Over the past month, I have heard several people mention the concept of “flow” as a way to do better work. I believe we’re are always looking for ways to work smarter and more efficiently so these mentions of “flow” have peaked my curiosity.
I was excited to see that flow is one of the topics being covered at this year’s WorkHuman conference powered by Globoforce. So I reached out to Catherine Flavin, managing partner at Thrive Leadership to see if she would give us a sneak peek into her session. Luckily, she said yes.
Catherine, briefly describe “flow” and why it’s important.
[Catherine] Flow is a mental state of being so fully engaged in a task that you lose track of time and place. In flow, you are deeply engaged, cognitively and emotionally. You experience new levels of motivation, creativity, innovation and performance, and it is a tremendously happy, peaceful state. It’s described as peak experience and peak performance — highly productivity and innately worthwhile.
Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi came up with the term because the people he interviewed described their absorption in their work as being so natural and fluid that it carried them along like water, without conscious effort and with tremendous focus.
Is flow a state a mind or the result of an optimum environment? Are those the prerequisites to achieving flow?
[Catherine] While mindset and place matter, they are not enough. To enter flow, a person needs these three essentials:
- A goal that you are passionate about.
- A task on which you get clear, immediate, non-threatening feedback as you go.
- A just-right level of real challenge — that is, enough to push you, but not so challenging that it intimidates you or makes you too anxious.
Let me give you an example. For me, analyzing data so a client can understand what their leaders or employees are saying is meaningful and challenging, but not too challenging as I have lots of training and experience at it. So was making my parent’s 50th anniversary video, pulling together decades of pictures to tell their story. At 1 a.m., my husband would have to pull me from the computer. In each case, there was something really hard and worthwhile about the task, each had a clear end game, each was challenging, and I knew how I was doing as I worked, which kept me at it as time and worries faded.
Can anyone achieve flow?
[Catherine] Yes, we all can. We may not achieve flow in the same ways. I just described some of the common elements. And for each of us, there are individualized elements too.
For starters, what you find intrinsically motivating is likely different from what I do. And we may find flow in different ways. Some of us find it in connecting with other people. Some people find it in solitude where they can deeply consider issues or information. Others find their flow in physical movement or in creating. Cultivating flow requires those common conditions and attending to those individualized factors as well.
How does an organization support flow?
[Catherine] This is a really interesting question. Organizations whose leaders do these 3 ‘basics’ — big goals, real-time feedback, and the right level of challenge — really very well and consistently will foster more flow, and see the results in performance and engagement. I underscore consistency because we still see a surprising amount of variation in organizations in how effectively leaders do those things.
Beyond those basics, cultivating flow means personalizing the connection between the manager and the employee. It means bringing emotional intelligence to the next level, recognizing how each person is unique. We teach leaders to observe and ‘follow the employee’– that is, to watch for signs of people being intrinsically motivated by something, and to get to know skills and character strengths so those can be the grounding from which an employee stretches to meet a challenge. Those skills are essential because engagement and flow are deeply personal, emotional phenomenon. This is really where WorkHuman hits the nail on the head.
Lastly, cultures that encourage people to block time are smart. There’s a lot in normal business that works against our ability to achieve flow, such as hyper-busyness, a constant intrusion of emails, back-to-back meetings, face time pressures, etc. Our ability to focus is a valuable commodity that needs to be honored, too.
Besides your session during WorkHuman, where can people learn more about flow?
[Catherine] First and foremost, we can all learn from our own experiences, which we’ll talk more about in the WorkHuman session. Reflecting on situations when you were in the ‘zone,’ and recalling the conditions that led to your experience of flow, increases the chances you will experience it again. And, of course, I wholeheartedly recommend Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s books. His Ted talk is terrific as well.
My thanks to Catherine for sharing her knowledge with us. You can read more of her thoughts on the Thrive Leadership blog.
And if you want to hear her session on flow, there’s still time to register for WorkHuman 2015. HR Bartender readers get a discount – just use the code SLWH15100 to save $100 on registration.
Image courtesy of Sharlyn Lauby2