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What are you playing at?

What are you playing at?
Published: January 10, 2017
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Funny how something as playful as play can have negative connotations.

On one hand, when we play we express our joyfulness, imagination and freedom. In other contexts, we can be seen as self-indulgent, manipulative and childish.

Perhaps Transactional Analysis, a model of communication, can give us an insight into this. One of its core ideas is that we have three parts to our personality or ways of being, these are known as ‘ego states’. In terms of our thoughts, feelings and behaviours, our child ego state includes those we developed as we grew up, our parent ego state includes those we have copied from significant people in our lives and our adult ego state includes those available to us in the ‘here and now’.

Each ego state has its positive and negative sides. So with our Free Child, we can be natural, creative and spontaneous – and self centred, irresponsible and immature. With our Adapted Child we can be positively cooperative and confirming - and overly compliant and ‘locked-in’ rebellion.

Experiential learning is at the core of our creative change approach at Impact International and we often see participants who are reluctant to experiment, try things out, play. I recall how the Rome media grappled with the fact that the mayor’s office all went to a retreat to ‘play motivational games’ with our Italian office.The fact that the politicians were casually dressed, having fun, experimenting and playing seemed frivolous to many a critic. However the experiential projects they undertook provided powerful forums for raising awareness about the communication and decision-making behaviours amongst the team.

In a more recent example, we received feedback from a leader on a Nissan Europe programme  who told us that “my colleagues and I thought ‘this is going to be painful’ - we were very sceptical, but took fantastic learning from every single thing we did”. Evaluating the course at the end, he enthused “I am 100% positive about the course …it was the best course in my whole career”.

Sometimes it seems the prevailing opinion in adult life, is that if we play we are not serious, we are not learning, we are not doing what we should be doing. Furthermore for our own valued reasons, we often keep our personal and professional selves separate – which can mean we often leave our playful self at the door. However, if we are to let that hidden quality of ourselves shine a little more at work, we learn more profoundly,  become more open and create a more positive, creative and constructive environment.  

A leader was keen to tell me that although he had often used ‘games’ as a Scout Leader, he had not thought of doing so in his ‘real job’! That was until he had seen how valuable it could be in highlighting issues as a result of his own experience on one of our programmes. Now by embarking on more team building activities with his group, efficiency and engagement have significantly improved.

The safety of a play environment helps leaders particularly of intact teams to have discussions they normally wouldn’t have. From simple icebreakers to complex VUCA challenges, from mini 1:1 conversations to mass open space forums, from a chessboard to a canyon rescue, from post-its to poetry, the active learning and experiential activities we undertake at Impact, stimulate real emotions, trigger patterns of behaviour, challenge and stimulate creativity – and all provide a forum for deep reflection and learning that leaders apply back in the workplace. Plato would be our number one supporter.  He said, “You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation."

How can you bring more play into your leadership and your work to create positive change?


Napper, R and Newton T (2000) TACTICS: transactional analysis concepts for all trainers, teachers and tutors and insight into collaborative learning strategies, TA Resources Ipswich, UK, section 4

Penelope Mavor is an Associate at Impact Italia.