When I was in fourth grade, my friend down the street, Andrea C., invited me to come with her to Sunday school.
It was fun, she said. The teachers, a youngish couple (who seemed ancient to me at the time), served ice cream, and gave away dolls and other toys as prizes.
When the initial invitation turned into a recurring one, my secular parents were savvy enough to realize there was an ulterior motive behind it:
Andrea’s family hoped to save my heathen soul.
This may have been the subject of some late night parental discussions, but I never heard them.
All I remember is dressing in my fourth grade finest (knee socks and Buster Brown saddle shoes, and the softest steel blue faux suede skirt and matching vest over a mustard yellow turtleneck), and waiting in the living room for the C’s station wagon to stop outside our house.
My Jewish-but-not-observant mom and raised-Presbyterian-but-not-religious dad were progressive enough to let their daughter have the freedom of my own choices.
Over the year or two I joined the C’s at their church, I remained blissfully unaware of anyone’s attempts to convert me.
I learned a bit about Christianity — and still know the Lord’s Prayer to this day — but the truth is, I was there for the fun: I wanted to play.
Although there could have been more F.U.N. Method™-type experiential learning in the Sunday school classes I attended (perhaps I’d remember more of the actual lessons, if there had been), that youngish couple who taught the class at least had the right idea when they made the effort to bring play into the room.
What worked for me in fourth grade is effective for adults, too.
But not only do play and fun entice people through the door, play is surprisingly effective for productivity.
You may have been led to believe that work and play are opposites, but that’s not true.
In fact, when it’s used strategically, play makes work more effective!
Need some scientific proof?
Here are 9 specific ways researchers have shown that play is good for business.
In the paragraphs below, you’ll find direct excerpts from research papers, showing that play…
1. Creates an optimal environment for learning
Improv training teaches individuals to actively listen, work as a cohesive and supportive ensemble, co-create in the present, take productive risks, and embrace failure (Vera & Crossan, 2004).
2. Supports innovation
The ability to play is crucial for today’s leadership and management, since it can enhance leaders’ ability to be creative and promote ongoing innovation and organizational change (Kark, 2011).
3. Contributes to knowledge sharing & creativity
Playful team interactions … can contribute to enhanced levels of team knowledge sharing and creativity (Kark, 2011).
4. Supports coping with change and ambiguity
The experiential, emergent, and mindful nature of improvisational techniques has shown to be a successful tool for coping effectively with continuous change, making spontaneous decisions, managing stress, and developing the adaptable skillset of leaders, teams, and organizations (Cunha, Cunha, & Kamoche, 1999; Jackson, 1995; Safian, 2012; Van de Walle & Vogelaar, 2010).
5. Enhances decision making
Play teaches leaders how to make better spontaneous decisions. 97% of leaders reported that they would change the way they make spontaneous decisions from pretest by using their intuition more and using improvisation principles (Tabaee, 2013).
6. Enhances Strategic Thinking
… serious play has been associated with the cognitive generation of new insights relevant for organizational practice [including] innovative strategy content (Jacobs & Statler, 2005; Roos et al., 2004; Statler & Oliver, 2008); innovative product designs (Schrage, 2000); the surfacing and expression of tacit knowledge (Oliver & Roos, 2007); and the facilitation of analogical reasoning in strategy (Statler, Jacobs, & Roos, 2008) (Statler, Heracleous, & Jacobs, 2011)..
7. Fosters leadership development
…types of play that encourage identity play, such as role-play, simulations, and outdoor experiences, which provide structures in which the individuals have the opportunity to explore a new role, position, or leadership behavior, are likely to foster the development of a leader identity (Kark, 2011).
8. Encourages investment!
Play contributes to individuals’ vitality, that is, the subjective experience of having energy, feeling alive, and fully functioning. It is an affective experience that encompasses approaching tasks with excitement, energy, enthusiasm, and vigor and not doing things halfway or halfheartedly. Psychologically, this state of aliveness makes a person feel that his or her actions have meaning and purpose (Kark & Carmeli, 2009).
People who feel high levels of vitality tend to view events positively and invest more effort in activities and tasks and feel higher levels of work engagement (Ryan & Frederick, 1997). Thus, when individuals and managers have a high level of energy, vitality, and engagement, they are likely to invest in their learning and practice of skills as leaders and master the needed skills (Kark, 2011).
9. Accelerates collaboration and team performance
By bringing teams together through trust and mutual engagement, improv can generate the collaborative, interdependent environment needed for successful goal achievement and organizational success (Cole, 2016).
…there is empirical evidence that improv training can drive optimal organizational performance by increasing team creativity, communication, and team cohesion (Cole, 2016).
So there you have it: 9 specific ways that research has shown play and improv training to be good for business.
This is by no means an exhaustive list.
Want more details? Check out these scientific papers:
Effects of Improvisation Techniques in Leadership Development. Tabaee, F. (2013)
Games Managers Play: Play as a Form of Leadership Development. Kark, R. (2011)
Serious Play as a Practice of Paradox. Statler, M., Heracleous, L., & Jacobs, C. D. (2011)
(and that’s just a handful of the studies that have been published on the topic!)
It’s why the methods I use are (scientifically-grounded) play-based. Because they work.
The upshot: just as my fourth grade Sunday school teachers figured out that fun was not the opposite of Sunday school…
Play is not the opposite of work; play is how we make work more effective.
Now go forth and play well!
If you’d like to experience some brain-friendly exercises that activate learning while building connection, come to my next Non-Boring Virtual Meetings Learning Lab.
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