My philosophy – one I work hard to prove to my clients – is that work can, and should, be both joyful and productive. Productive is obviously an easy sell, but joyful? Not so much.
That’s why I’ve become so captivated by the work of thought leader and kindred spirit Kelsey Kates, an expert in the neuroscience of how we work best. She advocates that bringing a bit of playfulness to your work can go a long way in cultivating psychological safety, inclusion and belonging, and creativity in your team. And she has the science to back it up.
Here's the idea: we, as professional mammals, are still beholden to our “fight or flight” instincts. And while we’re unlikely to encounter a lion in the breakroom, it is likely that we’ll be challenged by situations and people at work who activate those instincts. This makes us feel unsafe, in a professional, psychological sense. When we don’t feel safe, we’re less able to be creative, offer up an innovative idea, and generally perform at our best.
Playfulness and lightness are essential to safety. Imagine scenario 1: the leader joins the meeting with a stern, all-business expression and says “This quarter is a mess. We need to fix it – now.” Or scenario 2: The leader joins the meeting and says “Well friends, it looks like we have some problem-solving to do because this quarter is a mess. I hope you’ve had your coffee. Let’s get to it.” The same message, but with a different tone, is likely to generate very different outcomes in terms of the team’s ability to generate creative, effective solutions.
The key to playfulness at work is that a little goes a long way. As you can tell from the second scenario, it can just be about lowering the temperature in the room – conveying a relaxed demeanor. Smiling. Extolling the merits of caffeine. Being clear that you’re all in it together. It doesn’t mean you suddenly need to become a stand-up comedian or take serious situations too lightly.
Ready to give it a try? Here are three easy ways to inject a little playfulness into your next meeting:
Start by sharing: kick off your next internal meeting, strategy session, etc. with a fun and useful check-in. Pose a prompt like “What’s your favorite travel hack?” or “What’s you go-to 3:00 PM snack?” and ask everyone to contribute an answer. You’ve immediately invited each voice into the meeting, likely improved the general mood, and – bonus – gained some helpful tips.
Stay in your comfort zone: think about what already brings a little levity to your day – maybe an animated GIF, a work meme, or a cartoon from The New Yorker – and add one to the agenda slide of a low-stakes internal meeting.
Just add music: Ask each team member to add a song that inspires them or pumps them up to a team playlist. Then play one before or after your regular team meetings to increase the collective energy.
If the word “playful” still feels like a bridge too far, think of it this way: having a sense of humor, wearing a smile, being a bit vulnerable and encouraging others to do the same – these are things that make us human. And bringing a bit more humanity to our work lives is never a bad thing.