Grown-up Leaders… Playground Games!

By Heather Campbell

PlaygroundBy Heather Campbell >>

I recently spoke at the Hr Network Conference in Edinburgh, exploring the theme of ‘playground games’ in the grown-up workplace. The theme resonated with the senior business professionals present, with all of us acknowledging that we indulge in playground games far more often than we like to admit.

What about you? Hands up if you’ve ever done any of the following: not spoken up in a meeting and then complained afterwards about a decision; whinged about the status quo rather than taken action to change it; talked behind a colleague’s back rather than addressing your concerns with them directly; sulked when you didn’t get your own way.

Sometimes being a grown-up is hard work, and it’s a relief to indulge in some of these playground antics. Sometimes being a grown-up requires a level of courage that we just don’t have. Sometimes being a grown-up seems impossible, because everyone else is behaving like a child.

Fortunately, most of the time, playground games don’t do much harm, although let’s not kid ourselves that they ever do any good! And sometimes they have a serious impact on individual, team and even organisational performance.

Some years ago I heard a story about two large organisations that were working towards a merger. Apparently, it all came to an end when their – on the face-of-it very grown-up – Chief Executives fell out and stopped speaking!!

But whether our games have minor or major consequences, they should not be ignored. Why? Because they provide a valuable warning signal that something is amiss; that there’s something we’re scared of. Recognising this can help us to move into a more grown-up frame of mind and make adult decisions about how to deal with the situation effectively.

Here are some of the most common fears that cause us to return to the metaphorical playground:

  • I’ll look like an idiot
  • People won’t agree with me
  • People will laugh at me
  • Nobody will listen to me
  • There’s somebody in the group who’s more powerful than me
  • There’s a bully round here who won’t like what I say
  • Speaking up could cost me my job/my promotion/my career
  • I’m too insignificant for anyone to notice what I say
  • I won’t get a fair hearing
  • People won’t like what I have to say (and won’t like me as a result)

Every day the papers carry stories of people who chose the playground game over the adult response, with serious consequences. Whether it’s phone hacking scandals, business failures, financial fraud – investigate most of these stories and at their heart you’ll find a multitude of people playing playground games, in situations where nobody had the courage or conviction to grow up.

Next time you notice yourself indulging in playground games, stop and reflect on why you are doing so and ask yourself how much damage is being done to you, your team and your organisation. Make sure it really is as harmless as it seems!

Image courtesy of Vlado /

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