Cairn Leadership

Boost 'Flow' In the Workplace for Higher Team Productivity

Learn how to make flow in the workplace more likely

Gallup finds 71% of millennials are disengaged in their workplace, and it won’t be long until most workers are from this generation! 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 seems dismal, and I have good news and bad news. The bad news first. This is not going to change! In today’s big economy, supporting a new generation who values purpose over security, employees will not put up with lackluster workplaces. 

Now the good news. Your leadership directly impacts this lack of engagement. Among the many actions you can take as a leader- create a compelling shared vision, put time and resources into developing your people, create varied and meaningful job descriptions, and more- you have the power to create a state of flow (ultimate engagement) in your daily work structure.

At Cairn Leadership, we have intimate knowledge of what Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi dubbed flow. Many of his examples in Flow include outdoor pursuits such as rock climbing and physical activities like sports. A climber simply must find a state of flow in order to continue moving forward. In his seminal study, 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 found the most engaged and happiest people shared some key aspects. 

Csikszentmihalyi emphatically believed that flow can be accessed in any activity and any environment with eight components. As you lead your organization, consider how you could tailor your workplace, often with simple steps to make it more likely for your people to engage completely with their work in support of the organizational vision! Below I outline how several of the components of flow can lead to more intentional leadership on your part.

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. Goals need to be specific, just the right amount of challenging, and agreed upon by the leader and follower. You can move mountains when these conditions are met, and yet often people have no clue what success looks like. Bosses don’t have the time or energy to craft compelling goals, and then they wonder why employees drift aimlessly through the workday.

2. Provide clear and consistent feedback. 

Annual performance reviews are dead- at least they should be. The industry trendsetters like Delloite 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.  

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!

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

We sometimes 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 neuroscience 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. 

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. 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 instead of thinking about the upcoming deadline. Reminding people of the past is also unhelpful. Remember how you messed this up last time- ok you get it. Allow your people to concentrate!

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 exponential 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 and provide the resources they request. That is leadership!

Bottom line, most workplaces today make zero effort to create flow, and yet flow literally means 100% engagement. Instead of pining for employees who do their work and don’t surf Facebook and LinkedIn 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 serious time and energy up front, and the result will blow you away!  

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