Back to Basics: Leadership Lessons from the Playground

Cleaning-WorkspaceWhen we send kids out to play in the yard we don’t tend to think about it as time for them to be productive. It’s a time for them to let down their guard, have some friends over, and have fun. The neat thing is, when they do that, they end up creating some pretty great things.

I remember when I was in 5th or 6th grade I had a good friend who lived in the neighborhood. We both played baseball, were pretty active, and used to come up with all kinds of different games to play. My favorite we called “Superfantastic.”

We had a slight hill in our backyard, and to play Superfantastic, one person stood at the top of the hill with a tennis ball and tennis racquet. At the bottom of the hill was the other person, or persons if we were lucky, armed only with a baseball glove. The person with the racquet drilled line-drives with the tennis ball down the hill so that the person with the glove had to make diving catches. When you really stretched out to get one, I mean really dove hard and caught it, we would all jump up and yell, “That was Superfantastic!”

Now, imagine if you sent the kids out to play and gave them three initiatives to accomplish and a deadline within which to accomplish them. Then, prior to them going out, you sat them down and told them just exactly how to do it, step by step. Then, because you needed these initiatives to be executed correctly, you decided to go outside with them just in case they forget what you said or, God forbid, executed the steps out of order.

Not only would that NOT be fun and a major waste of your time, nobody would want to play! We would never do that to our kids! However, we submit our employees to some degree of this type of direction all the time. We say we want their creativity. We say we’ll only hire “self-starters.” But then we give them an employee handbook eight inches thick with all of the policies, procedures, approval processes, and other “that’s the way we do things around here” documents.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

A Sprint call center found that they were doing exactly that, and the reason was that the leaders were afraid to try new things and didn’t trust the employees. Everything was structured, and the rules spanned from what the agents wore to how they sat at their seats. They micromanaged the employees and, needless to say, morale was low, turnover was high, and productivity was a mystery.

Then, the leaders got together, and with the employees’ help made some pretty outside-the-box changes. They started to relax the dress code, piped in music, and even added big-screen TV’s with employees’ favorite shows. The message sent to the agents was, “we trust you to do your jobs.” It took some tweaking, but they settled in on a number of changes that increased trust and creativity in how customers were served. The leaders said they started “hearing” the smiles in the agents’ voices.

Skip to the end of this story, and they saw retention rates jump 25% in the first year while four year average productivity rates increased by 20%. These are great results, but maybe the best long-term result they achieved was that the agents started coming to the leaders with their own ideas on how to improve the business.

The bottom line is this: if we don’t trust our employees enough to allow them the space to be creative, to allow them to play a little, then we can’t expect to get their best. We NEED them to be their best if we are going to get ahead in today’s economy. We NEED them to “go out there and play.”

So, lighten up, and do something different this week to show your team that you trust them and value their creativity.

That’s what we do for the kids, isn’t it?

About the Author
Jay-Larson-50Jay Larson is an international consultant, speaker and facilitator focused on helping individuals and organizations alike, create real, lasting and positive change.

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