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The power of play has been central to child development for centuries, but somehow, like the other childhood skills I shared in this series, play has fallen to the wayside in our adult world. That’s a real shame, given that nearly 75% of workers today are disengaged. Play might just be one of the most powerful leadership tools that could pull us out of this rut.

Even in a child’s world, it’s amazing the difference it can make when you shift from work to play. In a famous Russian study from the 1950’s, children were told to stand still as long as they could they lasted two minutes. Then a second group of children were told to pretend (play) that they were soldiers on guard who had to stand still at their posts they lasted eleven minutes.

Recently, during the clean-up efforts after Hurricane Irene, I tapped into the power of play to make a potentially horrible day of back-breaking work into fun. The town assigned me a group of high school seniors to gut a flood-ravaged house down to the foundation and studs. This primarily meant tearing out wall boards or dry wall.

I huddled the kids together and said since this was already a depressing situation with difficult work ahead, why not make a game out of the clean-up? First we had the challenge of seeing who could break off the biggest piece of drywall. We kept a little “wall of fame” to showcase the largest pieces. Next we decided to see what US state the pieces of dry wall most resembled (we found Utah, Oklahoma and Arkansas). Our backs were sore by the end of the day, but we laughed a lot and the entire job was done.

In a recent TED Talk by Dan Pink, he pointed to the power of play at work at an Australian software company named Atlassian. Once a quarter, the management at Atlassian tells the workers to take the next 24 hours to do whatever they want, with whoever they want. The only criterion is they have to show everyone what they did.

At the end of the 24 hours, they have a big “Show and Tell” event with beer and cake, where everyone gets to show off what they did. The results are amazing. In this one day, new ideas for products and changes are created and problems that previously defied fixing are fixed. This one day of play produces things that would have otherwise not emerged.

The idea of play has classically only found its way into our workplaces as a form of staff development or to create more camaraderie during occasional company picnics, bowling outings, team lunch or happy hour. Those are important and have definite value in the work setting AND what I’m suggesting here is the integration of play into HOW you work.

Some of the inherent qualities of play are lightness, laughter, fun and autonomy. All of these are sources of motivation and of a healthier, more effective workplace.

Where can you start to integrate play into HOW you and your team do work?

Jeff Harmon

Jeff Harmon is the president of Brilliance Within Coaching & Consulting which specializes in developing servant leaders while helping them translate their strategies into actionable plans that drive business results. Jeff is the author of “The Anatomy of a Principled Leader.” Jeff has been developing leaders for nearly 20 years and has led the execution of over 100,000 hours of business strategy for information technology, financial services and non-profit organizations.

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