Transitions Coaching Blog

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It’s Just a Game, Right?!: Behavior, Change & Chess

By Karen Konrath, Leadership Coach  |  May 3, 2016

Have you ever played chess?

I did as a kid and it was definitely not my game of choice. There was so much to remember about each piece and the specific move it was allowed to make. So much to pay attention to around my moves and the moves of my opponent. All that strategy made my head hurt!

Yet, my brother absolutely loved it. He beat me every game – yes, every game–we played.  Why was this?  Are we wired that differently?  Was I just not as smart? Did he have some secret decoder book that gave him the answers?

I actually hadn’t thought about those days or the game itself until recently. A client and I were discussing how so many people get stuck in “reactive mode.” You know, the mode where we feel like all we’re doing is simply surviving, putting out the proverbial fires of every day? It’s the mode when we’re moving from task to task, email to email, employee issue to client issue and back again, without any clue what we’re actually accomplishing.

He saw himself there and he wanted to change.
The question was: how?

This is how we stumbled upon our memories of chess. We laughed about how the mere word causes him a visceral reaction (I know how he feels!).  And then we got curious. What is it about chess that causes him angst? And where does he have that same reaction when he thinks about work?

We decided it came down to strategy. All that thinking ahead, planning moves based on what we can actually see and where we can only predict… It was a fabulous conversation full of insight and “aha” moments for him. He decided, for example, he wanted to be more “strategic” about his time. But how to go about changing his behavior without adopting that same stressful, strategically minded approach?

Turns out, there is another way to change at work, and it doesn’t have to be so serious.

In her Harvard Business Review article, “The Most Productive Way to Develop as a Leader,” INSEAD Professor Herminia Iberra writes about the challenges of developing as a leader in a culture that eschews anything but serious-minded (read: strategic) change.

So often, she says, we take on changes the same way we go about everything else at work: We set a goal. We move one step at a time. We test something out. We use feedback to decide whether that move made sense or if we missed something else on the larger playing board. We take risks only after thinking, and thinking some more.

We drive ourselves crazy being so serious about it all! This is strategy. And we think it’s productive.

Yet Iberra’s research confirms that strategic change can be one of the most unproductive ways for us to develop as leaders. It’s way more effective, she says, to just be playful.

Since I’m all about fun, I liked this concept – a lot. Because to me, being playful means not really taking ourselves too seriously. Playful means not really committing to any one certain way, but experimenting with lots of potential ways.  Playful means trying on behaviors we’ve “borrowed” from others (just like playing dress-up) and seeing how they fit us. Playful means falling down, skinning our knee, getting back up and trying again.  And along the way simply laughing and enjoying the freedom that comes with a playful mindset.

Maybe the reason my brother won all those games of chess is simple. To him, playing chess was fun. He didn’t actually care if he won or lost, he wanted to learn. He wanted to try new moves. He wanted to play with lots of people because it always changed the game. He wanted to just smile, laugh and enjoy the experience.

What if we simply “played” at changing? What if we had “fun” with ourselves when trying to change some outdated behavior? Is it possible that playing can lead to success?

I know I’m looking at things very differently now in my own life and my development. Maybe you can too?

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Executive Coach Karen Konrath works and writes out of Milwaukee, WI. She founded Transitions Coaching to encourage, support and inspire leaders in their pursuit of personal fulfillment and professional success. Learn more about Transitions Coaching.