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Demystifying Flow for Leaders

Knight Campbell
October 10, 2023

Flow makes us five times more effective at leading!

Even though McKinsey found that executives are five times more effective in flow, most of us still assume that it’s just luck when we find ourselves in the zone. Leaders don’t attempt to intentionally cultivate this hyper effective state. So at Cairn Leadership, we are working to crack the code to help our clients (and us) get into flow more often.

See our Flow In the Workplace Blog Post to get more tips on promoting flow for leaders.

Creating more flow for leaders

What is flow?

Simply put, it’s a physiological state in which we feel our best, are most engaged, and do our best work. It can happen anywhere – in a business meeting, on a video game, or during a rock climb. The concept has been around for 50+ years, but now researchers are sharing amazing data that shows how our hormones and brainwaves dramatically shift in flow. That means it’s more than luck.

Scientists have been able to track clear shifts in blood chemistry and brain waves when people get into flow. It appears that we go through a cycle getting in and out of flow. We always begin with a struggle. That could be writer’s block, a particularly gnarly drop mountain biking, or years of research in a PhD program. Then one day our brains release. Our prefrontal cortex lets go, and we begin to automatically perform the action. Suddenly we are in the zone, or more accurately in flow. After flow, we need time to recover. An intentional recovery period will allow us to engage in flow more often with less impact on our health.

If it's not luck, how can you get more of it?

Numerous triggers can cause us to drop into flow more often. Here are four key concepts to get you started.

Clear goals

If you can’t boil your goals down to something as simple as riding a mountain bike without falling or solving a specific business challenge in a meeting, you likely won’t find yourself in flow.

Immediate feedback

When you are skiing, you know exactly when you lean too far back or hit an icy patch. If your company relies on annual performance reports to give out feedback, you’re set up for failure. Give and get feedback daily, or at least weekly. If it’s less often than that, your people begin wondering how they are doing more than focusing on doing a good job.

4% challenge to keep you on the edge

The optimal challenge to hit flow is 4% more than your perceived skill level. That’s not easy. Just think, a 4% increase in body temperature is a fever. If you are bored, you are not challenged enough. If you are terrified, dial it back. If you’re fascinated, well that’s about right.

Limited distractions create better flow for leaders

Leaders have a lot of impact on distractions at work, and we often mess this up. For example, we try to create open floor plans to promote water cooler conversations and collaboration. We forget that this leaves someone no place to hide and focus on their work. The best advice we have found is to build the best of both worlds. Have a floor plan that routes people to a central place, and have plenty of nooks to hide in. Also consider how many meeting you have. When everyone goes to every meeting, you make it impossible to focus on the work until late in the day when people are already exhausted. 

At Cairn Leadership we are actively breaking down how to make flow more likely. When you’re ready, you can take your leadership team out to learn the fundamentals and make a plan to make flow more likely organization wide.

Questions? We'd love to hear from you! 

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