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Six Ways to Boost Flow In the Workplace That Lead to Higher Team Productivity
April 9, 2024

Why flow in the workplace could be a massive benefit to your team

Creating the optimal conditions for employees to find flow in the workplace more often can make them five times more effective and cut their learning time in half! What other management tool has that kind of impact on team productivity?

In this article we will build on research from McKinsey to optimize both motivation at work and team productivity. A huge upside like this might seem like it will require a lot of work, but it may only take a few simple changes.

In today’s workforce, leaders need to balance productivity with job satisfaction which often feels like juggling competing priorities. Ask employees to do more with less and you risk driving a poor culture and spending a lot of money on employee turnover as talent runs to other companies. On the other hand, focus on making people happy and you spend a lot of resources on perks like ping pong tables and end up wringing your hands hoping people are actually working at home like they say they will.

A disengaged workforce?

Gallup finds 71% of millennials are disengaged in their workplace, and it won’t be long until millennials and Gen Z make up the majority of the workforce! Perhaps you even fall into one of these categories? Certainly, you have found yourself in the disengaged camp off and on over the years.

This is not going to change! In today’s economy where most employees value purpose and engagement over security, employees will not put up with lackluster workplaces and poor leadership. Now the good news. Your leadership directly impacts this lack of engagement and it may not be that hard to improve. Among the many actions you can take as a leader – create a compelling shared vision, put time and resources into developing your people, creating varied and meaningful job descriptions – you have the power to create flow states for your employees with some relatively simple interventions. Research shows that creating these conditions might make your employees happier and more productive than any other intervention you pursue.

What is flow?

If you reflect on a time you were so engaged in a task that you completely lost track of time, you are likely thinking about a time you found flow. In his seminal study, Dr. Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi used a novel research approach to check in with people multiple times a day to see what they were up to and how they felt about it. He was looking for keys to finding happiness, but instead he stumbled on a hyper focused hyper happy state. People who were happiest were ‘in the zone,’ often describing their experience as flowing or going down a river. He found these most engaged and happiest people shared some key aspects.

Nine key aspects of flow:

  • Clear goals
  • Immediate feedback
  • Challenging work with skill matching
  • Limited distraction
  • Loss of self
  • Loss of a sense of time
  • Autotelic work (enjoyable for its own sake)
  • Sense of control
  • Merged consciousness and action (feels automatic)
Leaders can stack conditions to be favorable for flow. These can include clear goals, immediate feedback, tasks that are challenging but not overly difficult, creating rewarding experiences, fusion of action with consciousness, and creating a lost sense of self and lost sense of time.
Stacking favorable conditions for a flow state makes getting into flow much easier. Leaders have the ability to stack a lot of these for their teams!

How flow works

Steven Kottler and the Flow Research Collective have been applying fMRIs and blood tests to drill down on what happens physiologically in flow and it is clear that flow changes our minds. It’s not just a mood. In flow we have performance enhancing hormones in our brains to help focus, energize, and optimize our performance. Furthermore, Kottler and his team show that flow is not an binary function. To get into flow in the workplace we must go through a clear physiological cycle.

Applying a cycle to flow in the workplace

Struggle Phase:

We need stress to drop into flow. It might look like fear or excitement, but our bodies create more cortisol to fuel a flight or fight response. Our brains display beta waves patterns associated with stress. Sometimes this looks like a scary moment, but it often looks like years of grinding to get good enough at something to find flow. Pushing people to get just out of their comfort zones will help them get into this phase.

Release Phase:

When the task is just a little bit beyond our skill and we have worked hard enough to move past the stress response, our body releases from the struggle. Our brain waves shift into alpha waves and we get epinephrine to boost our performance. We go into a state of transient hypofrontality, meaning our thinking brain stops and our doing brain activates. Help people focus by limiting distractions and encourage them to stick with the struggle long enough!

Flow State:

Now we get spikes of gamma waves in our brains, which are associated with brilliant insights, creativity and gestalt moments. We have endorphins, dopamine, norepinephrine, and anandamide, a powerful cocktail or performance enhancers and happiness hormones. We are in the zone! Maximize this! Stack triggers and facilitate people staying in flow as much as possible. Hint, a useless meeting at noon won’t do that.

Recovery Phase:

In flow we often forget to eat and sleep. We likely leave flow exhausted. If we do not use active recovery such as sleep, nutrition, stretching, and meditation, we will not be likely to be rested enough to enter into flow again soon. Demonstrate your recovery process and encourage others to take the time needed to be well rested!  

Understanding the flow cycle helps leaders create more flow int he workplace
Understanding the flow cycle can help leaders create structures to facilitate more flow on in the workplace and build in the right opportunities to recover.

1. Create a clear overall goal with incremental goals along the way.

Goal setting is one of the most agreed-upon motivation theories in management science. When managers communicate goals that are specific and difficult, people tend to be more motivated. Clear goals move people forward and help people know how they are doing. Unfortunately, when leaders don’t have the time or energy to craft compelling goals, employees drift aimlessly through the workday.

If you as a leader don’t know where you are going in the next year, quarter, month, week and day, you owe it to your team to ask your boss. It is plain foolish to keep moving forward without clear goals. If you understand the organization’s goals and how they translate to your team, but your team does not understand, your first priority should be clearly communicating the goals down to weekly and daily priorities. Check out our communication guide for more skills on this!

Traction by Gino Wickman also provides an excellent framework for creating organizational goals.

2. Provide clear and consistent feedback.

Annual performance reviews are dead – at least they should be. The industry trendsetters like Deloitte and PwC have gone to weekly semi-structured feedback that gives employees constant performance data. Csikszentmihalyi likens this to tennis. You immediately know when you have hit the ball right or wrong. Annual reviews at best are useless and at worst leave employees blindsided and bitter.

As a leader you need to pay enough attention to your people to give them at least weekly if not daily feedback. This amount of feedback makes people feel safe so that they can focus on the job instead of wondering if you value their work. This does not mean that you need something negative to say though. If you have a great team, give specific positive reinforcement. This should look like “when you brought two options to the meeting today, it really helped us make an informed decision, thank you for being thorough.” It should not look like, “good job.”

For positive and constructive feedback, consider the Situation, Behavior, Impact format. In this situation, when you did this behavior, it had this impact. This makes it feel like less of a personal attack and more useful.

3. Create a Goldilocks challenge.

If you ask your employee to do something impossible, she will try with increasing effort and stress and then eventually burn out. If you ask a star employee to file TPS reports all day, she will create an automated system to take care of the menial task and then start looking for a job that better fits her talent. We access flow when the task requires all our attention and energy and no more. Get to know your people and their capabilities, then start consciously designing work to match them. They will excel and begin to grow into more challenging positions!

How do you know if you have the right challenge? The easiest way is to ask! Great employees in a psychologically safe culture will absolutely tell you if they need more. Then you will need to listen. Great employees are often trying to manage up.

4. Allow your people to fully concentrate on their Goldilocks challenge.

Sometimes we do create great employee work matches. Then we ask our employee to come to a meeting every couple of hours and expect him to reply to emails immediately. We are essentially forcing people to multitask – something proven by neuroscientists to not work. If you spend the time to know your people and give them work to create flow, don’t undermine your effort with constant distractions.

Sometimes organizations want to maximize collaboration through open office spaces. This can help creativity, when you put the right people in the same room at the right time. It will also likely hamper flow for everyone. If you want to help people reach flow, have some open spaces for meals and gathering and have other spaces that limit distractions.

5. No time like the present.

In flow experiences, we have no past regrets or future worries. This is why we emerge from a full day of work feeling like it has only been five minutes. We also lose track of ourselves, instead being fully immersed in the work.

Consider looser time bounds for tasks when you have high-performing employees. Imposing a strict deadline is sometimes required, and at other times your employees will spend much of the time they could be working checking on the timeline.

6. Match responsibility and authority.

A feeling of complete control marks flow experiences. Often, we task our people with great goals and then undercut their success by placing other people in charge of the resources they need. You might do this intentionally to build alliances on your team, but unwittingly doing this causes extreme frustration. Most of us have experienced this, and it infuriates our people. To have a challenge you care about and be unable to complete the challenge through no fault of your own is perhaps the fastest way to burnout. Ask what your people need and then remove the barriers. Provide the resources they request. That is a large part of leadership!

Flow in the workplace is more accessible than you think

At Cairn Leadership, we have intimate knowledge of what Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi dubbed flow. In fact, many of his examples in the book Finding Flow include outdoor pursuits such as rock climbing and skiing. A climber sometimes must find a state of flow in order to continue moving forward. Kottler chose to study extreme athletes because to survive base jumping through a city, one absolutely has to be in flow. One of his first books on flow, The Rise of Superman, is all about what flow looks like in extreme sports. Over time the Flow Research Collective found that most of us access flow in micro ways all of the time, something reflected in Kotler’s last book, The Art of the Impossible.

Kottler says that the most common flow state in America might be middle managers solving a tough problem in a meeting. Csikszentmihalyi emphatically believed that flow can be accessed in any activity and any environment. His nine themes that lead to and describe a flow states provide a roadmap for leaders to help facilitate flow more often on their teams, and frankly create a better workplace with or without flow.

Bottom line, most workplaces today make zero effort to create flow, and yet flow literally means 100% engagement and motivation. Instead of wishing for employees who do their work and don’t surf social media all day, take responsibility. Know your people, create work perfectly matched to their capabilities, and then remove the barriers from concentrating on that work. You will need to spend some time and energy up front, and the result will be worth it! You will also have built a better workplace along the way.

Want to improve flow and productivity with your team? We can help.

Questions? We'd love to hear from you! 

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