Transformational Play

On January 31st I was invited by my colleague Cheng Zeng (pictured above on the bottom row holding a bottle of wine) to lead an improvisational play session with people who were quarantined throughout China. The last thing I thought of that day was that 6 weeks later I, too, would be sheltering in place due to the COVID19 pandemic. Since then, I have been awed by the transformational power of play.

As a faculty member of the East Side Institute, I began to lead free play sessions with co-facilitators from around the world. We had sessions with more than 100 people playing together across borders, sharing our emotions and experiences in a virtual space. I also ran some smaller play sessions with facilitators, coaches, drama therapists, activists and educators to offer training in how to use play to help people connect and build community during these trying times in our world.

A human resources leader who I had worked with in the past, joined one of these sessions and subsequently brought me in to run a play session for employees who are struggling with the isolation of working from home, away from coworkers and who were experiencing a great deal of stress and anxiety. This same HR leader introduced me to a colleague of hers, and when I thanked her she responded, “I’m happy to pass along your services because you really are helping people through an important time in our nation’s history.” This is the power of play.

Over the past few months, I have volunteered, along with an amazing group of play and performance activists, improvisers, clowns, musicians, educators and therapists, to create the Global Play Brigade. We are now a grouping of 160 activists from over 40 countries. We believe that integrating and utilizing play, improvisation, clown, theater and therapeutics into everyday life is a vital methodology for creating hope, possibility, emotional well-being and development.

Sometimes people view play as frivolous or about “having fun,” but I like to say that play is serious business! In play we can be who we are and who we are not/who we are becoming at the same time. We can be isolated, anxious, frightened, angry and upset and yet – we can perform. We can play with all of the difficulties in our world to create new responses, new emotions and new ways to come together with our differences to create a better world.

Grading Employees Fails Us All

BT-AB319_RATING_12U_20150420175718Every once in awhile my husband likes to tease me about the fact that I didn’t receive grades, and therefore had no grade point average, as a student at Sarah Lawrence College. Our professors wrote evaluations about our work and the progress we were making in our studies but we never received grades. One of the many things that I have come to value about my education was the privilege I was afforded in attending an alternative high school and a liberal arts college that were not grading students.

Not having to worry about grades meant that we were was able to focus on learning instead of worrying about competing against each other. There was never any thought or concern about grade point average and whether or not we would make it to “the top of the class.” We were fortunate to have been participants in developmental learning environments where students were encouraged to be co-creators of our education. I began thinking about the positive impact that this had on my life when I read a recent article in the Wall Street Journal: The Trouble with Grading Employees.

For many professionals receiving a grade determines opportunities for promotion, raises in compensation and annual bonuses. As the article correctly points out, grading is a subjective activity that is often demoralizing. I was happy to read about the Gap’s approach to evaluating employees:

The Gap’s new approach dumps ratings in favor of monthly coaching sessions and frequent employee-manager conversations. But HR executives had to convince leaders that the move wasn’t “sacrilegious,” according to Eric Severson, the company’s co-head of human resources.

For as much as our culture values competition, when we are offered the chance to work (or study, or play) in a cooperative environment, people perform at a higher level.  Having monthly coaching sessions and ongoing conversations relates to employees as creators of their work environments. Relating to each other as co-creators frees us from some of the constraints of the roles we play in the workplace, i.e., employee, manager, over-worked boss, disgruntled worker, etc.

Being a co-creator is one of many things that I love about improvisation.  A well-trained improviser is always focused on making their partner look good.  It’s almost impossible to keep an improv scene going if you are competing to be the funniest, cleverest, scene-stealing person on stage.  Improvisers put their focus on “the other” as we listen and build with whatever our scene partner gives us to create with.

When I read the quote below my response was to say, “Really? I beg to differ!” –

 “We don’t want to be in a place where everyone’s an outstanding,” she said.

The fact of the matter is that we can transform the workplace by self-consciously creating the conditions for developmental learning environments where everyone is an outstanding!

For more about developmental learning environments check out the website and work of my colleague Dr. Lois Holzman, a leading proponent of cultural approaches to learning and development.

The Best Managers are Performing Ahead of Themselves

Lately I’ve been observing how people approach the role of manager.  Given my training as an actress and improviser, I often think of roles in theatrical terms.  Sometimes people get “cast” as a manager but they haven’t played this role before, nor have they had any training (rehearsal) for the demands of developing and managing a team.

My training in the social therapeutic method introduced me to Lev Vygotsky, an early Soviet psychologist who greatly influenced the field of human development.  Vygotsky talked about performing “a head taller” than we are – I love this image.  For those of us who find ourselves having to manage others, we often have to do things that seem impossible, given our limitations.  Managing people requires great emotional intelligence, honesty and impeccable listening skills.

Recently I’ve read a couple of wonderful pieces about managing people that appeared in the Harvard Business Review – I love these titles and encourage you to read what these authors have to say:

If You’re Not Helping People Develop, You’re Not Management Material

Employees Who Feel Love Perform Better  

These articles, wonderful as they are, don’t say much about the “how” of developing into a great manager, although they give some steps to take, which I wholeheartedly support.  What I’m most interested in is the performance required to allow oneself to give a team the support they need to develop, which is one way of understanding what is meant by “love” in this context.  In speaking to people about their experiences with managers, they often describe the close bonds that are forged when someone takes the time and effort to give to their people.

Some people end up as managers by default and, not surprisingly, they put all their focus on what they from their people, rather on what their people need from their manager. This is an impossible situation, as an effective manager’s mantra needs to be “give, give and then give some more”, especially if you want to help your people develop. (Hint: You might have to develop!)

Sadly in our culture the act of giving is not often cultivated.  After all, we live in a culture that is all about getting.  So most of us who manage teams of people have to perform a head taller than we are in order to give, especially in the moments when we are frustrated, disappointed, or let down by someone on our team.  This is where performance becomes a wonderful tool, as there are countless performances to be created at these moments!  As human beings we are all wonderfully creative when it comes to performing (think back to when you were a child).  The work I do with my clients is all about creating a character, a role, a performance for these challenging moments (this is how you can perform ahead taller and this is how we grow and develop).

Creative imitation is a good way to begin. Is there a mentor from your past, a role model, even an actor who you admire and can imitate?  What I mean by “creative imitation” is to create your version of this person, using them as inspiration to perform a head taller than you are.  Perhaps you steer clear of conflict – is there someone to imitate who is fearless in the face of conflict?  One of my clients decided to perform as Meryl Streep in Iron Lady, which allowed her to perform as a strong woman in situations that would normally intimidate her.

Next time you have to have a tough conversation with a team member, or you feel the frustrations that comes with being a manager, be a head taller than you are … perform (and develop)!

Creating the environment for a happier workplace

On June 30th I will be leaving my position of 15 years as a retained executive search consultant to begin a new career as a freelance professional in the field of recruiting, training and coaching.  Since I’ve started this blog I’ve read many articles and postings about the workplace, productivity, innovation and other areas of study under the umbrella of human capital issues.  All of this is very much on my mind.

With this direction for my own career I am thinking more and more about what it takes for people to have a better experience in the recruiting and onboarding process; I am concerned that people I place have a good experience at their new company in their new role.  And the same goes for hiring managers and human resource professionals – how can everyone involved have a better experience?  I’ve seen how organizations value or under value talent acquisition and whether or not there is a commitment to the process and activity of recruiting and developing talent.

Although I wholeheartedly agree with the “tips” below for having a “happier” life I would add that it takes time and energy to create an environment for people to have a more joyful experience at work vs. individuals trying to make work a better place for themselves.  Managers have to grow in new ways.  They have to develop and take risks and try some new things (like creating the space for employees to take breaks for exercise, breathing, laughter, play, improvisation … whatever is relaxing).  An overly critical manager who rarely gives praise to his/her team and expects them to work without a break, without thought for what the office environment is like, will need to develop beyond the role/performance of manager that she/he knows (behavior) and create a new performance.  That is where development resides – in the new performance (vs. behavior).

I am a developmentalist.  I’ve spent many years as a builder of a broad based and performance-oriented movement for human development and social change.  I bring this perspective and activity to my work as a recruiter, coach and trainer.  In the same way that development is often not present in discussions about education, it is no where in the discussions about the workplace.

Hopefully we will soon see articles on the Harvard Business Review’s site about developmental approaches to a more productive workforce but in the meantime enjoy these helpful (albeit individualistic) ways to make the workday more joyful – I’m all for that!

The Happiness Dividend by Shawn Achor (HBR):

  • Write down three new things you are grateful for each day;
  • Write for 2 minutes a day describing one positive experience you had over the past 24 hours;
  • Exercise for 10 minutes a day;
  • Meditate for 2 minutes, focusing on your breath going in and out;
  • Write one, quick email first thing in the morning thanking or praising a member on your team.

Gratitude, focusing on positive experiences, exercise, meditating, and random acts of kindness are all ways to change the pattern through which your brain views work.

Let’s develop from our failures

I was so pleased to see the title of this article in the Harvard Business Review’s interview with A.G. Lafley, the former CEO of P&G – “I Think of My Failures as a Gift” 

Failure is, indeed, a gift!  It’s not always easy to see that when in the midst of a failure but my best learning opportunities have grown out of failure and I think that’s true for many of us.  Embracing failure is a great tool for growth.  I liked this exchange in the interview:

Can leaders learn as much from success? No. My experience is that we learn much more from failure than we do from success. Look at great politicians and successful sports teams. Their biggest lessons come from their toughest losses. The same is true for any kind of leader. And it was certainly true for me.

Not only can we learn from our failures, we can develop from embracing and playing with them. There is an improv exercise where we teach the fun of making a mistake.  I love to watch people as they transform their experience of “messing up” into the joy of throwing their hands in the air to proudly claim, “I made a mistake!”.  It’s a wonderful exercise for a group of people who are coming together for the first time.  You create two circles of participants.  Going around each circle everyone says their name – good to do this a couple of times.  Then the fun begins Someone begins by pointing to a person across from them and saying their name.  When a “mistake” is made and the person can’t remember the name of the person they pointed to they proudly and loudly say, “I made a mistake!” and run over to join the other group.  This all happens fast and is quite fun.  There are other exercises (perhaps for another posting) that similarly celebrate the moment of “failure” because that is where the learning, creativity and, as improv teachers and coaches know quite well, the fun resides.

Failures, large and small, are gifts… enjoy them and most of all grow from them.  As my mentor and colleague Dr. Fred Newman would say, Let’s Develop!