Can play be used to counter dominance tendencies in the workplace?

Can play be used to counter dominance tendencies in the workplace?  This was the question my friend, Jessica Coleman asked me as she shared a link about the role of play in creating egalitarian societies.

The article is by Peter Gray at Psychology today and it is about how "play counters the tendency to dominate, in humans and in other mammals." -

What followed was a four way conversation about this between myself, Jessica Coleman (, Sherri Sutton (,  Kae Bender (

And yes, people do actually discuss humanistic leadership and practical - how do we do it questions. Everyone gave me permission to share the conversation here.   I encourage you to read the article - and let us know what you think in the comments. Keep the conversation going.

My response to the article:

What a cool article!  I have no doubt the thesis would prove true as it's social conditioning.  And you do have to actively work to be egalitarian. It's not easy as we ALL have dominating tendencies.  Very interesting. 

I guess the question is - how do we introduce more cooperative play. More intentionally. 

This is the area where educators who come up with play activities - do so well. My friend Sherri Sutton does this well.   I am ccing her so she can read the article. 

It may also explain why people who go to boarding school - get boarding school syndrome. Where cooperative play is almost non-existent.  

I want to play with this idea!!

Kae's response: 

 So THAT's why making it about winning and losing makes it feel like the game isn't fun any more.

I started out thinking, so what’s Play? (I’d have liked him to include more concrete examples.) And initially I thought of the Save the Whales game we play with Sage, where we all work together to save more whales. Okay, cooperative play. And Kornered where we each encourage the others to find the solution for their piece. Also cooperative. But then I thought: Monopoly, where it isn’t fun when you have a competitive person, especially one who cheats (I’m thinking Victoria when we were kids) and gloats when you lose. And then I thought, Victoria doesn’t really like to play games, not like Heather does. I’m thinking Yahtzee, where we all root for each other to get a great score, so that it isn’t about winning and losing but rather mastering those dice!  And why we still play Boggle with you even though you come up with a zillion more words than we ever see — because we can admire your mastery and we keep striving to do better ourselves. And puzzles, where each piece anyone places gets us all closer to seeing the whole picture.

Which made me think of school and other things (like Toastmasters and even team sports) which COULD be about focusing on mastery and simply encouraging each other to become more capable and giving each other helpful hints and support but where often the pleasure of learning and growing instead becomes a competition by some to be on top. (Again, I think of Victoria crowing about her IQ being better than mine (when I don’t even know what mine is!) and always pushing to be right in every argument and refusing to just let it go — perhaps that’s why she became a lawyer whereas I like to share my knowledge and expertise with anyone interested and so became a yoga teacher.)

And THEN I thought about hearing about the Australian term "Trimming the Tall Poppy" which I’m told meant they ridiculed and belittled people who were excelling at some learning — which seems exactly the wrong thing to do, so I wondered about the Hunter-Gatherers "putting down someone’s budding attempts to dominate" by "making fun of the person’s excessive pride, or they may tease him about thinking he’s such a 'big man.'" After some reflection, I decided those were different: "Trimming the Tall Poppy" was meant to limit a person’s growth, to keep them from excelling, whereas the deprecation of group dominance was intended to foster others’ ability to grow by making sure everyone had a chance equally to participate.

Which made me wonder why girls are usually more cooperative and boys so often domineering — and it IS a societal thing. Because girls are taught to nurture and help (playing dolls — or ponies!) as well as being (wrongly!) disciplined by adults for being assertive ("pushy!") whereas "boys will be boys" aren’t (rightly) disciplined by the adults for using strength to get what they want or talking more loudly to dominate the conversation (which isn’t tolerated from girls!). You see it in politics today — the women candidates are castigated for the very behaviors that are simply accepted in men, and the interruption factor in debates (I’m thinking Trump v Clinton) lets the man simply roll over the rules as well as etiquette or even civility without any negative repercussions. THAT certainly sets an example for those watching…and the tone for the ensuing administration....

Which of course then makes me think of how societal standards also have enabled discrimination, letting those who can claim membership in a categorically "superior" group put down for no obvious or actual reason the demeaned group — and perpetuate that claim even in the face of a frankly opposite reality (yes, I’m talking white supremacists and the patriarchy), with the help of socially accepted standards — like the vocabulary of White and Black as well as those "universal" male pronouns.... I could go on, but I digress.

So, Jen, I imagine that introducing more cooperative play, whether with kids or adults, would necessitate establishing standards of play that reward working together for a common accomplishment. I suppose, too, that there would need to be some recognition at the beginning that some people have more innate (or already-developed) talent in the assigned developmental task but that everyone has the ability to improve their current skill level, and to establish that the improvement of each and all is more important than the topmost excellence of any one person. To that end, there would need to be reward of a mastery level only for the group as a whole, with special attention to those groups that demonstrate consistent mutual interaction in the pursuit of the accomplishment to encourage all members' helping behaviors to support and nurture the others in the group who are not initially naturally grasping the content or progressing in the development toward mastery of the content or skill. And as a final task of the game, perhaps have the group when it has achieved mastery, teach the game to a new group….

I wonder, too, Jessica, if those escape room experiences might be a model for another type of cooperative play?

My response to Kae:

Kae – wow.  I had been thinking of this in terms of – work play if that makes sense. And how the teams I’ve been on in a work environment – the work felt like play – because it was cooperative. 

But your notes here – wow.  It is why I hated chess.  My brother was super competitive, and it was never fun.  He never attempted to teach me the game.   We are watching an anime about a shogi player in Japan (their version of chess), and he is asked to teach the little girls in a house he eats at shogi  - and he is horrible at it. And part of the problem is – for him – it’s about winning. His friend gives the girls a comic book about it – and is sharing his love of the game – and they love it in turn.

The conditioning of women and men in our society through play and what is acceptable play – I think you are spot on correct about. Wow.  Lots to think about.

Sherri's response:

This is such great reading – I look forward to the blog post Jen puts together!! I’m really fascinated by the different points presented here and the ideas I would never have thought of on my own.

I use play in learning to allow for unlearning. Adult learners have the need to feel the learning is relevant and builds on their experience or expertise in some way and they display these same characteristics in learning by wanting to ‘know everything’ already when they enter a learning opportunity. We don’t do any activities that require competition unless the outcome increases cooperation, like the XY game. I try to get the adult learners to have an individual shift first and then cooperate, though I do try to make that individual shift positive. Growth in learning comes from being able to shift your perspective and develop curiosity. Once an adult learner is curious they begin to work cooperatively to explore opportunity. That’s been my experience. If I try to tell someone how they behave or how they will behave, I am met with resistance because a lot of times we don’t have the self-awareness to realize we’ll behave in a certain way, so we create a safe opportunity through play to allow you to experience your response. Play in learning environments allows the learner to let their guard down and suspend judgment. Art works great because they can say, “I’m not good at art anyway, so I don’t care.” It’s always about the process used in making the art, never the actual end product and most learners are willing to be curious in that space because they have so little training in that area.

I’m wondering about the overall effects of the tribe with the loss of using their voice. One thing I’ve discovered in business is that some people are really good leaders, they have vision, they are not afraid to go outside of their comfort zone and they give people confidence. Others feel more comfortable in having someone lay out a plan and tell them what to do. I do agree that part of it is conditioning, but part of it is how we are wired. I remember being in play groups with my children when they were 18 months and watching the personalities shining through in the little ones. I studied the Holacracy model used at Zappos and I realized that in my organization, some of the employees really thrived better with leaders. The leaders were more like coaches, and they did not belittle each other to hold the voices down, but used their strengths to help them become better. I’m curious as to why the tribes don’t organize in a strengths-based way and work together to maximize everyone’s talents in a way they feel valued instead of lowering the bar and not allowing perceived dominance. It seems that new ideas, thinking outside of the box or trying to go against the grain could all be considered dominant traits.

The challenge: 

 How can we use play in learning to help create cultural changes to less dominance and more egalitarian in the workplace. I really like Sherri's idea of leaders as coaches - helping everyone be better.  What about you?

I would add that the reason this conversation happened is that all of us view each other as collaborators and not competitors.

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