Playfulness at Work: How to Inspire Innovation

August 7, 2015

playfulness and innovation

What kind of mindset characterizes the most innovative leaders at work? Daniel Goleman, Ph.D., is an expert on emotional intelligence and psychology in the workplace. He is an accomplished author of books such as Emotional Intelligence and What Makes a Leader: Why Emotional Intelligence Matters, and has received many awards for his writing. He was also named one of AMA’s Top 30 Leaders in Business for 2014. Dr. Goleman recently sat down with AMA to discuss the role and presence of innovation in leadership.

AMA: You and Dr. Dan Siegel discuss how playfulness in the workplace can be a critical motivator at work. How playful are innovative leaders, and how do they express the importance of that state of mind in a productive manner?

DG: Well, you have to understand that playfulness is a marker for a certain brain state, which actually is very conducive to creative thoughts. When people are uptight, when they are goal focused, when they are stressed out, they are in a state of mind which is antithetical to creative insight. When people relax, daydream, joke around, those are all markers for a shift in the brain, which allows the creative combination of two novel elements that have never been put together before in a useful way. That is the operational definition of creativity, of innovation. All innovations come from seeing things in a new way, and people are more likely to see that when they are playful. Because playfulness is another indicator of that very open brain state.

AMA: Are there industries that are more accommodating to an innovative leader? And where do you think innovation is sorely lacking?

DG: Well, I think the tech industry is kind of the poster child for innovation, because you live or die by innovation in that sector. Part of that has to do with product life cycles, which are very short in the tech world. I think that anywhere you see a waning industry, you are seeing a lack of innovative thinking.

For a long time, for example, this was true of the steel industry in the US. Not only does lower price steel go offshore, but steel makers failed to come up with the innovations that would help them survive the new business reality.

I think that we are on the cusp of an enormous innovative opportunity, because of the environmental cost of the way we do things, in industry, B2B, in commerce. All of our platforms and practices were developed long before we actually realized the impact of transportation, energy, construction, manufacturing, on the global systems that support life. This is going to become a bigger and bigger issue for younger generations as they grow older, and those costs become more apparent. I think that will drive and reward an enormous innovative push in terms of rethinking everything.

For example, petroleum-based products are a big problem, because they never disintegrate. They never go back into nature. One of the innovations I admire is two students at Rensselaer Poly Tech, who rethought Styrofoam, which is a petroleum product. It just floats around in water and oceans or sits in landfills. It doesn’t decompose. They came up with one made out of rice husks and mushroom roots, and it is perfectly as good as petroleum-based Styrofoam. But you throw it away, and it goes back into nature. That’s the kind of thinking that is going to spark innovation across the board in everything material that we make, and in the platforms that we use.

For more leadership tips from Daniel Goleman, check out his course: Developing Your Emotional Intelligence.

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About The Author

Daniel Goleman is an internationally known psychologist who lectures frequently to professional groups, business audiences, and on college campuses. As a science journalist, Goleman reported on the brain and behavioral sciences for The New York Times for many years. His 1995 book, Emotional Intelligence, a Times bestseller for a year and a half—with more than 5,000,000 copies in print worldwide in 40 languages—has also been a bestseller in many countries. He has written books on other topics as well, including self-deception, creativity, transparency, meditation, social and emotional learning, ecoliteracy and the ecological crisis.


  1. avatar

    […] are better when you pick active skills that will keep your team moving and engaged. Playful is always better and remember the golden rule: have […]

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    […] find inspiration in these fun questions because they invite fresh and original thinking. But you may also feel uneasy when they challenge conventional wisdom and the world you know. This […]

  3. avatar

    […] Is it possible to incorporate playfulness into your leadership style? Daniel Goleman explains how a playful mindset can lead to higher levels of innovation.  […]

  4. avatar

    Being happy at work is the biggest factor when it comes to effectiveness. Thanks for the article, keep up the awesome blog!

  5. avatar

    Here the need for innovation in steel company is highlighted. May I know any of such idea that has changed the steel industries pace?

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