In reading Dr. Hallowell’s book Shine: Using Brain Science to Get the Best from Your People (Harvard Business Press, 2011), his third and fourth items in providing optimal working conditions for managing performance is about having fun yet challenging people to grow.

To recap, the author, a psychiatrist and behavior expert, draws on brain science, performance research and his own experience to present a Cycle of Excellence process for getting the best from your people:

  1. Select: Put the right people in the right job, and give them responsibilities that “light up” their brains.
  2. Connect: Strengthen interpersonal bonds among team members.
  3. Play: Help people unleash their imaginations at work.
  4. Grapple and Grow: When the pressure’s on, enable employees to achieve mastery of their work.
  5. Shine: Use the right rewards to promote loyalty and stoke your people’s desire to excel.

I think one of the most important things a manager can do for people is to help them use their imagination. However, in the work I do coaching managers, I find that many inadvertently extinguish creative thinking by an overemphasis on rules and procedures.

I’m not saying those things aren’t important, they are. But sometimes we squeeze the sparks out of people and leave them dull and disengaged.

It may seem there isn’t much time or energy for socializing and having fun at work, but these two elements are more crucial than we think. In fact, the success of your people depends on it. Here’s why.

Step 3: Play

Play isn’t limited to break time. Any activity that involves the imagination lights up our brains and produces creative thoughts and ideas. Play boosts morale, reduces fatigue and brings joy to our workdays.

Here’s what I think managers could do more frequently: Encourage imaginative play with these steps:

  • Ask open-ended questions.
  • Encourage everyone to produce three new ideas each month.
  • Allow for irreverence or goofiness (without disrespect), and model this behavior.
  • Reward new ideas and innovations.
  • Encourage people to question everything.

Step 4: Grapple and Grow

Help people engage imaginatively with tasks they like and at which they excel. You can then encourage them to stretch beyond their usual limits.

If tasks are too easy, people fall into boredom and routine without making any progress or learning anything new. Your job, as a manager, is to be a catalyst when people get stuck, offering questions or suggestions but letting them work out solutions.

What do you think about this? In your work as a manager, do you pay attention to playfulness and opportunities to be creative and imaginative? How do you encourage play and growth with people? I’d love to hear from you. I can be reached here or on LinkedIn.