If you were to walk into (or log into) one of our change management workshops, you’d likely be greeted by brightly colored posters, kazoos, beach balls, and groups of adults in business attire playing improv games. You might wonder why there’s so much frivolity surrounding one of the most critical topics in leadership development.
At Ziksana, we use the science of play to empower leaders with experiences that connect them to what change feels like. Research shows that for many animals, play is an adaptive function that helps them practice necessary survival skills. The same can be said for humans, albeit our environments are typically less threatening. However, there are challenges in modern-day organizations that can feel as threatening and high stakes.
Organizational change can be full of fear. On a biological level, dealing with ambiguous situations triggers our “fight-or-flight” response, leading us to quickly take action with the ultimate goal of self-preservation. As a leader, this is problematic. Approaching change from this “triggered” state typically leads to poor decisions that fail to consider the ultimate goal or the other people involved.
If leaders hope to respond and adapt to change appropriately, they need to practice navigating ambiguous circumstances with the ability to stay calm, think strategically, consider others, and take bold action. Luckily, play provides a compelling opportunity to practice these skills.
Our research on the impact of playful learning has shown that play prepares leaders to successfully adapt to change in 3 ways:
1. Play Facilitates Openness To Possibilities
To successfully adapt to change, leaders need to have a curious, open mindset and gather diverse perspectives to inform their actions. When fear is involved, people tend to rely on their pre-existing knowledge and beliefs to inform their decisions quickly. To be truly adaptable, leaders must take the time to ask curious questions, listen, and appreciate different perspectives before developing a plan of action.
Play creates a low-stakes environment where leaders can practice these skills without feeling defensive. It sets the tone for the type of curious approach that is necessary for adapting to change.
2. Play Facilitates Willingness To Take Action
When faced with change, it is natural to start imagining various approaches to handling it. This isn’t a bad thing. In fact, the ability to anticipate future needs, options, and trends is a defining feature of adaptive leadership. However, this becomes problematic when too much time is spent in the analysis at the expense of decisive and necessary action.
As an adult, playing is a risk in-and-of-itself. Acting silly or impractical, especially around a professional team, can be daunting for many leaders. However, playing together allows leaders to recognize their common humanity, accept their flaws, and be open to taking risks in front of one another.
This experience of psychological safety sets a precedent for the type of culture that facilitates a collective willingness to take action and learn from risks. Adapting to change is a constant learning process, and leaders must accept that mistakes will be made along the way. Accepting the inevitability of risk-taking prepares leaders to take action before they feel entirely ready and encourages the same courage from their team members.
3. Play Facilitates Connection To Others
To successfully adapt to change and facilitate the process on an organizational level, leaders must articulate the need for change and motivate others to collective action. Without feeling authentically connected, people are unlikely to trust one another and will not be open to taking the necessary risks. To combat this, leaders need to know how to facilitate a sense of connection and trust among their team and organization.
Play is one of the most basic ways to encourage authentic connection. It provides an opportunity for people to show up as their whole selves, including the spontaneous and creative parts that are often less prominent in a professional environment. This authentic connection builds the type of trust that enables change to occur.
Ultimately, play is an activity that prepares leaders to understand their appetite for change and learn how to invite others into the process. Play and having an open mind provides opportunities for shared authenticity, courage, and curiosity that combat the fear and resistance of change.
Watch Ziksana’s Founder, Akshay Sateesh, explain the importance of play at work!