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Adaptive Leadership: 3 Ways Play Prepares Leaders for Change

If there’s one thing that 2020 taught us, it’s that change is inevitable. Not only that, but being prepared to navigate the ambiguity that comes along with change is a vital leadership skill. In 2020, we witnessed first-hand the impact that COVID-19 had on organizational culture and strategy. 

For one of our clients, the global pandemic completely shifted their long-term strategy as they changed their short-term goals to respond to testing needs for the public. For another, culture changes were needed at the manager level to improve remote communication with employees. In both of these situations, adaptive, change-savvy leadership was the key to success. But not all leaders know how to successfully respond and lead organizations through change. 

At Ziksana, we believe that employing play at work is part of the solution. We use the science of play to empower leaders with experiences that connect them to what change feels like. Research shows that for many animals, play is an adaptive function that helps them practice necessary survival skills. 

The same can be said for humans, albeit our environments are typically less life-threatening. However, there are challenges in modern-day organizations that can feel as threatening and high stakes.

Organizational change can be full of fear. On a biological level, dealing with ambiguous situations triggers our “fight-or-flight” response, leading us to quickly take action with the ultimate goal of self-preservation. As a leader, this is problematic. Approaching change from this “triggered” state typically leads to poor decisions that fail to consider the ultimate goal or the other people involved.

If trained leaders hope to respond and adapt to change appropriately, they need to practice navigating ambiguous circumstances with the ability to stay calm, think strategically, consider others, and take bold action. Luckily, engaging in play at work provides a compelling opportunity to practice these skills.

Our research on the impact of playful learning has shown that play prepares leaders to successfully adapt to change in 3 ways:

1. Play Facilitates Adaptive Leadership and Openness in Teams 

To successfully adapt to change, playful leaders need to have a curious, open mindset and gather diverse perspectives to inform their actions. When fear is involved, people tend to rely on their pre-existing knowledge and beliefs to inform their decisions quickly. To be truly adaptable, leaders must take the time to practice appreciative listening – ask curious questions, listen, and understand different perspectives before developing a plan of action. 

Play creates a low-stakes environment where leaders can practice these interpersonal skills without feeling defensive. It sets the tone for the type of curious approach that is necessary for adapting to change. 

2. Play Facilitates Assertive Leadership and Teams Who Take Action 

When faced with change, it is natural to start imagining various approaches to handling it. This isn’t a bad thing. In fact, the ability to anticipate future needs, options, and trends is a defining feature of an adaptive leadership style. However, this becomes problematic when too much time is spent in the analysis at the expense of decisive and necessary action. Adaptive leadership is lost without assertive leadership.

As an adult, playing is a risk in-and-of-itself. Acting silly or impractical, especially around a professional team, can be daunting for many leaders. However, playing together allows leaders to recognize their common humanity, accept their flaws, and be open to taking risks in front of one another. 

This experience of psychological safety at work sets a precedent for the type of culture that facilitates a collective willingness to take action and learn from risks. Adapting to change is a constant learning process, and assertive leaders must accept that mistakes will be made along the way. Accepting the inevitability of risk-taking prepares leaders to take action before they feel entirely ready and encourages the same courage from their team members. 

3. Play Facilitates Authentic Leadership and Connection To Teams

To successfully employ adaptive leadership and facilitate the process on an organizational level, leaders must articulate the need for change and motivate others to collective action. Without feeling authentically connected, people are unlikely to trust one another and feel safe. To combat this, adaptive leaders need to know how to facilitate a sense of connection and trust among their team and organization.

Play is one of the most basic ways to encourage authentic connection and build trust at work. It provides an opportunity for people to show up as their whole selves, including the spontaneous and creative parts that are often less prominent in a professional environment. This authentic connection builds the type of trust that enables change to occur. 

Ultimately, play is an activity that prepares adaptive leaders to navigate ambiguity and invite others courageously into the process of change. Play provides opportunities for shared authenticity, courage, and curiosity that combat the fear and resistance to change. Want to experience it for yourself? Join us for PlayTank 2021, a 4-Part Workshop Series on Leading Change.

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Watch Ziksana’s Founder, Akshay Sateesh, explain what’s in store for PlayTank 2021!

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