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True colours: unleashing leaders’ emotions with a tub of Play-Doh

Zoning in on what leaders sense and feel is key to my coaching approach in driving behavioural change.

The “Think and Do” mantra of Execs isn’t as straightforward as it may appear. Both competencies are inextricably linked to our threat and drive systems. This means we often react before we know it – and not always with the best outcome or impact. Road rage is one example.

So noticing our senses and allowing a moment to appreciate what they are saying to us – and therefore the choices available on how we respond – is a great first step in broadening our self-awareness and ability to make the best decisions when under pressure.

To develop emotional intelligence, we need to make contact with what we’re feeling but finding a way in can sometimes be difficult for individual clients and teams.

To help them get in touch, I’ve been trialling various ideas, including Play-Doh – the iconic yellow tubs of modelling dough.

Getting senior leaders to pick up a pot seemed like a good idea, but how they would react and would it resonate?

Red for threat, blue for drive, green for soothe

A brilliant exercise in Compassionate Mind Training, pioneered by Professor Paul Gilbert, is inviting clients to think about the three systems of Threat, Drive and Soothe.

We ask a variety of questions to help them understand what puts them in each of those systems and how they experience the pros and cons of each in their working day.

In leadership coaching, much learning is done through inquiry, conversations and writing/mind-mapping. We introduced Play-Doh to get clients to express what each system meant to them and - quite unexpectedly - it unleashed their inner child!

Kneading, unleashing and tuning in

The first time I tried it was with a group of 10 who showed their red (threat) blue (drive) and green (soothe) systems in many different ways. They shaped the Play-Doh into all manner of shapes – balls, columns, pancakes, animal models and faces.

They kneaded it throughout their thinking and talking too – the tactile appreciation of the cool dough and unmistakable childhood smell created a near-immediate shift from corporate team member to being their authentic self and easily tuning in to their sensing and feeling intellect.

Because it went down so well, I decided to use the technique again but this time with 80 senior leaders

Hunting down 240 pots of Play-Doh at Aldi

But 80 pots in each colour meant I needed to buy 240 tubs and then transport them to Warwickshire! I’m not easily defeated and with only 48 hours to go, I embarked on my Play-Doh treasure hunt.

As I drove around various potential outlets, looking for the right colour pots, my husband was searching on Google … and called me to confirm supermarket Aldi was the place to buy my goods.

It was a busy Saturday morning and as I filled four shopping baskets with Play-Doh, I thought I’d get some grumblings from other shoppers as the checkout assistant patiently counted the pots and rang them up on the till.

However, my baskets started a real community discussion. “Do you work in a playschool?” “Wow what you gonna do with all of that?” “Do you want to use my trolley?” quizzed my fellow shoppers.

I ended up replying to questions across two or three queues of shoppers – explaining that each colour represented an emotional state and that I worked with adults to help them understand how they can better balance those systems to be their best self.

Checkout conversation, compassion and courage

The other customers were fascinated. One even asked asking if I could “come to our house and show our son/daughter the exercise”. “How interesting that must be really useful”.

Unfortunately, after buying all the tubs, I was warned by the Aldi supervisor that I wasn’t allowed to leave the shop with the baskets I had filled to the brim.

Shoppers then offered to carry the baskets and even transfer them to their own trolleys … and it seemed I’d started a mini-movement of compassionate intent there and then.

I decided to be courageous and assured the supervisor that I was only going to the boot of my car – would empty the Play-Doh out of the baskets and would return them long before the police would arrive. She was obviously very much in her red (threat) zone.

Happily, I made it to Warwickshire with my colourful haul and the exercise with senior leaders at Aston University went down brilliantly.

In fact, I’m getting used to people wanting to flip the lid off the pots as soon as they see them, shortly followed by smelling the contents*, getting nostalgic about childhood memories and then kneading the dough non-stop until my talk gets them to a point where they actually realise what the Play-Doh is to be used for.


Even better: a member of the Aston MBA exec told me he’d never seen this group of 80 senior leaders so engaged and talking almost without reservation.

It seems soft is the new strong.

* Fun fact for Play-Doh fans:

The characteristic scent was trademarked last year by makers Hasbro. Officially, it's described as “sweet, slightly musky, vanilla-like fragrance, with slight overtones of cherry, and the natural smell of a salted, wheat-based dough.”

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