Learn Through Play

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What Is Playful Leadership?

Leadership is a serious subject. Organizational leaders are responsible for making decisions that can significantly impact the people and companies they serve. They are accountable for shaping cultures, setting the vision, mentoring others, building teams, and having the courage to make the best choices with the information they have. With all the serious responsibilities that come with leadership, encouraging leaders to be playful could be considered irresponsible!

But at Ziksana, this is exactly what we do. When we talk about Playful Leadership, we are not talking about leaders who continuously make jokes and think everything is a frivolous game. Quite the opposite, we believe that playful leaders think of unique and creative ways to align and motivate their teams and inspire employees.

Playful Leadership is about knowing when and how to utilize play as a strategy and process to energize people to achieve business outcomes. And laugh along the way.

While some types of play have no intentional outcome besides enjoyment, a playful mentality in team leadership development has a profound and transformational purpose. Without a clear objective, play in the workplace can become counterproductive. But when play is directed towards achieving specific set goals, it becomes a motivating process that gets people connected, courageous, creative, and willing to take on challenges.

Playful Leadership Means Engaging Teams in the Process of Play

With a specific outcome in mind, playful leaders engage their teams in the process of play. While not every leader utilizes the same method, the following three steps contain common elements of a playful process.

1. Connecting People to People

Engaging in and experiencing play requires authenticity and vulnerability. Play creates a low-stakes, safe environment where each person can explore their authentic voice, among others sharing theirs. This environment fuels the group’s connection and willingness to move through the process of play aligned.

Playful leadership means help people connect by modeling curiosity, authenticity, and vulnerability. They engage in appreciative listening, ask curious questions, tell personal stories, are willing to laugh, and aren’t afraid to be seen as imperfect. This creates a psychologically safe space where people can connect on a human level.

Playful leaders also connect people to the purpose of play. To reduce skepticism, they communicate their reasoning behind asking people to engage with each other in playful or creative ways.

2.  Encourage People to Take Risks

Once people feel connected, they are more willing to show up authentically and take risks. Play involves uncertainty and experimentation, which requires courage. To employ a playful leadership style encourage people to try new ways of doing things and step into uncomfortable spaces to learn and grow as a group. They see learning as an exhilarating trial-and-error process and motivate their teams with this outlook.

3. Explore Possibilities

Once people are more connected and willing to take interpersonal risks together, they can imagine possibilities and try new ways of doing things. This is when playful leaders remind teams of their goals and allow them to experiment with innovative ways of reaching them that go beyond typical leadership training and team building exercises. Playful leaders employ creative leadership and spark creativity in teams – they are optimistic and see problems as possibilities rather than roadblocks. They view moderate experimentation as a game worth playing rather than an unnecessary risk.

Start With a Playful Mindset

Understand and Advocate for the Value of a Playful Mentality

Developing playful leadership requires you to personally value a playful mindset. What activities do you find naturally motivating and enjoyable? What makes you laugh and feel connected to others?

Playful Leaders are aware of their play preferences and engage with them to maintain a curious and playful mentality. They enjoy playing, do so regularly, and want to involve other people in the process. Research shows that positive emotional states, like those involved in play, are literally contagious and are necessary for leaders to inspire a shared vision (Boyatzis et al., 2015). Their excitement about life is infectious and motivates others to follow their lead.

Create Psychological Safety

According to Harvard Researcher Amy Edmondson, psychological safety is a shared belief that the work environment is conducive to interpersonal risk. Research by Google revealed that it is the most critical dynamic in building and sustaining high-performing teams.

If you want people to engage in the process of play, they need to feel safe doing so. Inspirational leadership can show transparency by role modeling playfulness and demonstrating that it can help achieve outcomes.

When leaders are transparent with their playful voice and open mindset, psychological safety increases, and teams are better able to both focus attention and be creative (Yi et al., 2017). Want to know if your team feels psychologically safe? Check out our psychological safety post for more.

Do Something New that Scares You

Roller Coasters? Stand-Up Comedy? Surfing Lessons? Push yourself to try something new that looks fun but also scares you. Courage only appears in the face of fear, so why not choose activities where you can practice playfully taking risks?

Stepping into the unknown with a playful approach enhances learning, motivation, and optimum performance (Csikszentmihalyi et al., 2005). In fact, research shows that challenging games increase team member engagement and predict learning outcomes (Hamari et al., 2016).

To lead others playfully, you have to be willing to step outside your comfort zone, learn, and find joy in pushing your boundaries. Learn how to become a more playful leader at the ‘Managing Personal & Team Motivation live online workshop or leadership development programs.

Watch Ziksana’s Founder, Akshay Sateesh, explain the importance of play at work!

Learn the Game of 11 to break the ice at your next meeting or event!


Boyatzis, R. E., Rochford, K., & Taylor, S. (2015). The role of the positive emotional attractor in vision and shared vision: Toward effective leadership, relationships, and engagement.Frontiers in Psychology,6. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00670

Csikszentmihalyi, M., Abuhamdeh, S., & Nakamura, J. (2005). Flow. In A. J. Elliot, C. S. Dweck, A. J. Elliot (Ed), & C. S. Dweck (Ed) (Eds.), Handbook of competence and motivation. (2005-08058-032; pp. 598–608). Guilford Publications.

Hamari, J., Shernoff, D. J., Rowe, E., Coller, B., Asbell-Clarke, J., & Edwards, T. (2016). Challenging games help students learn: An empirical study on engagement, flow and immersion in game-based learning. Computers in Human Behavior,54, 170–179.https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2015.07.045

Yi, H., Hao, P., Yang, B., & Liu, W. (2017). How Leaders’ Transparent Behavior Influences Employee Creativity: The Mediating Roles of Psychological Safety and Ability to Focus Attention. Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies, 24 (3), 335–344.https://doi.org/10.1177/1548051816670306

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