The Power of Play

THE BIG IDEA: Play is essential for creativity, collaboration, and positive mental health. This article explores how a more playful attitude can elevate your business.


Somehow, many of us have come to associate business with seriousness.

The mindset is: Playfulness is childish. Adults are serious; business professionals even more so.

When you were a child, your parents might have told you: “Stop playing around!”

And you just might have listened too well.

Play and playfulness, however, are incredibly important for both your work and your organization.

Why We’re So Serious At Work

Do you behave and act the same way at work as you do at home? Probably not.

Most of us have multiple personas or social masks that we wear in different social contexts. For example, we hold ourselves differently at work then we do in the privacy of our homes.

Most of us are afraid to be ourselves in the office. That would leave us feeling vulnerable.

The subconscious thought might be: What will people think if I let loose and be myself? A business professional has to maintain a certain demeanor and uphold a refined image.

So we tend to put up a serious front and hide our more human qualities from our co-workers.

How Seriousness Influences Our Work

How do you feel when you’re serious?

Seriousness tends to dampen our moods. We experience less joy, gratitude, and hopefulness. It’s difficult to inspire and connect with others when we lack inspiration within ourselves.

What’s the quality of your thinking when you’re serious?

With less joy and lightness, our thoughts more easily become pessimistic. We focus too much on what’s not working or what could go wrong. We focus too little on our empowering vision for the future.

How do you hold your body when you’re serious?

Excessive seriousness causes our bodies to tighten up. This creates stress and restricts blood flow. It puts the body in a constant state of alarm. It leads to neurotic behavior like anxiety and depression that plagues our modern world.

How creative are you when you’re serious?

It’s difficult to relax and be totally serious at the same time. Relaxation helps the mind wander. Allowing your mind to wander fosters creativity.

Play and Self-Actualization

Self-actualizing people are those who are realizing their true potential. If you recall, Maslow characterized self-actualization as a fundamental, higher-level need that all humans have.

Maslow found that self-actualizing people are more spontaneous in their behaviors, thoughts, and impulses. There’s a naturalness in their behavior. Seriousness and rigidness hinder our ability to return to our true selves. Playfulness returns us to our natural spontaneity.

Maslow also found that self-actualizing people have greater acceptance of themselves and others. This means they have less overriding guilt, shame, and anxiety. A lot of our seriousness stems from not accepting our shortcomings and contradictions. It’s no big deal. We’re all imperfect, complex humans.

It’s interesting that Level 5 Leadership is characterized by humility. Humility is a quality of self-actualizing people and an antidote to excessive seriousness.

When we’re consistently rigid, stiff, or serious at work, we’re bottling up our emotions. Self-actualizing people have a richness of emotional reaction. They experience awe, wonder, and pleasure of life’s beauty. We can all use a lot more of that.

Seriousness has a way of putting up boundaries between us and others. When we’re playful, we invite others to play with us. Playfulness improves collaboration and our interpersonal relationships in and outside of the office.

A playful attitude also makes us more receptive to learning. The science of play is beginning to demonstrate that play shouldn’t be contrasted with learning; it should be synonymous with it.

Play and Flow

Maslow observed that everyone has access to what he called peak experiences or what fellow psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls flow. Flow is that feeling of being in the zone. It’s characterized by an intense focus or total absorption in what we’re doing.

You’ve invariably had the experience of flow at work. It’s a wonderful feeling. All your resistance drops away. No distractions pull your attention. You produce your best work.

Most executives, however, report that they experience flow states on an infrequent basis.

A playful attitude opens you up to more experiences of flow. Self-actualizing people, Maslow found, enter these flow states on a more frequent basis than the average person.

Play in the Workplace

Work without play translates to an environment that lacks passion and creativity.

Dynamic corporate cultures foster an environment that encourages play. They clearly value play. You can observe it when you enter their space. It gives the organization life, personality, and humanity. This playful attitude invariably finds its way to the customer. It can shape the brand in remarkable ways.

Powerful brands like Zappos, The Life is good Company, The Motley Fool, Google, and Southwest Airlines find ways to infuse a sense of play into their work.

The Power of Play

Every human has many challenges each day. A strict, rigid attitude with a serious demeanor leaves no space for us to breathe. A playful, more fluid attitude helps us tackle our challenges with grace and inspiration.

Lighten up. Laugh more. Move your body more. Consciously lead yourself and your organization toward the spirit of optimism, gratitude, and play. It will uplift those around you and free them to become a better version of themselves.

Becoming more playful may be the most important change you make in your business (and personal life) this year.

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