I used to be a ski instructor and we had a saying: If you want a happy ski client, treat kids like adults and adults like kids.

A recent blog article on Harvard Business Publishing, What Brain Science Tells Us About How to Excel by Edward M. Hallowell, takes up the argument.  You almost don’t even have to read it to get the point, but only to notice that the author is a child psychiatrist and he starts by talking about a recent case of a child who was having trouble at school and ties it to adults who are not engaged in their work.  So many great lessons to learn by thinking about what motivates a child!  And the lessons are so simple, too.  It makes you wonder how we often get it wrong.

For example adults, like children, need play, which Hallowell defines as “an imaginative engagement with the task…that allows you to develop ideas, approaches and plans.”  They also need a sense of connection, in the sense of meaningful relationships, and an appropriate level of challenge.  This is beginning to sound suspiciously like something I’ve written about many times before: Zappos’ philosophy of employee engagement, and the modern theories of intrinsic motivation it’s based on.

Why do so many work environments miss the mark?  I think it’s because we have a concept that as we grow from children to adults, our environment and what motivates us must change.  And it must change in a way that adds complexity.  If things don’t become more complicated, we feel that we’re not evolving.  And so the manager who says, “I don’t have time to try and make things fun around here, we’ve got a job to do and we need to buckle down and do it” is caught up in the notion that he will be viewed as simple-minded and child-like unless he can show that we’re adults who can engage in drudgery and still get it done without complaining.  In other words, he just thinks we have to be serious all the time.

Another analogy that comes to mind: the disease of “corporatese” in our business writing.  Readers much prefer to read simple, clear writing that uses less complex words and sentence structure.  But as managers in the business world, we’re afraid to be seen as simple-minded so we complicate our writing to the point of making it painful to read.  We can’t just “use” something, we must “utilize” it.  Our employees are not “people” but “personnel.”  And god forbid that we should “let our owners know how the company is doing”; no, we need to “produce a series of financial reporting instruments and disseminate them to the organization’s shareholders.”

We’ve all heard about the companies that get it: Southwest Airlines, Google, Nike and the like.  We just haven’t managed to jettison the idea that if we took ourselves less seriously, others would too.

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