The informants indicate that play is intentionally used in organizational contexts to increase creativity, and is thought to do so by fostering openness, intrinsic motivation and building collaborative relationships. The ambiguity of play made definitions difficult. The practitioners described play interventions that take many different forms, yet all share a fun-seeking behavioral approach, which is consistent with recent investigations on the nature of adult playfulness (Barnett, 2011).
Functions of play. The informants in our study claim that play facilitates creativity by exercising an attitude of non-judgement amongst team members. Being non-evaluative during the initial stages of the creativity process, and showing support for the unrefined ideas of others has been shown to improve ideation in groups (Camacho & Paulus, 1995; Kohn, Paulus, & Choi, 2011). Organizational research has for more than two decades stressed the need for organizations interested in promoting creativity and innovation to actively promote experimentation and exploration (March, 1991), our results suggest that play facilitates these organizational behaviors. Since play is separated from the real world, risks can be taken with minimal consequences, reducing fear of failure. Exploration in organizational contexts requires that business or organizational objectives temporarily be relaxed, something that playful activities may exercise and promote. An organizational climate that encourages frivolous play is likely to be conductive to many of the contexts that foster creativity and innovation (Ekvall, 1996). By exercising mental flexibility, play may facilitate creativity-relevant cognitive processes such as divergent thinking, problem framing, and mental transformations (Mainemelis & Ronson, 2006).
In the study, engaging and energizing effect of play was something that most of the practitioners mentioned as one of the key reasons for including play in their organizational work. As a behavioral approach to a task, a playful attitude increases positive affect, which has been shown by numerous studies to increase creativity (Davis, 2009). Play may also increase intrinsic motivation, which creativity research has found to be important (Hennessey & Amabile, 2010). The engaging and energizing impact of play are in many ways analogous to the concept of flow, both play and flow share an autotelic nature, doing an activity for the sheer enjoyment of it (Csikszentmihalyi, 1996). Play enhances flow by superimposing challenge onto otherwise unchallenging work tasks.
Our results suggest that play facilitates creativity by increasing psychological safety in groups. Play may also be instrumental in establishing a spirit of collaboration in work groups across the organizational hierarchies. These findings are in line with the research that recognizes the importance of psychological safety for creative performance (Paulus, Dzindolet, & Kohn, 2012).
Encouragers and discouragers. This study is the first to investigate how play interventions are encouraged or discouraged in the workplace. External consultants, and perhaps more importantly, senior management can, according to our informants, promote play by explicitly giving the permission to play, this is ideally done both with verbal instructions and by designing the workplace or training facilities to be physically playful. Many innovative organizations have fun offices or playful meeting rooms which contextually cue a playful environment. The permission to play can be enhanced when senior management also models playfulness by demonstrating their playfulness, in line with Bandura’s theory of social learning (1977).
Our model supports the earliest play scholars Huizinga (1955) and Caillois (1961) who outlined play as bound by structure and rules. Practitioners found that constraints or rules increase participation because individuals feel more secure within the boundaries of a game, or structure of an activity. As noted by some practitioners, neglecting the matching of play and prospective players can lead to failure, in this regard a key encourager of play is to make some effort to match the type of play to the character of the group when introducing play activities.
Competition and making play serious was controversial amongst practitioners. It is possible that in some situations, play involving strong elements of competition may act as a discourager, but when done in a fun and including manner, the engaging boost gained by competition may generally outweigh the eventual negative effects. The level of seriousness with which play is introduced was also controversial amongst practitioners. Purposely weakening the frivolousness of play to adapt it to result-oriented organizational contexts, may sometimes be necessary, but as some of the interviewed practitioners and researchers have warned, this may risk undermining the autotelic nature of play (Sörensen & Spoelstra, 2011). Although the idea of playing at work to enhance organizational creativity is an alluring promise to make, play utilized too instrumentally to meet organizational objectives may undermine the light-hearted core of play.
Practitioners found that high levels of stress in the workplace discouraged playfulness. Similarly, creativity researchers have found that stress and daunting deadlines dampens workplace creativity (Amabile, 1996). Play and creativity share the same enemy of stress. However, play may relieve stress; scholars of organizational psychology have argued that play may reduce stress as a temporary diversion from stressful work tasks (Mainemelis & Ronson, 2006). When functioning as stress-reducer, play would likely have a positive effect on creative performance in the workplace.
One of the discouragers of play, mentioned by practitioners, was found to be an organizational culture of dreadful seriousness, where in addition to a lack of permission to play or any modeling of play, the organizational climate frowns upon demonstrations of playfulness. This climate is not only detrimental to play and creativity (Ekvall, 1996), but also misguided. As the grandfather scholar of play Huizinga concluded: “seriousness seeks to exclude play, whereas play can very well include seriousness”(1955 p. 45).