You Can’t Say You Can’t Play in the Workplace

A recently aired episode of This American Life on NPR entitled The Cruelty of Children (originally aired on June 21, 1996) included a segment on Vivian Gussin Paley’s book, You Can’t Say You Can’t Play. The point of both the book and the episode is that children, as young as kindergarten age, have a hierarchy of popularity in which some kids are included in play and some are excluded. Paley, a kindergarten teacher, instituted a policy that specifically prohibited one child from refusing to play with another. When the rule was initially proposed, the children were appalled. Paley’s book recounts intense classroom discussions on the implications of such a rule. Within a few weeks of the rule’s institution, however, the children seemed to forget the former status quo and embrace the new order of things. Paley stated on the radio show that one of the children who was most skeptical about the rule, talked to Paley years later about how she was continuing to try to incorporate the rule into her social interactions.

Ira Glass points out in the episode that if adults were to say “you can’t sit here” or “you can’t play”, it would be obvious that this was anti-social behavior. It seems however, that adults do convey these same sentiments with similar results, both socially and in the workplace, the language is just subtler. When Paley talks about children being told they can’t play, she says that the children feel “rejected” and “unwanted”. When adults experience these emotions in the workplace, it is more often the result of being ignored or not feeling listened to or valued as opposed to the more obvious rejections of kindergarten.

If the language of rejection is more subtle among adults, does that mean that the simplicity of Paley’s six word rule cannot be translated into the complex working world? Is it the rule itself or the discussion of the problem and the rule that changed the dynamic in Paley’s classroom? The dynamics in Paley’s classroom never truly go away and in many ways mirror the challenges addressed by CREW in the workplace. In both cases, these dynamics are self-perpetuating and need leadership from both outside and within the organization to change and in both cases a thoughtful set of rules helps the process.

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