How to Play in Teams

Leadership and Team Learning

Chanda Burrage, MS, MIA
4 min readMay 24, 2022


Getty | B.Builder

Can we take a minute to play and eat ice cream while we solve complex global issues?

I say, “yes, we can,” and “let’s do it now.” Here’s how.

Leadership and Team Learning

The true meaning of leadership is not about one person leading everyone else but rather how they inspire their team to work together as equals. Leadership isn’t just telling people what needs to be done, it’s getting everyone on board with a common goal to succeed together.

Team learning is a powerful tool for organizations that want to improve their performance. Three ways that I have found team learning to work are first to chill out and do some playful brainstorming activities. Second, make sure everyone on your team understands what needs to be done and then verbally give them some freedom in how they make it happen.

In other words, play, show, and tell.

Peter Senge & the Role of Play

Organizational team learning requires a team of human beings with specialized skills and a collective spirit.

Peter Senge (2006) discusses the “role of play” in team learning. As teams “play” together to achieve a specific goal, their success depends on individual excellence and how well they perform together. The goal is for each individual to complement each other’s specialties.

For instance, a basketball team will not be very successful if everyone plays as the point guard; instead, the team needs individuals who specialize as a shooting guard, forward, or center to help win a game.

However, it’s not just important to be good at your specialty; the team must be aligned — functioning as a whole. When a team is aligned, a commonality of harmony and direction emerges, which results in less wasted energy.

On the other hand, if the group is a collection of individuals focusing on their “personal power” and headed in different directions, inefficiency, i.e., wasted energy.

Aligned teams have a shared purpose and vision. They also understand how to complement one another’s efforts.

Senge adds that individuals do not sacrifice their personal interests to the larger team vision through such alignment. Instead, the shared vision becomes an extension of their ideas.

Remember, a team must align before it empowers.

In the Pocket

In addition to the basketball analogy, Senge refers to jazz musicians as “being in the groove.”

I’m married to a jazz musician, so I often see said “groove,” in real-time — although my husband refers to it as being “in the pocket.”

What matters is that good basketball teams and jazz musicians know how to “play” together. Once accomplished, they become a microcosm for learning throughout the organization, whereby insights are put into action, skills are spread to other teams, and standards are set for a broader agenda.

The critical dimensions required for learning how to “play together” include the following:

  1. Insight into complexity: learning how to tap the potential for many minds to be more intelligent than one mind.
  2. Operational trust: an innovative and coordinated culture where team members remain conscious of other team members, complementing each other’s actions.
  3. Mastering dialogue: suspending assumptions, deep listening, and creatively exploring complex and subtle issues.
  4. Avoiding “Defensive Routines”: not falling prey to the habits of interacting in ways that protect us and others from threat or embarrassment. But also prevent us from learning.
  5. Mastering practice: engaging in reiterative performance by creating distinct “practice fields,” “learning laboratories,” and “microworlds.”

Global “Play”

I have experienced forms of “play” in my international development work. In 2009, I was part of an interdisciplinary team of “systems citizens” who sought to develop or redesign the healthcare system through a telemedicine venture, i.e., Mashavu, in Nyeri, Kenya.

Collectively, we were engaged as participants in a global healthcare system where some, like myself, have access to an abundance of doctors, while others. must travel for days to the nearest health facility. My role was to establish a code of ethics team and framework.

One “play” activity that we participated in was to develop simple Youtube videos to promote our mission. We were encouraged to bring our creativity and expertise towards an alignment around communicating the overall mission in a visually appealing and fun manner.

To be successful, we needed to embrace the challenge, as filmmaking was out of our comfort zone, trust each other, listen and explore, and practice. This form of play resulted in a cute video and allowed for “practice” in formulating and implementing a social entrepreneurial vision.

In Sum

Team learning is a process of sharing information and knowledge with others. It can be used as an opportunity for professional growth, where each individual learns something new from their peers that they would not have been able to learn alone.

Teams allow people who may never otherwise interact or meet face-to-face to accomplish goals together. This kind of collaboration creates momentum through group effort, resulting in greater productivity than if only one member had done all the work.

I hope to see more playful team learning that unites us around our many differences. We are so much better together. Let’s play together like kids on a playground.

We may fuss and fight over a toy for a minute. But we can still dance, play and eat ice cream together for the long haul. Life is too short.

Our world needs changemakers who can play together.


Senge, P. M. (2006). The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization. Currency.



Chanda Burrage, MS, MIA

Doctoral student in geography and organizational leadership. Adjunct Lecturer at CUNY-Medgar Evers College. Global social change maker.