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Lessons from the Playground

Bud Wrenn | Pinnacle Consulting

Bud Wrenn

March 2021

‘Pump, Everly…’;  ‘Pull, Aria…’;  ‘Vinnie, move or you’ll get hit!’ 

 

All of these, phrases of encouragement, admonition, and warning that I issued to 3 and 4 year old kids in just the past few minutes.  You see, one of the reasons I love my jobs, as an organizational health consultant / facilitator AND as the leader of a growing, innovative church, is that I have the flexibility on many days to go hang out with the children in our church’s playschool.  Today is a warm February day and they’re out on the playground.  I open the gate and head in to the playground area, to the yells of all the kids calling out ‘Pops!’, which is the name my 3 year old granddaughter (who is in the playschool and on the playground) calls me, and thus the name that all the other kids use for me.  “Pops, watch this!’  ‘Pops, flip me!’  ‘Pops, push me on the swing!’  All of the kids want to get the attention of the old guy who comes to visit (OK, so it does wonders for Pops’ ego…)

So, I find myself at the swings – helping the kids understand when to lean up and back, when to throw their legs forward, and when to pull their legs back (of course with their teacher watching them closely to make sure that my instructions don’t put them in harm’s way…..) They really try to do what I say, and for most of them, they begin to have a little success.  As I’m on at the playground, I realize a couple of things:  a) these kids are really trying to learn something new, and b) they apparently trust me.

The beauty of this experience is seeing these kids experiment – trying new things.  Whether they know it or not, as they begin to do more of the pumping, pulling, etc. on the swings, they are actually increasing the risk of negative consequences during the process of learning (…as I’m getting ‘the look’ from their safety-minded teacher…).  If they throw their legs out too far or too quickly, they run the risk of getting too far up in the swing, and possibly falling out.  If they let their feet get too close to the ground, their feet could drag and cause them to be pulled out of the swing.   Yet – they carry on – trying these new things as they listen to the pushing of Pops and the care-filled encouragement of their teacher.

 They Trust Me?

So as I said earlier, it seems these kids actually trust me.  But why?  First, the kids have the assumption that I am a good person – because I come out to see and play with them.  They assume that all I really want is to have fun – just like them!

 And that is at the root of the second reason – that I actually come to see them on the days when I’m in my office – even when it’s cold and rainy outside.  There is a familiarity that we have established.  They feel that they know me.

 The third reason is a product of the first two reasons: they assume that when I tell them what to do on the swings, I am giving them advice that will help them succeed. So – they listen to me.  They actually do what I tell them to do.  They simply trust me as a person and they trust that what I am telling them to do is in their best interest.

 By now, you probably see where I’m going with this.  Organizational life would be so much simpler, and easier, if adult members could be like those kids on the playground!  After all, time and again, research shows that this trust that is so very prevalent on the playground is so very absent in the average organization in America.  So why is that the case?  

 For one thing – these kids KNOW they are vulnerable.  They know that they need others – adults, and hopefully responsible ones – to take care of them and help them become more independent.  They have an almost innate expectation of this, and so they are open to others and their help.

 Second, these kids are still very young, and they generally will give others the benefit of the doubt.  They likely have not had so many of the experiences that their parents, family members, and neighbors have had that may have made them jaded about people.  So some adults may think, ‘Give them time, and they’ll see that they can’t trust anybody….’ (quite a dark view of life…)

 Third, these kids likely receive healthy love at home – from parents, grandparents, siblings, etc.  They have a sense of security that is rooted in that love.  Because they see me showing them something similar to what they receive at home, they feel I have similar interest in their success.

 So how do leaders receive the trust of those that ‘follow’ them?  How do they experience the kind of ‘love’ that I receive (from them) on the playground? While a full answer to these questions would be far beyond the scope of this article, we can take a look at a couple of learnings from the playground (we’ll take a look at some more learnings from the playground in our next newsletter…).

 Playground Lesson 1

There’s something about me just being there.  I come out to the playground, or to their classroom, and I goof off with them.  One may think, ‘Yeah, but adults in organizations need more than that…’  TRUE!  But it’s hard to learn to trust someone from afar.  One of the foundational elements of trust in human relationships is consistent presence.  The more times I see a person, with them being consistent in their mannerisms, emotions, words, etc., the more likely I will find them to be authentic, and the more likely I will find them trustworthy.   The more likely they are trustworthy, the more likely I will begin to trust them. Those in organizational management positions (I hesitate to use the word leadership here, and use ‘management’ because leadership is more a behavior-based thing than it is the description of a position….) must be accessible to their people.  No access – no trust!

Playground Lesson 2:

Being present is important, but it’s not enough.  It is the authentic interactions that occur between individuals, that tend to determine whether trust is being built or not.  The key word is authentic.  It’s important that when I go hang with the kids, that I become a kid.  It’s a good thing that I can get down in the floor and let them crawl all over me, and that I can hold their hands, let them climb up my tummy and chest with their feet, and then flip them.  These are the things that form a pretty quick connection with the kids.  So as it is with kids, it is with adults (without the flips of course…).  A big part of trust is finding those connection points.  Those in positions of management must figure out how to get into the worlds of their people – each individual – and discover those connection points.  In doing so, the manager must still maintain authenticity.   To do this without authenticity can appear to be manipulative.  Many – but not all – people are pretty good at detecting when someone ‘puts on an air’ just to try to impress them.  No authenticity – no trust!

 Playground Lesson 3

Another playground lesson is that the manager trying to gain trust of his/her team members must have at heart the well-being and success of their team members.  Managers have to believe in, and advocate for their people.  My playground friends really believe that what I share with them about swinging will actually help them learn to swing – independently!  Likewise, a manager must genuinely be concerned more with the success of his/her people than with his/her own success, and that concern must be demonstrated!  Of course, the reality here is that managers can really be only as successful as their people are.  One would think that those in management positions would get this – that they would hold their subordinates’ success as a very high value.  But all people are subject to insecurities, and a big insecurity for many is the need to be the person who actually ‘creates’ the success, rather than the one who leads and supports the person who actually creates the success.  And so I have to be content with helping the kids learn to swing, and cheering them on, rather than my jumping on a swing and dusting off my award-winning swing competition stunts!  No advocacy – no trust!

 By now you may be thinking, ‘Bud, you’d probably be a better playschool teacher than consultant…’ And if you were to say that, I’d take it as a compliment!  You see, my playground friends are actually the students of a great teacher, my wife of nearly 38 years, whom I want to be like when I grow up!  Her leadership skills exceed mine.

So three things from the playground today, as we begin to look at building this thing called trust….

  • Accessibility: Being available for them,
  • Authenticity: Finding and investing in connection points, and
  • Advocacy: Caring more about their success than your own.

 How are you doing with your people in these three areas?  Think about that and make adjustments.  We will take a look in the next Pinnacle Principles at some more Lessons From The Playground!!!

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