Playing at work: professionals' conceptions of the functions of play on organizational creativity

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Authors: Samuel West, Eva Hoff and Ingegerd Carlsson
Date: Oct. 1, 2013
From: The International Journal of Creativity and Problem Solving(Vol. 23, Issue 2.)
Publisher: Korean Association for Thinking Development
Document Type: Article
Length: 9,972 words
Abstract :

The notions of creativity consultants on how play promotes workplace creativity was investigated. Play is often used by creativity trainers to promote creative performance. Seventeen experienced professionals were interviewed. The informants considered play to facilitate group creativity by increasing openness, intrinsic motivation and collaboration. Play was encouraged by permission to play, that leaders demonstrated playfulness, a certain degree of structure and that the activity was matched to the group. Play was discouraged by a stressful, fun-phobic organization and when play was non-voluntary. The use of competition and seriousness in play was controversial. Key words: Play, Playfulness, Innovation, Organizational creativity, Creativity training

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Organizational leaders report that creativity is the most crucial factor for success in today's innovation-based economy (IBM, 2010). Mirroring this emphasis on workplace creativity, research on the creativity process has shifted from a focus on individuals towards the study of collaborative and co-creating work groups (Hennessey & Amabile, 2010). The importance of creativity for organizational success, along with the steep global rise of the creative worker (Florida, 2005), has sparked interest in the study of diverse methods for organizational creativity enhancement, which increasingly includes play as a key component (Mainemelis & Altman, 2010). Although the idea of play as vital to individuals and society is not new, nor is the general link between play and creativity (Freud, 1926), the stream of research on play as a vital aspect of organizational culture, and as a source of creativity remains a trickle. Play is one of the least understood behavioral phenomena in organizations. It has however been suggested that play benefits organizational creativity through increased task engagement as well as by allowing temporary suspension of organizational objectives (Mainemelis & Ronson, 2006). If play is a catalyst for workplace creativity, what then are the constituents of play that give creativity a boost?

What is play? The construct of adult play and playfulness is not easily defined (Kruger, 1995). Brown (2009) defined play as an absorbing and intrinsically motivated activity that is apparently purposeless and provides enjoyment and a suspension of self-consciousness. Similarly, and building on earlier definitions, Gray (2009) defined play as a structured and voluntary activity, that is of an imaginative and non-serious nature, where means are more valued than ends, and involves an active yet nonstressed frame of mind. Scholars within the organizational sciences have defined play as a behavioral orientation consisting of five elements: a) a threshold experience between convention and illusion, b) boundaries in time and space, c) uncertainty-freedom-constraint, d) loose and flexible association between ends and means, and e) positive affect (Mainemelis & Ronson, 2006). These definitions of play, like earlier definitions in the literature, share the notion of play being a behavioral approach to a task rather than a specific type of game or play activity.

Play can be an array of diverse activities. With a playful state of mind, just about any activity can become play such as tourism, television, daydreaming, sexual intimacy, literature, academia, kayaking, gossip (Sutton-Smith, 1997). When done playfully, a usually non-playful activity such as giving a lecture becomes play just as a game of baseball ceases to be play once it is taken too seriously. A normally boring work task such as participating in a staff meeting becomes play when the meeting is vitalized with toy guns that shoot foam darts at unusually attentive participants.

Theoretically defining play is made difficult by play's inherent ambiguity, in that a specific activity may or may not be experienced as play depending on the individuals and the context. For example, playful work activities orchestrated by management are easily experienced negatively by employees (Bolton & Houlihan, 2009). This paradoxical ambiguity is an irritating feature of play, and has lead some scholars to argue that that attempting to theoretically confine play is futile (Sutton-Smith, 1997). Like other scholars, we find play an elusive concept to define. We find however, that as a behavioral approach to an activity, play can be defined by its basic elements. The more play criteria an activity meets, the greater the degree of playfulness. Based on the above-mentioned scholar's definitions of play, we suggest that the elements that define play are that it be self-chosen, fun, frivolous, imaginative, and in some way bound by structure or rules.

Organizational creativity. Most researchers agree that creativity involves novelty and appropriateness or usefulness, and creativity is often defined as the development of a novel product or idea that is of value to either the individual, group, or the greater society (Hennessey & Amabile, 2010). We find that a definition of creativity as the result of a process rather than the process itself is especially suitable for organizations where the value of creativity lies primarily in its usefulness in achieving organizational objectives. The recently published Handbook of Organizational Creativity stresses implementation, and suggests that creativity is a form of performance on an individual, group or organizational level which includes idea generation and the production of high quality, original and elegant solutions (Mumford, Hester, & Robledo, 2012). Other researchers advocate a domain-specific definition of organizational creativity, and emphasize the importance of the context in which creativity occurs. What is deemed creative in one organizational context may be seen as trivial or even judged as inappropriate in another context (Agars, Kaufman, Deane, & Smith, 2012).

Relationship between play and creativity. Play has been suggested by evolutionary biologists as a vital source of behavioral variety (Spinka, Newberry, & Bekoff, 2001), and it is not too far of a stretch to suggest that play may also be a source of mental fluency. Most research on the relationship between play and creativity has studied children and their imaginative forms of play, and there is compelling evidence supporting the positive effect of children's play on their creativity (Hoff, 2012; Russ & Christian, 2011). However, research on the positive effects of play on children's creativity may be difficult to generalize to adults. Although scarce, research supporting the importance of adult play on creativity of is also promising. Studies examining playfulness as an aspect of personality have found a positive correlation between playfulness and creativity in adolescence and adult populations (Fix & Schaefer, 2005; Goldmintz & Schaefer, 2007). Studying exceptionally creative professionals, Csikszentmihalyi (1996) identified playfulness as an important dimension of the creative personality. More recent research on adult playfulness as a personality trait also supports the link between adult playfulness and creativity (Barnett, 2007; Guitard, Ferland, & Dutil, 2005). Data from a recent online study of 268 adults showed a strong association between adult playfulness and creativity (Proyer & Ruch, 2011). Proyer (2011) furthermore found that adults scoring higher on measures of playfulness were more likely to demonstrate a higher degree of curiosity and a tendency to seek diverse knowledge.

The effects of play on creativity has also been a focus of experimental research, where a range of play activities have been found to positively impact creativity. Playing physically active video games, (Hutton & Sundar, 2010), role play games (Karwowski & Soszynski, 2008), creative drama (Karakelle, 2009), and imagining oneself as a child (Zabelina & Robinson, 2010) are examples of play activities that have been shown to increase scores on creativity tests. Studies experimentally demonstrating the creativity enhancing effect of positive affect have often used playful situations such as eating candy and watching comedy films in groups, to induce positive moods (Davis, 2009; Isen, Nowicki, & Daubman, 1987).

Does the type of play matter? An intriguing question is whether only some types of play are effective stimulants or if all play and the general mindset of playfulness facilitates creativity? Experimental studies have provided evidence that children perform better on creativity tasks after they have been given opportunities to play more creativity-associated forms of play but that less creativity-associated play forms do not have the same effects (Berretta & Privette, 1990; Dansky, 1980; Dansky & Silverman, 1973, 1975; Hutt & Bhavnani, 1972; Pellegrini, 1981, 1982). The more creative forms of play such as pretend play and object transformation (a stick becomes a sword) are more rule-based and characterized by spontaneity, flexibility, improvisation; whereas the less creative forms are imitation focused or more heavily rule-based and structured. In his discussion of the functions of play, Sutton-Smith (1997) identified three types of more creative play: pretend/sociodramatic play, substitution/transformation and construction play. He considered other types of play to be less creative: imitation, rough-and-tumble, and function play (running or jumping about).

In the field of adult play, there seems to be a general idea that play will increase creativity regardless of type of play. The basis for this assumption can be found in play theorists like Vandenberg (1978) who suggests that the connection between creativity and play not only occurs through possible associations made during the play, but also that play develops a special attitude of a more flexible way of thinking characterized by a search for variation and novel solutions.

Organizations and play. As organizational leaders increasingly realize the benefits of play, and expectations of creativity increase, the boundaries between work and play begin to blur. This can be the case when work tasks are framed as video games, employees write funny sports articles during working hours, or a flight attendant raps his way through the mandatory security announcement (Dignan, 2011; Kane, 2004; Sorensen & Spoelstra, 2011; West, 2011). Play is now more often seen as an essential aspect of the creative organizational climate (Ekvall, 1996), and many researchers argue that play is an essential aspect of a healthy and creative organizational environment (Deal & Key, 1998; Starbuck & Webster, 1991; Statler, Roos, & Victor, 2009). Organizational researchers have also demonstrated play's vital role in the innovation process (Liang-Hung, Wei-Hsin, Ching-Yueh, & Ya-Feng, 2010). Some scholars have boldly suggested that play is not only fundamental in achieving a creative climate, but also that it is in play that organizational creativity is born (Mainemelis & Ronson, 2006; Schrage, 2000). Consultants have also been quick to prescribe play as an effective route to workplace creativity (Gray, Brown, & Macanufo, 2010; Meyer, 2010; Stewart & Simmons, 2010).

Play as a facilitator of workplace creativity. Reviewing the literature, Mainemelis and Ronson (2006) suggest that play fosters creativity by being a context of behavior that facilitates many of the elements that previous research has identified as stimulants of creativity. Given that fun and engagement is one of the defining features of play, one of the ways play might influence creative performance is by increasing the level of intrinsic motivation experienced during the workday. Defined as the drive to do something for the sheer enjoyment, interest, and personal challenge of the task itself, rather than for some external goal, intrinsic motivation has consistently been found to be conducive to creativity (Amabile, 1996). Play may also increase positive affect in the workplace. The creativity enhancing effects of a positive mood has been demonstrated in a number of experimental studies (Davis, 2009), and positive affect has been associated with increased employee creativity (Amabile, Barsade, Mueller, & Staw, 2005). The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions (Fredrickson, 2001) may also be helpful to the understanding of how play might facilitate creativity. According to the theory, positive emotions experienced in, for example play, broadens a person's behavioral repertoire. The skills and resources established and honed in play then become valuable for future creative tasks. Reviewing the literature, Russ (2004) suggested that play practices the cognitive processes of divergent and flexible thinking, organizing thoughts into a narrative, and the use of symbolism and fantasy, as well as the use of imagination.

Cooperation and good teamwork is consistently associated with higher group creativity (Paulus, Dzindolet, & Kohn, 2012), and play may promote high-quality exchanges which foster cooperation and has been shown to have a positive influence on creativity (Munoz-Doyague & Nieto, 2012). Play may also be instrumental in increasing psychological safety, allowing group members to deviate from socially prescribed behaviors and ordinary conventions, making them more willing to engage in creative behavior. Psychological safety is important for organizational creativity, which involves frequent experimentation and mistake-making (Edmondson & Mogelof, 2006). Play may also function as a source of behavioral variety. Researchers within organizational psychology have suggested that play promotes creativity by giving employees a legitimate excuse to behave in new ways (March, 1991). Additionally, playing at work may facilitate creativity by functioning as enjoyable diversion from work tasks which could be an important part in the incubation stage of creativity (Smith, 2011). Organizational research has suggested that creativity may be enhanced by including mindless work, perhaps more playful tasks in the workday (Elsbach & Hargadon, 2006).

Recently, some researchers have warned that research on organizational play has primarily been concerned with the organizational usefulness of play, and that this stance may violate the autotelic nature of play (Sorensen & Spoelstra, 2011). An example of this is the string of research on the concept of serious play, which explicitly emphasizes the purposeful use of play activities that directly benefit organizational objectives (Schrage, 2000; Statler, et al., 2009).

Research on the relationship between play and workplace creativity has been of a theoretical nature (Mainemelis & Ronson, 2006), and empirical studies on play and organizational creativity are scarce (Liang-Hung, et al., 2010). To our knowledge, the present study is the first to empirically investigate how play is intentionally used and encouraged in organizational settings, and how play is thought to facilitate workplace creativity.

Aim of Study

This study aims to investigate how play is used in organizations by interviewing creativity and play professionals, to explore their notions on the active creativity relevant constituents of play, and their experience of what conditions encourage or discourage playfulness in the workplace. The study also aims to link the findings on the use of organizational play for enhancing creativity to the extant literature on promoting workplace creativity.


Participants and Procedure

Participants were ten creativity consultants and seven consultants who would better be described as play advocates. They were 12 males and five females, varied in age from 28 to 69 years. Six were from Sweden, and the others from the USA, UK, The Netherlands, South Africa, and Greece. Many had a degree in business and economics (6), in the theatre arts (4), while some had educational backgrounds in journalism, design, accounting, and psychology. Except for two who work within academia, and had comparatively less field experience, all the participants were active practitioners in different organizational settings. The type of organizational work included consulting on large scale innovation projects, cultural project management, creativity training, branding and marketing, education and training, and product design. Number of years experience in their respective fields varied from 3 to 40 years. As an example, one creativity consultant was the leader of a San Francisco based company that specializes in helping larger companies navigate ambiguous challenges and reinvent existing business ideas, he has a bachelor's degree in Product Design. Another example is a Swedish consultant with an education in theatre pedagogy, who after ten years of working in theatre started a company that offers business clients improvisational theatre workshops. These workshops and training programs are playful and aim to increase creativity and improve team communication.

The participants were recruited through recommendations, web searches and a professional networking site. The selection process of participants strived for variety in backgrounds and experiences while meeting the primary selection criteria of having considerable experience using play in organizational work. Conceptual maturation was reached after 15 interviews, since the following two interviews did not result in new emerging concepts. No participant refrained from completing the study.

Participants were interviewed in person, by phone or Skype, and eventual followup questions were answered by e-mail. The interviews lasted an average of 50 minutes and were all recorded and professionally transcribed. Participants received their transcripts for review, and were encouraged to make corrections as well as to elaborate and add additional points. These transcribed interviews formed the data for the qualitative analysis.


Given the ambiguity of the construct of play, and the incomplete state of research on play for workplace creativity, we believe a grounded theory inspired approach (Glaser & Strauss, 1967) which seeks to inductively derive a theory is appropriate, because it allows theory to emerge from the field practitioner's descriptions of their experiences, and notions on the topic instead of from preconceived ideas. This methodological approach was informed by a number of qualitative scholars (Huberman & Miles, 1994; Kvale, 1997; Patton, 2001).

A semi-structured interview guide was constructed to explore how play is used in various organizational contexts and how such play is thought to effect creativity (Patton, 2001). The interview guide provided direction and structure, yet encouraged free on-topic discussion as well as any unanticipated points. Follow-up questions were actively posed to encourage the development of ideas (Kvale, 1997). Participants were requested to give concrete examples, and descriptions of playfulness in workplace settings before moving on to any general or theoretical thoughts on the connection between play and creativity. The main themes of the interview guide were: general thoughts on play in workplace, stimulating creativity, encouraging play, and problems with play.


Initially the data analysis consisted of the intuitive seeking of patterns and themes, then the transcribed interviews were coded into categories. The development of categories was progressively drawn from the emerging patterns and themes, and further refined until higher-level categories could be formulated from the inductively derived concepts. Cross-check triangulation of the categories was done in excerpts from the interviews by two senior creativity researchers who independently co-assessed the thematic conceptual categories (Huberman & Miles, 1994). During this cross-check, 82 percent of the co-assessed categorization matched. As a final step in validating the categories three random interviews were re-searched for eventual missed themes and categories, but no additional themes were found.


Four higher-level categories were constructed from the interview data: 1) Functions of play for facilitating creativity in the workplace, 2) Encouragers of organizational play, 3) Discouragers of organizational play, and 4) Controversial play elements.

What is play at work? Most of the practitioners had the notion that there is not much natural play going on in the organizations they work with. One consultant described two types of play in the workplace; naturally occurring play and play organized by management or external consultants. The play activities practitioners described using with their clients could be categorized into the following: Word games (e.g. random word association), Board games and other scored games (e.g. idea generation board game), Role play and techniques from improvisational theater (e.g. charades), Social team-building exercises (e.g. giving complements game), Pointless/Silly (e.g.. hand dancing) and Physical playing (e.g. office Olympics).

The majority of the participants found play a difficult concept to define, as one consultant said: "play is more of a feeling that you cannot put into words, but somehow you know that it's happening or not." Most practitioners also referred to play being more of a state of mind than a specific activity, and chose to define play as more of a behavioral approach to any given task. One play advocate explained: Two persons can be doing what looks like the same thing, they can be working on the same project, the same kind of work and one person can be doing it playfully and the other person is doing it non-playfully.

Functions of Play for Creativity

According to the practitioners interviewed for this study, play promotes organizational creativity by increasing openness, increasing intrinsic motivation, and by building collaborative relationships needed to co-create and innovate.

Openness: Exercises non-judgement. Practitioners found that play exercises, and hones the spirit of non-judgement, making group members more comfortable sharing novel ideas, and doing something out of the ordinary. The majority of practitioners found that groups that play together have an improved spirit of openness, and tended to be more forgiving and accepting, which encouraged participation, and a greater willingness to contribute and engage with each other with halfDbaked, unrefined ideas. Some noted how silliness can be closely tied into creativity, and as an excuse to be spontaneous and silly, play activities were often used to decrease the individual's fear of judgment from others. The frivolousness of play was deliberately used to allow group members to temporarily let go of prestige and correctness. One consultant who frequently does creativity workshops said: During our creativity training we work hard to get people into that lighthearted fun phase where people let go of their prestige and dare to think the unthinkable and say the unsayable. This is where play is a great approach.

Openness: Fosters exploration and mistake-making. Practitioners described their business clients as very result focused, and while organizational leaders extolled the virtues of having an organizational culture that encourages exploration and risk taking, few actively did so. Play was seen by many practitioners as a way to practice these skills, and they found that people who play together tended be more comfortable exploring and experimenting as a group. Frequent play behavior, according to practitioners, reinforces employee confidence in the value of exploration, and can help combat the creativity retarding effects of focusing too much on the end results. Some consultants noted that play increases a group's ability to tolerate ambiguity, and a willingness to explore possibilities as opposed to hastily deciding on solutions. One creativity consultant also encouraged his participants to explore and experiment within the play process itself, by breaking and changing the rules, this was seen as a valuable way to experientially demonstrate the playful learning process of explorative trial and error. Play opens up to experimentation, as one practitioner said: "in play one can fail, joyfully fail and enjoy the process." Another practitioner explained further: The power of play lies in its triviality. If you can convince yourself that it doesn't really matter if you get this right or not ... then you can approach a task with this lighter frame of mind where it is ok to make mistakes. Now when you are truly playing you can take risks because it doesn't matter. The play is occurring in a separate world.

Openness: Stimulates mental flexibility. A lack of play was seen as detrimental to mental flexibility, and the ability to take different perspectives, as one play advocate expressed: "if you don't have enough play, you probably think there's only one version of the world." Practitioners often introduced play to counteract mental rigidity, and used playful (often verbal) exercises to experientially demonstrate the flexibility of thought. Play was used to expand perspectives, and to break up preconceived notions. As one creativity consultant said: "play leverages your subconscious," practices the use of imagination, and enables less literal thinking. Imagining new information, situations and relationships that are not true in the real world is possible in the imaginary world created by play. This mental state is less locked to the reality of the workplace with its rules, regulations and accepted ways of doing things, stimulating shifts of perspective and greater general mental flexibility, as one business innovation consultant said: I think play as an attitude is an important, it helps people feel bright and unbound by conventions, rules and rigidity. And they see parallels and metaphors and analogies. Play allows you to bring something completely different to the mix that wasn't already there as a way of explaining something or by cracking a problem.

Intrinsic motivation: Energizes. Many practitioners described how playful activities functioned as enjoyable energizers in an often sedative workplace or meeting environment. Descriptions of energizing play involved various forms of physical activity, the purpose being to get people out of the passive 'sitting-at-a-conferencetable' mind set. Many practitioners actively transformed training sessions into something more playful, and introduced novel physical challenges to simultaneously stimulate participants body and mind. Play activities were designed to combine physical movement, and the inherent fun of play, to increase intrinsic motivation both before and during creative performances. One creativity consultant followed a simple mantra when working with groups: "move your body and your mind will follow." Creativity sessions where participants are expected to be creative while sedately sitting at a table with post-it notes was mentioned by several practitioners as a negative example. The activity itself need not to be particularly advanced, one creativity trainer explained: "sometimes I just take the group jumping up and down the stairs or around the office complex." The motivating, energizing effect is not limited to the duration of the playful activity, as one play consultant explained: Play has a definite impact on the organizational energy, and the levels of excitement in the business. People look forward to the play sessions. They come out of it feeling energized and excited and they take that energy back into their workspace.

Intrinsic motivation: Engages. Many practitioners discussed how their client organizations often emphasize the importance of employee engagement, and pointed out that play is far from frivolous when it comes to creating an engaging and creative climate. In order to tap into their participants' intrinsic motivation, practitioners deliberately designed playfulness into their interventions and training sessions. One creativity consultant, commenting on the engaging nature of play, described how play "creates scripts for people to engage in," rather than merely being consumers of the fun experience. Most of the practitioners reported using playful activities to stimulate participation and engagement, their experience was that play in a general sense helps people engage more personally and deeply into their work. Discussing the role of play in his work one creativity consultant said: The last tenet of play is around passion, which is this ability to connect anything you're interested in or enthusiastic with, bringing that whole self and all of your interests to play. Because what it does is, you have an innate discipline involved with the things you're passionate about and that energy, in itself, even if it's off topic, helps the creative process.

Builds collaborative relationships: Psychological safety. The positive social effects of play, and the idea that play helps build better relationships at work was something that most of the practitioners discussed. One play advocate explained: "games are the language of relationships ... Play serves the same function as play fighting does in children, which allows them to kind of safely interact, establish a level of intimacy without being intimate." A few practitioners reported, that this increase in psychological safety through play, also allows group members to be more candid about when things are not going well, and address problems more quickly. Several practitioners described how they instrumentally used play to increase psychological safety within a group. Play was seen as an effective shortcut to developing and maintaining the level of psychological safety needed for good group creativity. One consultant said: I think play creates a sense of psychological safety, play starts to evoke all of the human behaviors of collaboration. So the whole point is, that if you want to create psychological safety start playing and it'll feel safer.

Builds collaborative relationships: Breaks hierarchical barriers. Many of the consultants mentioned that organizations can be so obsessed with their hierarchical structure that it can be difficult for people to move into meaningful collaborative relationships. Play was seen by several practitioners as a means to, at least temporarily, let go of prestige and break through hierarchical barriers. By bringing fun into relationships, rigid workplace hierarchies that inhibit creativity can be suspended enabling creative collaboration. One consultant summarized her experience of the hierarchy-breaking effect of play when working with senior level teams: "it really does improve their ability to interact with each other as human beings." Another consultant explained: Working well with others is helped by play for the most part, in that it helps break down barriers, find a common connection point. Using humor sometimes is also an important way of doing. So, I think bringing play into a relationship is a great way of helping people connect and collaborate and create.

Encouragers of Play

Encourager: Permission-to-play. Most practitioners reported that a major encourager of play in the workplace was simply giving the permission to play. This permission would ideally come from both the consultant and from organizational leaders, and was most powerful when it was both explicitly given and contextually cued by playful props or a playful physical environment. Before introducing play, many practitioners first established credibility by giving examples from past clients and anchoring their introduction of play with a simple model or theory. The introduction of play could also involve discussions about what play is, and participants' experiences of play, and was primarily seen as a form of permission-giving. Many practitioners also described how they manipulated the physical context by using games, toys, sweets, or rearranging furniture to informalize a work environment. These changes aimed to cue participants that this is not the regular serious workplace, and that new rules temporarily apply.

Describing how she cued a playful environment to participants, one play advocate said: I have always got sweets of various kinds with me--adults still associate 'sweeties' with children and somehow giving them sweets also gives them permission to let their 'inner children' out to play.

Encourager: Setting the example. Many practitioners found that, even with ample cues and permission, few people are willing to be the first in the group to lean into play. Practitioners said that they frequently demonstrated their own playfulness to set the example, and were often the first to take the leap into play, the first to be silly or the first to risk embarrassment. Practitioners reported that their demonstrations of playfulness were seldom enough, and that the participation of senior management or senior team leaders was vital for full participation. The role of senior management is so great that one practitioner has written contracts with organizational leaders who commit to be the first to start playing. One consultant explained: My experience is that what I say and do as a trainer is less important than what a leader of a company does. And until someone senior in the organization actually demonstrates setting the example, and illustrates their playfulness in the working environment, very few other people are going to be brave enough to do it. This is crucial because it's actually about getting the most senior person possible in the organization to set the example.

Encourager: Structure. Practitioners described how they often tended to frame their play activities as games, with rules and specific goals to be reached. Drawing from their wealth of practical experience, many of the informants stressed the need for clear precise instructions. Often, the reason a play activity failed, could be traced back to unclear instructions. In designing a play activity, structure and rules were borrowed from familiar games to create the conditions for participants to feel comfortable to tap into their playfulness. Structure and safety are interlinked; as one consultant said: "you have to create the safety of structure, and then they can be spontaneous within that structure." Practitioners also experienced that setting a clear duration of the play activities increased participation. Although being clear and precise about the rules and structure in the beginning, practitioners encouraged a playful attitude towards the play itself. One creativity consultant explained: The structure of the game allows the participants to feel safe in that they know what to do and what to expect, however once they have gotten started, they start to ignore the rules and create new ones.

Encourager: Matching. "If you choose a play activity that is too crazy for the group and to too far out of their comfort zone, it will backfire, and it then takes a long time to get people back on track," expressed one practitioner when discussing the importance of matching the chosen play activity to the group. Groups vary in their amenability to different types of play, and many practitioners found that matching the type of play to the character of the group was critical to successfully encouraging play. While practitioners found some groups easier to engage in play, other groups needed to be carefully approached. Sillier forms of play might match well with more playful groups while others need to be introduced to less vacuous types of play. These relatively less playful groups required more guidance, often from a rational angle. Commenting on the danger of mismatching, one creativity consultant warned: We try to find some sort of middle ground, because we need to create some sort of stimulus and create the playing field, but we need to be careful that we don't get people nervous. Because there are enough people in the world of trainer consultants, that have tarnished the reputation with the arts and crafts, clay and all that kind of stuff. So if there is a hint that people are going to be expected to do that, they'll just become too skeptical.

Discouragers of play

The main factors that practitioners reported discouraged play were a lack of play encouragers, dubious cues, insufficient permission to play, as well as inadequate examples of playfulness from organizational leaders. Poorly planned play with vague structure and unclear rules is also unhelpful in increasing participation. Mismatched play and players can be disastrous for participation, and this may be especially critical when matching the level of seriousness and competition of a play activity to a group.

Discourager: Stress. A stressful work environment was reported to be a potent discourager of play. With demanding deadlines and a constant pressure to meet organizational objectives, employees are unlikely to engage in play regardless of sufficient play encouragers. Practitioners reported that a perceived lack of time was a deterrent to playfulness, and that this effect could be exacerbated by an organizational culture tainted by a relentless emphasis on results. In addition to work-overload, or an organizational culture of chronic time-deficiency, play was also suppressed when the workplace does not meet other basic needs of employees, this included a lack of sufficient resources, competencies, or grossly inept management.

Discourager: Non-voluntary. Discussing the main discouragers of play in the workplace, many practitioners mentioned the importance of play never being forced. Practitioners stressed that non-participation must always be fully respected to avoid the risk of forced play, that there are no universal play activities that everyone will enjoy. As one play advocate said: "play imposed is play opposed." One play advocate even included a "permission to quit" exercise during his initial introduction of play so that his participants felt more free to opt out of play when they wished.

Requiring employees to play would not only be a play deterrent, it would also go against one of the basic characteristic of play being a self-chosen voluntary activity. Being instructed by one's employer or supervisors to play, and being told to enjoy it is patronizing and discourages play. In the workplace it can unfortunately, sometimes be a very fine line between inviting or encouraging employees to play and obliging them to play.

Discourager: Fun-phobic culture. Many practitioners discussed how an organizational culture of seriousness and correctness inhibited play. They observed that in such sober environments, where the grumpiest is crowned king and lighthearted play is frowned upon, the risk of being judged as non-serious by colleagues or superiors was a formidable discourager of play. Practitioners experienced that in some organizations being serious was a primary objective, and elements of fun, engagement and passion were subdued by this superior goal of seriousness. As one consultant explained: Staterun organizations here are so boring, because people think that being boring is the mission. So, for the public sector the whole idea is that it has to be so sober. It doesn't have to be that way. If you are doing a life-threatening operation, well then that's very serious, but there are so many things people do in an organization that are not so deadly serious. You can approach them with good responsibility and with integrity, but at the same time be somewhat playful.

Controversial elements: Making play serious. Practitioners were divided on whether play should be presented as serious or not. Some stressed the importance of not undermining the triviality of play, as well as the importance of temporarily being able to suspend business or organizational objectives. Being too focused on the outcome and too stressed out about results makes, according to them, play a difficult state to achieve. Practitioners against making play serious, did not want to contaminate play with any seriousness that might jeopardize the sense that play is being done for the sheer pleasure of play itself. These practitioners also avoided giving too much attention to the expected positive results of playing.

Other practitioners, however, emphasized the value of convincing participants of the usefulness and purpose of play. These practitioners discussed how they use play in a serious way, how they ensure that participants fully understand the purpose of any proposed play activity, and how they avoid notions of play being nonproductive. As one consultant explained "we make sure we do not, overboard on the children and the fun and games aspect that signal being nonproductive." Those with this view also focused more on the results or outcomes of play, and appealed to the rational and economical when encouraging play in their organizational work.

The practitioners most animate about framing play activities as something that leads to purposeful results were the creativity consultants who often worked in traditional corporate environments. They explained that their results-oriented clients would not accept play on a premises of unclear functionality. These consultants were aware of the risks of un-trivializing play, but maintained that it was necessary to entice their serious minded participants. Although also working with corporate clients, practitioners who saw themselves more as play advocates were more opposed to making play serious. This opposition to making play serious was primarily ideological, some also reported that their beliefs were confirmed by experiences of using play in organizational settings.

Controversial elements: Competition. Practitioners argued both in favor and against adding competitive elements to play activities. Some practitioners designed a degree of competition into play activities, because they found that this adds energy and boosts overall performance. One practitioner said: "there needs to be an element of competitiveness, of achievement or purpose," and added that competition was especially important when encouraging groups of men to play. While these practitioners observed that competition facilitates play, they also stressed that the competitiveness between individuals or groups be done in a fun way.

Another small group of practitioners were strongly against integrating competition, either based on principle or based on their practical experience. "I think that competition, especially the kind where losers are outed from the game, goes against the spirit of play," said one consultant who tries to avoid a competitive element since it violates her idea of what play is about. Practitioners who did not include competitive elements reported that once a group added competitive elements to play it tended to be a discourager, as one play advocate observed: "even in simple games or playful exercises without any competitive elements, there are people who turn it into a competition, and this leads to a noticeable decrease in the group's energy level." One type of competition was specifically mentioned as a discourager of play, and an obstacle for creativity, this being quiz or knowledge based games where people compete to find correct answers.

These conflicting views on whether competition is beneficial to play was not related to the background, primary work focus, or other variables amongst practitioners. Interestingly, those with an opinion on competition were very adamant about their position; either competition was good or it was bad for encouraging play and creativity. The reasoning against competition was that is takes the fun out of the play. In competition participants aim to win rather than to enjoying the activity. However those pro-competition used similar arguments for including competition, explaining that keeping score and announcing a winner or winning team motivated participants to join in. Regardless of their view of competition, all participants agreed that elements of competition should always be done in a fun including manner.

Play as a facilitator of creativity. Play is proposed to promote workplace creativity by effecting the mediating factors of openness, intrinsic motivation, and the building of collaborative relationships. Encouragers are permission to play, setting the example, structure, and matching play to players. Discouragers of play in the workplace are stress, play being non-voluntary and a fun-phobic organizational climate. The elements of competition and 'making play serious' are controversial, and may in some contexts act as encouragers while discouraging play in other contexts.


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 it difficult for the practitioners to define. This conceptual ambiguity made many of the practitioners resort to simplistic definitions that they felt compelled to excuse as inadequate. Scholars of play face the same problem and have duly explored this salient feature of play (Sutton-Smith, 1997). 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-judgment amongst team members. Being nonevaluative 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). Practitioners had an idea that play enhances creativity by increasing intrinsic motivation, a notion supported by decades of creativity research that has identified intrinsic motivation as important for workplace creativity (Hennessey & Amabile, 2010). Scholars of organizational play have suggested that there is a positive reciprocal interaction between play and intrinsic task motivation. Employees are more likely to playfully approach work tasks that they enjoy, and the positive affect generated during play increases the intrinsic motivation toward these tasks. Less exciting work tasks become more fun when playfully restructured, this boosts intrinsic motivation and enhances creativity (Mainemelis & Ronson, 2006). 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 unexciting work tasks.

Our results suggest that play may increase psychological safety in groups, and these findings are in line with the research that recognizes the importance of psychological safety for creative performance in teams (Paulus, Dzindolet, & Kohn, 2012). We also found that play may be instrumental in establishing a spirit of collaboration in work groups across organizational hierarchies. High quality relationships between supervisors and employees characterized by favorable reciprocal exchanges, quite possible during play, have been shown to foster creativity (Volmer, Spurk, & Niessen, 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 model playfulness by demonstrating their playfulness, in line with Bandura's theory of social learning (1977). When a leaders takes the risks involved with being playful in a serious organizational setting they makes a visual statement to followers that such risk taking is encouraged and perhaps even expected. Our findings support experimental research that has demonstrated the benefits of leader's role modeling unconventional playful behavior to inspiring employee creativity (Jaussi & Dionne, 2003). In order for an employee to feel comfortable framing work tasks more playfully a basic psychological need of autonomy must be met. An organizational culture that communicates a permission to play, permission to competently and autonomously perform work tasks is likely to be a culture conductive to creativity. There is considerable research that suggests that autonomy, the freedom to choose how to accomplish work tasks, is important for creativity (Gagne & Deci, 2005; Ryan & Deci, 2000).

Our findings support 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.

The subject of competition 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. 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. The contradicting experiences on competition as a play encourager should prompt careful consideration when introducing play in the workplace. The differing preferences for competition may be partially explained by the type of play involved. Rule governed play, often orchestrated by management or done for a specific purpose may be more subject to competition whereas organic play, activities that employees initiate themselves may be less competitive. When introducing play in organizational settings, competition cannot be ignored, designing elements of competition and keeping track of player's levels and score is, for example, thought to be an important motivator and is an essential element of gamification which is gaining popularity in organizations (Reeves & Read, 2009). 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 (Sorensen & Spoelstra, 2011).

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).

Limitations and Future Research

While we conclude that play is actively encouraged to facilitate creativity by the participating organizational consultants. The complex nature of play (Sutton-Smith, 1997) along with a lack of previous research on adult play, was a stimulating challenge for this study. This also means that many questions about workplace play and the impact of play on creativity remain unposed and unanswered. This study is limited in that the informants consisted of a sample of practitioners of whom most were already convinced of the positive effects of play on creativity; for many informants arguing for the benefits of play was a source of income. The small number of participants, though adequate for the qualitative method used, and the fact that participants were selected for maximum variety, representing both more traditional creativity consultants and professionals who more explicitly promoted the benefits of play, also limit generalizing the findings. Although this study has generated insights into the possible functions of play on creativity it is difficult to generalize from these results, and evidence that play enhances workplace creativity remains to be demonstrated.

The informants' contributions in the study has sparked many interesting research questions that would further elucidate our understanding of play in the workplace. We propose that play boosts creativity via the mediating factors of openness, intrinsic motivation, and building collaborative relationships, however it could also be argued that play, or certain types of play, increase creativity directly without mediating factors. Are all types of organizational play conductive to creativity, or are some types of play better than others? If future experimental studies demonstrate that play increases organizational creativity, then the results from our study suggest that there are a number of ways to encourage play in the workplace, all of which all are interesting research avenues waiting to be further explored.

Samuel West, Eva Hoff and Ingegerd Carlsson

Lund University, Sweden

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Samuel West, Department of Psychology, Box 213, 22100 Lund, Sweden. E-mail:


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Source Citation

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition)
West, Samuel, et al. "Playing at work: professionals' conceptions of the functions of play on organizational creativity." The International Journal of Creativity and Problem Solving, vol. 23, no. 2, 2013, p. 5+. Gale Academic Onefile, Accessed 21 Aug. 2019.

Gale Document Number: GALE|A444309502