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The Power of Play

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Mon Apr 15 2013

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The Power of Play

Fighting off giant sea creatures and spiky turtle men to save Princess Peach and the Mushroom Kingdom. Building a ladder to the moon out of trash, musical instruments, and slices of pizza while dressed as a rabbit. Racing a big squid car through an outer space race track called Rainbow Road.

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You may think I’m describing plots to summer movies or the ramblings of a child’s imaginations. You would be mistaken. I actually am describing a typical Saturday morning for my wife, Jennifer. No, Jennifer is not from a magical land, nor a figment of my own imagination. Come Saturday morning, Jennifer is a gamer. Her games of choice always are of the creative, whimsical, and playful variety.

I already know what some of you are thinking:  What does this have to do with training and development? Aren’t video games a waste of time? Isn’t Nintendo for children? In this post I postulate that not only should we encourage our clients to play, but that time spent doing so is of tremendous benefit toward our goals as development practitioners. The more childlike and whimsical, the better!  

Let me explain. During the week, Jennifer works for the Burn Rehab Unit at a major East Coast hospital. Her typical patients have burns covering more than 90 percent of their bodies, are in tremendous physical and emotional pain, and if they make it past the first few weeks, have a long hospital stay ahead of them. It’s Jennifer’s job to help in the rehabilitation process, which can range from wound care, to helping patients sit up on their own, to teaching them how to walk again. Recovery is only possible with continual work, which is often very hard and painful for the patients. Excruciating as it is, day after day, Jennifer and the Burn Rehab team take their patients through their activities and treatments as they make incremental progress toward recovery. The toughest days for Jennifer, she tells me, are the days she spends time with the family members, and all of the emotions that come with those interactions. In spite of this challenging job, Jennifer always has a huge smile and an infectious laugh. Even her patients, who usually are in pain when they see her, adore Jennifer.

So back to taking on the whimsical world of Nintendo, Jennifer says, “With my job, I need this time just to keep my sanity!” She’s right. For us to be fully engaged, as Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz describe in their book The Power of Full Engagement, we need a rhythm between push and release, between drive and recover. We need to recharge those batteries. As Ginny Whitelaw describes in her latest book, The Zen Leader, we often take better care of our electronics then we do ourselves. When our iPhone battery is about to die, we plug it in to recharge it, but we often don’t take the time to recharge our own batteries.

I realize that for some of you, this seems like common sense. Those of you with a strong preference for the Driver and Organizer patterns of FEBI (that we covered in "Driving Beyond Distractions" and "Giving Form to Those Brilliant Ideas") may be less convinced that playing Nintendo can have benefits like helping you be better at your job. So for you left brainers out there, research shows that happier people are more helpful, creative, prosocial, charitable, altruistic, healthier, live longer, are more likely to marry, stay married longer, and have more close and casual friends. At work, happy people take fewer sick days, receive better evaluations from their supervisors and from customers, stay loyal to their employers longer, show more helpful behaviors, are more innovative, have lower corporate healthcare costs, and have lower turnover rates. And our research shows that play—bringing out the FEBI pattern called the Collaborator—correlates with positive emotions.

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The Collaborator pattern loves to have fun, to engage others, play in the give and take of relationships, and see both sides of a situation. Imagine how powerful this pattern could be if you need to engage your employees while navigating an organizational change, or to solve a complex problem. The Collaborator is often left out of the very situations where she is most needed. In such situations, especially for those that normally approach them with the Driver’s urgency or the Organizer’s seriousness, you may need to be more intentional about summoning the Collaborator. When we sense this is the case with our clients, we can help them to recognize the power of the Collaborator in their work and to learn how to engage this pattern.

One of the best ways to engage this energy is with playful movements: rocking, swinging, dancing, or maneuvering around obstacles in a video game. Build a fort with your kids, play ball with the dog in the park, or just be silly for no reason whatsoever.

So next time you have the urge to shrink to the size of an ant and play in the digital grass on your TV screen, I say pick up that joy stick and get your game on!

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