Smart leaders go for ‘flow’

Posted on October 3, 2013. Filed under: Attention Matters, Our Leaders Say | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Adair Jones, a Brainwaves for Leaders staff writer, looks at the concept of the “flow” state and how the best leaders create conditions that are conducive to it–not only for themselves but for their teams.

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In the moment, present, in the zone, on a roll, wired, in the groove, on fire, in tune, centred, singularly focused… We’ve all had moments like this. The lucky ones among us have experienced it in our work. What these terms describe is focused motivation, single-minded immersion–in other words, ‘flow’.

The concept of ‘flow’ was first proposed by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi in the 1970s and as the complete absorption in what one does. It’s defined as the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energised focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. 

Csíkszentmihályi and his colleagues have identified six factors as encompassing the experience of flow: 

        1. intense and focused concentration on the present moment
        2. merging of action and awareness
        3. a loss of reflective self-consciousness
        4. a sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity
        5. a distortion of temporal experience (one’s subjective experience of time is altered)
        6. experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding

Csíkszentmihályi is quick to point out that while aspects of these factors can appear independently of each other, it is their combination that constitutes the experience of flow. 

The brain likes things ‘just right’

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In order for a flow state to occur, you must see the activity as voluntary, enjoyable (intrinsically motivating), and it must require skill and be challenging (but not too challenging) with clear goals towards success. You should feel as though you have control and receive immediate feedback with room for growth. Interestingly, a flow state is characterized by the absence of emotion–a complete loss of self-consciousness. However, in retrospect, the flow activity may be described as enjoyable and even exhilarating.

What Csíkszentmihályi tapped into long before neuroscience was a common area of research is the fact that our brains want optimal conditions for optimal performance. Think about it. If you are unskilled in a situation that is not challenging, you will most likely experience apathy or boredom. There just isn’t enough going on to keep you engaged. Should the situation become more challenging, but you don’t have the skills to manage it, you’ll tend to experience worry or even anxiety. On the other hand if you are feeling challenged and also confident that you have the ability to meet the challenges, you’ll begin to feel more engaged.

This confidence will keep you feeling relaxed and in control as you’re met with increasing demands. The ideal, of course, is when your skills are met with appropriate challenges. This is when intrinsic motivation takes over, time falls away, your actions and awareness merge, and you begin to experience a state of flow. This feeling is so pleasant that most people seek to maintain it as long as possible and to re-experience it as frequently as possible. A lucky few succeed.

Collective flow

, the co-author of Team Generosity, suggests we devote more study to the notion of “collective flow states”:

In a world where collective problem-solving has been hampered by conflict, dissension, confusion, and mutual incomprehension, any experience that can enable people in groups to work, create, and achieve more effectively and joyfully together seems to be profoundly necessary–and important.

Walker proposes some activities that enhance the potential of groups to experience collective flow states, something leaders can use to build more cohesive teams: 

      • Share minds and spirits as you share a meal. A flowing conversation occurs in which everyone listens and everyone participates–sometimes producing a collective flow state.
      • Take people out of their everyday routine. MIT Professors Peter Senge and Otto Scharmer have described the productivity leaps experienced by groups after tackling “stretch, group challenges” when used in the middle of their normal work assignments.
      • Experience “being present” with others. The more you “feel” the collective flow state, the better you can model it for others.
      • Become deeply conscious of others. It takes leaders with managed egos and refined listening skills to properly motivate employees.
      • Train your mind to be more present. Harvard professor Dan Gilbert has found that aimless thoughts occupy our minds 46.9% of the time. If you can teach yourself to be more present by reducing the wandering thoughts, you’ll be more likely to be able to listen to others, connect with others, and have a collective flow.

The secret to happiness

artistic brainAfter many decades of research, Csíkszentmihályi became convinced that achieving flow states is not only important for productivity in work, but it is essential for happiness. In an article for Forbes, Jon Katzenbach and Zia Khan, the authors of Leading Outside the Lines, state that emotional sources of motivation are more powerful than money. Unfortunately, however, money all too often becomes the default motivator because it is measurable, tangible and fungible. Katzenbach and Khan cite recent studies by the neuroscientist Jeffry Schwartz, who has identified several motivators that influence behavior more effectively than money: 

For one, people want to elevate their status. Organizations often assume that the only way to raise an employee’s status is by a promotion, but status can be enhanced in many less costly ways. The perception of status increases significantly whenever people are given credible informal praise for daily tasks rather than waiting for annual results.

People are also motivated by having autonomy, but more money doesn’t often equal greater perceived autonomy. In fact, you usually have to give up autonomy to rise up the compensation ladder. The real heart of autonomy as a motivator, however, rests with the perception that you are executing your own decisions without a lot of oversight or rules, which is hardly common in the corporate world today.

Similarly, feelings of relatedness and fairness are motivators. They are determined more by informal interactions, social networks and daily perceptions than by money or formal promotions.

Finding mastery, meeting challenges, staying engaged with activities we enjoy–these are not only the way to be motivated but also the secret to happiness. A growing body of scientific evidence indicates that flow is highly correlated with happiness, both subjective and psychological well-being. Furthermore, it has been found that people who experience a lot of flow in their daily lives also develop other positive traits, such as high concentration, high self-esteem, and even greater health.

Watch Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s TEDTalk on flow


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Adair Jones is a writing and communications expert with over 20 years experience. She contributes regularly to newspapers, magazines and online journals and has won awards for her fiction. Writing about developments in neuroscience is her latest adventure. 

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