Purpose & Playfulness
The Benefits of Blending Both
Last year, I worked with the single most tenacious team of my career. Their dedication was unwavering, their work ethic astounding, and they believed wholeheartedly in the value of their project.
They also believed in ice cream.
The value of blending purpose and playfulness was a lesson I needed to relearn (again) and it came on an unseasonably warm day when we were light on hands and heavy on work. This team, made up entirely of volunteers, was in the process of flipping a vacant city lot into an 8,000 square foot neighborhood garden. All of our bonus volunteers had cancelled (life happens) and we were left to plant over a hundred shrubs on our own. The team stepped up in every way imaginable.
We were in the home stretch when the tinkling sounds of the ice cream truck caught our attention. Hot, dirty, and exhausted – without a kid among us (I was the youngster of the bunch, squarely in middle age) – it was like a switch flipped. The team leader looked at the ice cream truck, looked at me, and without saying a word, reminded me of the vital nature of playfulness.
All the plants were planted that day, despite taking time to giggle together over our wildly different preferences in ice cream and crushed ice delights. The experience of joy, within the structure of the work, buoyed all of us and made finishing the tasks of the day exponentially easier.
A good work ethic, underpinned by levity, makes for sustainability. Tension is absolutely necessary to hold complex projects together. An infusion of laughter and even shared silliness ensures the tension doesn’t devolve into burnout. And, in the age of The Great Resignation, this is particularly important to remember. (For more on that, read our thoughts on Persistence & Pause and the balance that can be derived from practicing both.)
So often, seriousness and intensity are equated with efficiency while playfulness is deemed unwelcome, particularly as adults. No doubt, there is room for both and research suggests that the benefits of balancing purpose and playfulness shouldn’t be overlooked.
Creativity and innovation are fueled by playfulness. And, social and collegial relationships are often strengthened when opportunities for fun are both available and encouraged. According to research from Robertson Cooper, positive emotions and social connections are two of the four most significant components to well-being at work. What are the other two, you ask? Task completion and meaningful contribution.
In other words, balance. Purpose and playfulness are two sides of the same coin.
And, play doesn’t have to mean an office Olympics. Research from Bright HR showed that well over half of respondents described workplace fun as simply “having great colleagues that they enjoy spending time with.”
I have a silly bird pen on my desk. Her name is Mirabelle (left) and she is a master at averting productivity breakdowns by occasionally appearing on screen to make someone laugh, soften frustration, or create the space to offer different perspectives. She’s ridiculous, but effective.
She became so popular that her clones were sent off to colleagues (you can see one here, waiting for an assignment). If one of the birds appeared on screen, we all knew it was time to take a breath, take a break, and take ourselves a little less seriously. She reminded us all to connect with each other as people and not solely as entries in a schedule.
Most of us are deeply connected to the purpose of our work. We understand the objectives and deliverables. And, we value the role of our colleagues and partners in the process. It makes for a great pie chart. But, what about the crust of that pie? The foundation that balances the filling?
We work hard. We do important things. But, we’re not machines. We crave – and very much need – the balancing forces of humor and playfulness to offset the tension of our purpose.
Embracing the lighter side of our humanity complements our pie chart with a spunky crust to support the filling. Together, it’s a recipe for sustainability in the workplace and beyond; something that could benefit us all. So, have a laugh and enjoy each other’s company from time to time. The work will keep and, chances are, blending purpose and playfulness will actually increase your productivity while strengthening your team.