How play can improve creativity and trust in the workplace: An interview with Sheena Greer

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Editor's Note: This interview originally appeared on the Wild Woman Fundraising website and is excerpted with permission. You can read the full interview here.

Mazarine Treyz: Hey, everybody. This is Mazarine Treyz of Wild Woman Fundraising, and today I am so pleased to be interviewing Sheena Greer of Colludo about play. Sheena will be speaking about this subject at our Fundraising Career Conference. Sheena, welcome.

Sheena Greer: Thank you so much for having me.

MT: Sometimes people don’t realize how important play is. How did you get interested in creativity and play yourself?

SG: How did I get interested? Well, I guess I’ve been a really playful, creative person my entire life. Obviously as children, we all are. But it was something that really stood out for me when I was growing up and really started becoming a parent, how important it was when I grew up and started actively practicing reflection and looking back to make connections between things that make me "me". As well as making connections between work and play. So when I looked back on my life and saw moments where I was most stressed or lonely or hurt, through my childhood right through adulthood, play was always really healing for me.

I grew up in a small farming community. My dad is a farmer. My mom is a nurse. They’re the hardest working people. I’m sure lots of people can say that about their parents. My parents just never seemed to stop working. As I look back on who my parents are, they’re still alive and they’re still wonderful and healthy today. But when I look back at these hard workers, I wonder how did they do it? Their lives were so infused in play in different ways. Of course, I’ve got kids of my own and watching my young son learn and grow and become this amazing little person and getting the opportunity to play with him. All of this really ignited an idea that play was really important and necessary. As I started making connections between all of these wonderful things in my life and what a role play has had in it, obviously I made connections between that and the work that I’m actively doing in this sector and noticing connections to play or a void of play and creativity in the work that we do in this space.

So when I struck out on my own four years ago, I wanted to make sure that play was central to the kind of work that I was going to do, both in how I structured my business and the work I took on. Since then I’ve just been doing a lot of reading and research and practice in the play space to make sure that it becomes and maintains a strong part of my life as I work and share with others.

MT: Why does creativity help us in our nonprofit work? What’s the point?

SG: Well, let’s just take a step back first and talk about why play and creativity is just important in general for everyone. Of course, we know that play is an essential learning tool for children.

Play is essential for kids. But when we give ourselves permission to play with that same kind of joyful abandon as we did when we were kids, there are so many things that can happen in our lives. Play relieves stress and pain. Of course, play triggers release of endorphins. So those feel good chemicals can also help relieve pain. Play improves brain function - games like chess or puzzles or something like that. The way it challenges the brain can help us prevent memory problems and improve brain function, as well as the social interaction of playing with other people helps ward off stress and depression.

Stimulating the mind through play really can boost creativity. As I said, kids learn when they’re playing and that principle applies equally to adults. You’ll learn a new task better when you’re having fun and you’re relaxed and you’re in a playful mood. Of course, play stimulates our imagination which helps you solve problems. Play improves your relationships and helps your connection to others. So sharing laughter and fun fosters empathy, compassion, trust and intimacy with others really. It doesn’t have to be a specific activity of play, either. It can be a state of mind. So developing a playful nature can help you loosen up in stressful situations.

It can help you break the ice at that awkward networking event, making friends and forming relationships at work. And it can help you feel young and energetic, right? ...when we think now specifically about our sector, which is a pretty stressful sector - we have large instances of burnout. We have to solve the world’s most complex problems and constantly do more with less. So obviously we want to keep functional when we’re under stress. We need to stay refreshed in our bodies and minds. We need to work well with our teams. We don’t want to burn out. We need to learn how to creatively solve problems and we need to learn to see those problems in new ways. So really it’s a point of play. I just believe that bringing play into your life can help you so much with every aspect of your life, really.

MT: So it de-stresses you. It makes you more able to learn things. It makes you more aware and alive. That’s what I’m hearing. Is that a good summation? Is that accurate?

SG: Absolutely.

MT: But are you saying we should play every day? Or how do you get the benefits of this?

SG: So the short answer is no. But the long answer is yes. What if we’re too busy to play? Well, what if you’re too busy to exercise or to eat healthy or to sleep? What if you’re too busy to help your kids with their homework or meet a friend who’s having a hard time or too busy to call your grandma? Life is full. But taking time for these things that matter most is so crucial. Our family and friends matter. Our bodies and minds and hearts matter. Play is really an intersection of all these things if we let it into our lives.

I don’t mean to get too self helpy or preachy. But we know that when we take care of ourselves, we can take care of everything else better. So play is really a wonderful way to take care of ourselves if we allow it into our lives.

MT: So every day is a good idea and that’s what I’m hearing.

SG: Yeah, if you can fit it in. You don’t need to play a really long game, an hour long or two hours long every day. Think of it like exercise. People say get up and walk around for 15 minutes, 5 minutes. Think of it like that. If you can get in little bursts of something that is fun and energizing or relaxing and destressing, whatever that is, find ways to fit it in. Find your play and make yourself do it.

MT: Well, is it structured or unstructured play that works best for productivity?

SG: Again, it’s a little bit of’s really about finding the kind of play that relaxes you, de-stresses you and energizes you and inspires you. For my own self, for example, I do a lot of stream of consciousness writing which is basically just stringing together any words that form in my head and allowing them to spill across the page. So you can say that this is unstructured play for me.

It’s sort of a form of stretching or yoga or something like that. Whereas structured play would be when I take a specific word or idea and write around it for a set time period. So I take 15 minutes to write as much as I can about eating alone in a restaurant, which is more like a sprint or a race. So you can say that’s more structured. Obviously I do a lot of word-based play because it directly affects the work that I do. But for me, it’s no more effective or less effective than, say, pretending to be a Jedi and fighting Sith lords with my kids or dancing around my kitchen and singing 80s music with my husband or something like that. Whatever that moment of play is, if you can plan it and you can find something that directly sparks into whatever you’re needing to do, whatever you’re needing to tackle, that’s cool. You’ve got kids? Get right down on the floor with them and play Lego. Build something. Allow yourself to play in whatever way comes across. You might find it more useful than you could imagine.

MT: How have you seen organizations be transformed through play in their culture or fundraising?

SG: I’ve seen this happen on a lot of scales, and I hope that in my presentation I can share some specific examples. But I’d like to share with you one of my favorite memories from this work that I’ve done. It was from presenting at a conference. It was a fundraising conference and I was presenting to a room of like 250 people about play. So this is a room full of experts and people who are teaching really valuable, awesome technical stuff. I get up there and I start talking about play.

Then I told this room full of fundraisers who are eager to hear guys like Tommy Hearn and Jeff Brooks talk about writing for fundraising or something like this. I get up and I tell them that we’re going to do some coloring. Their reaction in the room was split. 50% had this look on their face like this is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. The other half, Mazarine. The other half looked terrified. So I reassured them that it was going to be okay and it was totally going to be worth it. They were skeptical but I began to guide them through this exercise and as I did, something really cool happened.

The room broke out in giggles and laughter. As I looked out, there were these tables full of grownups who were wielding crayons and coloring with their tongues stuck out like little kids. I’d give them a warning and say okay, we just have one more minute on this part of the exercise. There would be this, no, we need more time. Give us another minute. It was so awesome. It was one of the coolest moments, personally and professionally, to see this room of cautious, skeptical confused professionals turned into a bunch of happy, scribbling grade school kids. I had a lot of people come up to me and thank me. Folks have emailed me and said that they’ve taken those ideas, exercises, and even just the idea of play back to their office.

Some have emailed me to say, how do I find my play? There was this young gentleman. He came up to me afterwards and he was a very smart looking, professional young dude in a suit. Very slick and polished. He said, you know, I was going to zone out when you started talking about play because that’s not why I came here. But I’m glad I didn’t because it ended up being one of the coolest and most enlightening pieces of the whole conference. So that was a really cool thing for me, and to have people still email me to this day and say, "You know what? I pulled out this thing that I made with you and it made me smile. I showed it to a coworker and we talked about it."

I think that organizations can be massively effected if they can bring something like this in. But on the individual level, if we could each take the time to go read in the park or install a whiteboard so that you can doodle out your ideas. Even just take the courage you find in your play to finally maybe take that pottery class or painting class that you’ve always been too scared to because you think, I’m just not creative. I’m just not artistic. I’m not going to do that.

It can give you so much confidence in your ideas. It can encourage you to speak up more and give you the ability to be more gentle with yourselves and your family, your kids, your spouse or partner and your coworkers as well. I think it’s such a fascinating lens to view the world and I’m really excited to share with people more about it.

MT: Let’s go deeper with this just a tiny bit. When we had a conversation earlier this month, you talked about how learning to play together is a way to build intimacy and trust. But can you say more about why trust and intimacy are important at work?

SG: We’re constantly engaged with other people, and play is a language that we’ve been wired with. I use this example with you before. Watch two kids play fighting. Within that play space, there’s a perceived understanding that this is play and not fighting. Even if from the outside, you might be like, oh my gosh. Those little kids are fighting. But it’s play space. There’s a common understanding of what’s allowed and what’s not.

Of course, boundaries are stepped on. Someone pulls someone’s hair or whatever and they step outside of the rules of the game. Animals do this too. We all do this. We’re wired to do it. So when we partake in play it’s really like learning to dance. We learn to trust that our partner won’t step on our toes as much as our partner learns to trust that we won’t step on theirs. Obviously we’re not constantly engaged in play space with our coworkers. We’re engaged in work space. But we are engaged in a relationship that requires trust. Play really helps foster this with humour and fun in a lighthearted way between individuals in a space where when you’re playing a game, the stakes are pretty low. But when you’re playing a game, you’re working together, even against each other for a set of goals that we work in this way that shows that we can be trustworthy teammates as well as valuable opponents. This is so valuable for our working relationships.

MT: You’re saying that people are together and this is a way to build trust where the stakes are low, so that when the stakes become high, they can feel like they can lean on each other.

SG: Absolutely. You think of – I don’t know, think of Olympic figure skaters or something. They don’t meet and shake hands and go out and compete for gold, right? It takes a lot of practice and play together and different kinds of play and aligning their bodies and minds to be able to go out and pull this amazing thing off. Obviously we’re not all like skating in the Olympics. But when it comes down to the kind of work that we need to do, and the kind of work we really need to do together. Looking at our organizations, there’s all kinds of trust issues and silo issues and like territorial stuff. If we can break down those boundaries and learn to trust each other and dance together and play together, we’re going to be able to tackle that ultimate goal, which is the same, right?

Make more money for this amazing cause, or connect to people who need our services, or whatever it is you’re working towards. Play is going to help that and it’s going to help you trust the people on your team and have them trust you as well.

Join us for the 3rd annual Fundraising Career Conference April 17th, 19th and 21st 2017. Since 2015 over 900 people have attended this online conference, resulting in more successful job interviews, 42% salary increases, new jobs, better workplace environments, and more! This year we're going deep, with sessions on how to build trust with your boss (and not get fired), how to be a better mentor and manager, creativity and play at work, and more! Learn more.

Mazarine Treyz is the author of "Get the Job! Your Fundraising Career Empowerment Guide." Her popular blog has 50,000 monthly readers. Read more at Join her at the 2017 Fundraising Career Conference.

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