes a form of play. People are playing with new ideas, enthusiastically playing new roles, creating more play (flexibility) in the system and developing the capacity for improvised play. This form of play can come to life in a committee meeting, over coffee with a colleague or even working solo. The most important thing is that you are giving yourself permission to explore new ideas and perspectives and doing so from a place of intrinsic motivation.

Each of these forms of play reinforces the other. When we regularly take play breaks we return refreshed and energized to approach our work more playfully and creatively. When our work is a form of play, we are likely to enjoy diversionary activities with our colleagues and continue to build a culture of innovation, learning and change.

Conti, R., Amabile, T. M., & Pollack, S. (1995). The positive impact of creative activity: Effects of creative task engagement and motivational focus on college students’ learning. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 21, 1107-1116.

From Workplace to Playspace in High-Pressure Organizations

How do we create playspace in very serious, high-pressure, high-stakes environments? I have written about some notable examples of playspace in banking describing the high-engagement experience that Umpqua Bank co-creates each day in From Workplace to Playspace. But what about other high-stakes environments? What about in health care?

How do we make room for engagement, fresh ideas, and open communication when the stakes are literally life and death and there are never enough hours in the day?

Recently, an old friend from high school contacted me to let me know that he was in town for a medical conference. Before reaching out, my friend Dr. John Lanaghan, had poked around my website and without being asked, offered a beautiful answer to this question via email:

“I got to watch one of your recent interviews. Interesting. But I thought that wouldn’t work in a medical workplace–no time for play. Then I kept reflecting on it and realized (long story) how I noticed that it did. I had been at one office for 5 yrs and made an effort to enjoy my time with my co-workers by chatting, celebrating birthdays, kid activities, and playing when possible. Then 5 months ago I started splitting my time between two sites. Suddenly my old site was a bummer and the new location was a pleasure. After your video I realized that I had stopped doing the fun things with the old group, while the new job involved hospital rounds where there was lots of walking and talking and joking. Now I have made an effort to make it to lunch at the same time as my coworkers at the old place and some of the enjoyment of the job is returning.”

When we met for dinner the next night, John shared more about his work. He has spent much of his career in family medicine at the V.A. Medical Center in Iowa City, and had recently begun splitting his time providing palliative care, also in the V.A. system. He acknowledged the challenge of negotiating around large egos and the medical system itself. These were not insurmountable, however, as his own experience and efforts attest. John’s reflections show a deep and intuitive understanding of the ways we can create the space for the play of new ideas and connections in our everyday conversations and interactions. Playspace is not always (or even often) about our traditional conception of play—it is about the space that enables us to engage as whole human beings.

Thank you, John Lanaghan, M.D., for sharing your reflections and to all who co-create playspace doing extra-ordinary work in often challenging circumstances each day!

Outing Other People’s Humanity

At this year’s Academy of Management conference in Montreal, artist and scholar, Nancy Adler shared that she sees her role as “outing other people’s humanity” while speaking at one of several events in her honor. As she reflected on a few colleagues who were closet musicians, visual artists, and/or participated in their community in other generative ways, she challenged us by asking us why we, in business and scholarship, haven’t begun to think about the beautiful?

Adler followed this with three more provocative questions about beauty and leadership.

1. Can we reclaim our ability to see the beauty that’s there?
2. Can we reclaim our ability to imagine what’s beautiful?
3. Can we reclaim our role as leaders and human beings to make the world a more beautiful place?

If we truly take up Adler’s challenge and surrender to living these particular questions, I believe we cannot help but out our own and each others’ humanity. For as we reclaim our ability to see, imagine and create the beautiful, the artificial barriers that separate our playful self from our serious work self will fall away, as will barriers separating our goal-oriented self, from our process self; our indoor self from our outdoor self, our artist self from our management self, and all of our other dualistic selves.

As a gay person, I have long held the position that to “out someone” is a violation that could potentially put the outed person in serious harm’s way—emotionally, socially, and even physically—depending on the context. In this case, outing should, except in cases of extreme hypocrisy (a vocally anti-gay public figure) be the sole business of the individual.

Adler has gotten me thinking, though. Just as more people take the risk of coming out about their sexual orientation makes the climate safer and more accepting for all (research shows that people who have a close acquaintance or family member who is gay are far more likely to be accepting), should we not be encouraging others to come out around other aspects of their humanity? Will this not make it safer and more acceptable to be human—to bring our whole selves to work, and into all aspects of our lives?

What, then, is our role as leaders, facilitators, and participants in co-creating the space in which it is safe enough to come out?

What beauty might we discover and co-create together when we reclaim this responsibility?

Do We Make a Difference?

When I am struggling in the in-between spaces of my work, between client projects, speaking engagements and in the necessarily self-propelled spaces of my fragmented life as a writer, speaker, educator and consultant, I seem to return to the same question as many: “Do I make a difference?”

In this most recent round of reflection, the memory of my mother’s oncology nurse, Phyllis floated up. Phyllis had worked on the unit for nine years during which time she had shepherded countless families through their journey with cancer—some to happy endings, many through the painful final days. Phyllis also had a deeply personal relationship to cancer, having lost her own husband to the disease only a year before.

In the months my mom was in and out of the oncology unit at Baptist East Hospital in Louisville, Kentucky, Phyllis became a touchstone. She seemed to be the one on duty when we received both promising news, and major setbacks. Through it all, she was present, compassionate, and encouraging. She treated me and my brother, and our partners, with kindness and as people with whole lives, which until only recently had nothing to do with cancer, hospitals, surgeons and doctors.

For four months I remained fiercely hopeful for my mother’s recovery. In the fifth month, in a tearful consult with her oncologist and surgeon it was clear that there was no more to be done, nothing more to do but be present and lovingly care-full to my mom during her final days. I spent most of those days quietly sitting by her bedside, listening to the click click click of the machines, watching the drip drip drip of the IV and starring at my mothers face, hands and feet studying every freckle and vein—trying to memorize her so I would never forget even a strand of hair in her all-too-soon absence.

On one of these days, as I sat starring, studying and listening in the dim room Phyllis walked into the room to change my mother’s IV bag. I looked up and was struck by her consistent grace. For a moment, I set my grief aside and asked her how she did it. How did she, with all she had seen, day in and day out, the pain, the loss, the loss of her own husband, and the too few and far between miracles—how did she do it? How did she show up, day after day and still maintain her presence and good cheer?

Phyllis responded to me with a simple wisdom, that I call up to this day–in times of frustration, and in the completely non-life-threatening in-between spaces of my life. She stopped, in mid-hanging of the IV bag and said, “You know, honey, I think all of us here would tell you the same thing. And we don’t even have to talk about it—we all know that we can’t control this disease, or necessarily impact the final outcome, but each and every one of us on the floor knows that we make a difference.” And with that, she finished hanging the IV bag and slipped out.

A few days later, an hour before Mother’s Day, my mom slipped away. With me, my partner, my brother and his wife all by her side. And while this was not the outcome any of us hoped, prayed, and pleaded for—while her death sent us tumbling into our grief—to this day, each and every one of us knows that we, too, made a difference. We made a difference to my mom and each other by our presence, love and care. We couldn’t save her from the disease, and we still made a difference.

This is the lesson I learn and re-learn in the spaces in-between, when I can be prone to morbid self-reflection: that there are very few things we have ultimate control over: whether clients follow through on our guidance, or their commitments, whether people buy (and, then actually read) our books, whether the new leadership builds on the progress of their predecessors, or a thousand other uncontrollable twists and turns of the human and natural systems in which we work. AND, each of us, if we show up with presence, integrity, and care, living and working at the top of our capacity, can rest assured that, just as Phyllis does, each day we, too, make a difference.

Ah . . . the (New Year’s) space!

One of the things I love about the start of the new year is that it seems to open up so many possibilities for new beginnings. In the last few days I have had several conversations with friends and colleagues about what they are looking forward to in this shiny new decade, and what changes they are making. It doesn’t matter if the changes are health and fitness-related, family, personal development, or professional—they all seem possible with this new expanse of space.

For me, much of my optimism about the new year and the positive changes ahead is grounded in some of the best experiences of the past year. I have seen heightened engagement and innovation in my clients, huge strides made by my adult students, and exciting new frontiers in my own personal and professional life. All of these fuel my sense of what is possible in the new year, and are guiding me.

When I see people working at their best, it is with a sense of purpose as they are engaged in something they care about and that they know is making a difference. They are also doing so, in authentic communities where they feel support and encouragement and are also stretched and challenged. These themes are guiding me as I think about what I want to create in the new year and what conditions I need to create to ensure my success.

There also seems to be something to transparency and accountability. If you think so, too, you might want to check out this cool new web site, that helps you be accountable to yourself for the changes you want to make by putting cash on the line to keep you on track: http://www.stickk.com.

The Tryanny of the Task

The other day at the start of a meeting with my colleagues I noticed an interesting impulse. I knew we had a lot on the agenda and a relatively short time to move through it all. I had the impulse to abandon our few minute ritual of taking some Be. Here. Now. Time to get into our bodies, release distractions and become present to ourselves and the collaboration at hand. In my anxiousness to get to the task, I also considered dispensing with a brief creative warm-up, another ritual we have adopted to bring playspace to life in our collaborations.

Gratefully, when I gingerly proposed “diving in”, Brandy and Christian spoke up and brought me back to our shared commitment. It was humbling to see how I, facilitator and champion of all things playspace and creative collaboration, can also fall prey to the tyranny of the task. The draw to get on with business can so easily eclipse the very presence and life energy that allows us to show up to that business with our whole person, and in the spirit of collaboration and discovery.

One of the many delightful paradoxes and creative tensions in playspace is that when we embrace the process, the product is oh so much richer and our level of engagement and access to creativity so much deeper—as it was in our meeting the other day. We didn’t just check off our agenda items, but had new insights and ideas at each turn AND we did so within our agreed-upon time frame!

The good news is that when we have embedded and reinforced the values of playspace in the organization, even when we momentarily succumb to the siren song of the task, we will have colleagues