The Serious Business of Play: How Lightening Up Fosters Innovation in the Workplace 

“Play is training for the unexpected.” -Marc Bekoff 

Over the last several years, we’ve heard so often that times are uncertain and rapidly changing; it’s starting to feel a bit old, right?

Like it or not, most of us would agree that we’re living in wild times.  

Innovation…and a Curious Corporate Trend in the Post-COVID Era 

Most leaders recognize that innovation and change are inextricably linked, yet a curious trend has emerged in a post-COVID world:  

“When faced with unwanted change, leaders sometimes abandon innovation for the familiar. And lately, leaders have been confronted with almost non-stop change,” writes Dylan Taylor in Fast Company.  

Indeed, innovation is a sore subject at many companies: McKinsey’s research found that 94% of executives they surveyed were not satisfied with their company’s innovative performance.  

How, then, can today’s leaders flex with the times while continuing to drive the innovation essential to survival in an increasingly competitive business world?  

Think outside the box for the creative answer… 


Therein lies the key to successful innovation. But first, leaders must cultivate a workplace atmosphere of lightness where creativity can find the freedom it needs to emerge.  

In all of my workshops, music has a big role…why? Because in moving to the beat – however fast or slow it may be – we shift more into our right brains. This is where our creativity and intuition – keys to innovation – reside. It’s not that we don’t need the logic which lies in our left brains (of course we do!), it’s just that many of us try to access innovation from a place of reason – which doesn’t make sense (lol). 

“Innovation is creativity with a job to do.” – John Emmerling 

Here are 3 more helpful hints any leader can start implementing as soon as today.  

1. Lay a Foundation of Trust in the Workplace. 

Before people can feel free and encouraged to bring their unique humanness into the workplace, it’s up to leaders to establish a learning culture that is psychologically safe for all.  

In a Forbes article called “How Can Leaders Unlock the Creativity Of Their Teams?”, author Sally Percy explains exactly what the term “psychological safety” means. It’s pretty simple: “it refers to an organizational context where people feel safe to take risks and make mistakes.” 

To build this into the workplace, start with a foundation of trust and mutual respect – consider this a prerequisite to creativity, which ultimately fosters innovation. Here are some pointers: 

  • Listen loudly, speak softly: be present in conversations.  
  • Be open and vulnerable so others feel like they can approach you.  
  • Admit your humanness as a leader (i.e., no one can know it all).  
  • Leverage mistakes as powerful learning opportunities 

2. Challenge convention. 

That coveted atmosphere of lightness where team members and leaders alike feel the freedom to play (and innovate) never comes with the hum-drum of an “It’s always been done this way” mentality. At every turn, we leaders must challenge the rut of worn-out corporate “norms.” To do so, follow these 3 tips: 

  • Encourage honest dialogue so people can discuss – and reflect – as a team. It’s easy for leaders to fall into the status trap where they feel almost required to keep “everything” “on track” according to a narrow viewpoint of how they think things should be. This instantly cuts off innovation. Instead, lightness shines when people get curious and feel comfortable openly sharing their thoughts. This is where the necessity for role-modeling and a strong level of trust comes in: people will not be open if they fear there will be consequences to their words. But when they see us as leaders sharing honestly, it helps them let their guard down, too. 
  • Watch out for pre-conceived judgments that stifle creativity. Brainstorming is key to innovation. This can be a tough one for leaders to follow, because it’s so easy to make (often erroneous) assumptions. Here’s where self-reflection is beneficial – take a few minutes out each day to reflect on how you interacted with others. Would you have done anything different? How did your judgements influence a situation you encountered?  
  • Be agile enough to think long- and short-term to stay grounded. When times are changing as rapidly as they are, it’s easy to fall into a trap of the break/fix mentality. We get caught up in the moment, our vision clouded to the bigger picture. That’s not how true innovation is fostered. The most impactful leaders can switch between long- and short-term visioning to focus on what is strategically the best and most impactful steps toward getting there.  

3. Make time for innovation – and reward it. 

It sounds pretty simple, doesn’t it? But often there’s a disconnect: many organizations say they value innovation, yet they aren’t actually making the time for it.  

In a timeless article called “Creating a Culture of Innovation Starts With the Leader”, author Ric Kelly gives examples of what can happen when a company creates the space needed for innovation:  

  • 3M debuted its 15 percent program back in 1948 – 15% of employees’ time was devoted to innovation. The infamous Post-It note was a byproduct of this. Who knew?! 
  • Other well-known organizations found similar success. Google, for instance, birthed Gmail and Google Earth during their 20% time…   

Every leader wants innovation, but we have to be willing to actively promote it as a routine practice – in literally every aspect of corporate life. For instance, encourage employees to go through their day with an “innovative lens” to see how even ordinary tasks might be improved.  

Also, very importantly: remember to acknowledge people for their ideas! From a simple thank you and some genuine dialogue with a team member to monetary compensation and even gifting (like Zappos does), we must reward others for their contributions. This, in turn, fosters a continual prosperous cycle of lightness and innovation.  

“I want to put a Ding! In the Universe.” – Steve Jobs 

If you want to get a ding! in your own leadership walk: Sign up here to access my FREE Weekly Bolder Moves, delivered fresh to your inbox every Tuesday. 

Uncertain Times Call for BOLD Creativity in Leadership

Our world was thrust into mass uncertainty almost instantly.

Most of us didn’t even see it coming. As a result, mass panic and confusion reigned.

Yet values-based, authentic, and compassionate leaders will maintain their steady course and rise above and beyond this crisis to emerge stronger than before.

They already realize that this, too, will pass, and it will have been the catalyst to spark new thinking, bold ideas and truly, a new world.

“It is worth remembering that the time of greatest gain in terms of wisdom and inner strength is often that of greatest difficulty.”

-Dalai Lama

Calm Leadership During Uncertain Times

Mike Robbins, writing for Forbes, summed up leadership during uncertainty in a simple analogy.

When we are flying, there are times the plane experiences turbulence. Most times, the pilot announces beforehand that the plane will be experiencing a bumpy ride and asks the flight attendants to take their seats until they get through it.

As a result of his message, when we experience the turbulence, we (hopefully) are not panicked. We are reassured by the leadership of the pilot.

If he did not announce the expected bumpy ride, we would have white knuckles from gripping our armrests. (Ok, maybe some of us still might…)

Effective and authentic leaders follow this analogy in their careers – and especially during these unpredictable times. Like putting an oxygen mask on ourselves first – before our children – leaders need to be the pilot during confusing, uncertain times.

How can we come forth as authentic leaders in times of crisis? Robbins suggests:

  1. Integrate self-care. Not only for yourself, but also so you can show up as your best self for others.
  2. Maintain continual communication, a key in times of crisis to cultivate a cohesive team and a sense of community.
  3. Get personal. Bridge communication gaps by reaching people on a personal level, which shows your care and concern.
  4. Flex those mental muscles. Listen to everyone, be open to new ways of doing things. Don’t automatically say no.
  5. Let authenticity shine. When we lead authentically, we let others know we’re in this together and we WILL rise above.

The Mental Process of Authentic Crisis Leadership

During this time of crisis, we have already begun to see true leaders emerging. Take Jacinda Ardern, for example.

True leaders continually let the public know what is happening, they listen to bold, new, imaginative and innovative ways to do business, to educate and to live. They have vision – and holding.

What is holding? Gianpiero Petriglieri, writing in Harvard Business Review, describes holding as the way a person, usually an authority figure, contains and interprets what is going on during a crisis.

And what is containing? The ability to soothe distress and help others make sense out of a crisis. An effective leader will reassure his employees and inform them how the company can get through. The leader thinks clearly, reassures and guides everyone to bond together.

Petriglieri notes that while holding is not often recognized as a trait of leadership, as vision is, it is as essential. A study of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico revealed just that. As the company responded to and recovered from the crisis, top management had different reactions to the spill. While some lost faith in the company, others – those exposed to management who had upbeat messages – strengthened their commitment and resolve to the company.

For those working closely with one’s boss and fellow employees during the crisis, the response was more containing. It reassured employees about the company’s principles, integrity, and future growth.

“Being held as we work through a crisis, the study concluded, is more useful than being told how bright the future is.”

Leading and Moving Forward During Uncertainty

Leading with values-based leadership is a strong foundation for navigating through a crisis. Those values areas include:





Remember how crucial it is to continually communicate with your team. In a Forbes article, author H. V. MacArthur suggests the following topics:

  1. Acknowledge what you know – and what you don’t know.
  2. Share your thoughts about the current crisis in a calm, reassuring way.
  3. Describe your plans to make things better and ask for honest insight.
  4. Keep employees engaged; let them know what is needed from them.

What is, has been before. Authentic leaders realize this. And they will lead the way to a more effective and creative way of doing business.

“The future is uncertain…but this uncertainty is at the very heart of human creativity.”

-Ilya Prigogine

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