5 Ways to Harness the Power of Play in the Workplace

Ben WhitfordCulture2018 03 16
5 Ways to Harness the Power of Play in the Workplace
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Productive employees don’t just work hard — they also have fun along the way, says Lindsay McGregor, co-author of “Primed to Perform: How to Build the Highest Performing Cultures Through the Science of Total Motivation.

Research shows that employees work harder and more effectively when they’re given the freedom to play, experiment and get their creative juices flowing, McGregor says. That’s leading many organizations to rethink their approach to motivating their workers. “As a society we’ve spent so much time learning to use sticks and carrots to motivate workers, but we’ve spent very little time looking at the alternatives,” she says.

There’s more to play than just putting a pingpong table in the break room, McGregor says; effective play takes careful planning, strategic thinking and a willingness to let your employees take charge and be themselves. We asked McGregor to share her five top tips for helping teams to play more effectively.

Don’t Make It All About You

There’s nothing worse than a boss who’s determined to force everyone to have fun, McGregor says. Instead of channeling your inner Michael Scott, step back and give your employees the freedom to try new things on their own terms. “The environment that a leader creates, and the culture that a company creates, has a huge impact,” she says. “But it’s not about relying on some charismatic leader to do it for you.”

Beware of Gamification

Keeping score can be the quickest way to turn a game into a chore, McGregor says. There’s value in measuring progress, but if people start worrying about the data you’re collecting then you’ve probably gone too far. “Gamification is very dangerous when it’s not done in the right way,” she says. “If it feels threatening or pointless then people give up quickly.”

Let the Data Speak on Play’s Value

Not everyone thinks there’s a place for play in the workplace, but there’s plenty of evidence that a playful approach can boost the bottom line. Use real-world data to convince the naysayers, McGregor advises. “Once you can show a business case around play, it takes something that’s very soft and fluffy and makes it very powerful,” she says.

Play Early, Play Often

The best companies bake play into their onboarding process to ensure that new employees understand what’s expected of them. Rather than just dumping the company rulebook into a new hire’s lap, make it clear that they’re free to have fun and try new things. “Almost nobody sits down and says ‘Here’s your playground, here’s where it’s OK to experiment, here’s where you can invent something great,’ ” McGregor says.

Don’t Have Too Much Fun

Empowering employees to play and experiment doesn’t mean giving up your own authority or letting your team run wild. Soccer and basketball are fun precisely because they have clear rules that keep everyone focused, McGregor says, and smart bosses provide plenty of guidance to keep everyone pulling in the same direction. “It’s about helping people to understand where they’re following the plan and where there’s room to experiment and play,” she says.

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