Flow at Work: The Science of Engagement and Optimal Performance

Flow at work
Photo by Nicole De Khors from Burst

Do you love your work?

When Freud was asked to define happiness, he gave this simple answer: “Work and love.” We all want to be happy at work, not only because we spend a significant part of our life working, but also because it is a source of meaning for many of us and the lessons for wellbeing we learn here can be applied to other areas of our lives.

To love one’s work is to be engaged, to experience such a complete sense of absorption, that action and awareness merge. When we become one with what we do it leads to optimal performance, cognitive and physical.

Meaningful, engaging work not only fuels our professional achievements but also contributes to the growth of our organization and creates a sense of fulfillment that echoes across all our personal strivings.

This article summarizes a number of the recent finding in positive and organizational psychology supporting the notion that both individuals and organizations can go a long way in optimizing that important part of our existence and should not leave it to chance.

First, we analyze the engagement statistics in organizations and discuss how employers can improve their working environment, before we deep dive into the elements of the Flow Theory and how individuals can cultivate the art of true engagement in their lives, both professional and personal.

 

Happy Employees are Engaged

We know today that positive business outcomes are strongly related to employee engagement. Every company wants its people to be enthusiastic, involved and committed to their work.

Thanks to Gallup organizational surveys, which report percentages of “engaged” workers in the US since 2000, we are seeing these numbers on the rise. The 2018 results, highest in Gallup’s history, were at 34% of actively engaged employees and 13% of actively disengaged workers, making the ratio of approximately two to one (or 2.6 to 1 to be exact).

That leaves us with 53% percent of workers who are neither happy nor miserable. They report to be satisfied but show up for work to do only the required minimum. They are not connected to their workplace and are likely to leave for the next best opportunity (Gallup, 2018).

Gallup employee engagement trends
Image provided by Gallup

 

Some of the trends that contributed to the increase in engagement were driven by better recognition and improvement in the quality of relationships. These results also attributed as much as 70% of team engagement to the quality of leadership (Gallup, 2018).

Positive Workplace and the Power of Employee Engagement Focus Groups

While employee engagement surveys are widely used to assess employee satisfaction, few companies act on the results they receive, and even fewer engage their employees to develop a plan forward and execute on identified opportunities for improvement.

Employee focus groups are one way to create short and long-term employee driven action plans, which then, in turn, must be prioritized through leadership support and executed on through allocation of resources to employee wellbeing.

 

Engagement and the Optimal Working Environment: What Can Employers Do

Building organizations where people want to do their best rests on the shoulders of leaders that enable people to grow and be happy at work. Dr. Ron Friedman, who researches such organizations, tells us that happy employees work in companies that meet their employees’ needs, not only physical but also psychological.

These extraordinary places of work:

  1. Provide work-life balance and support employee wellbeing,
  2. Create environments that promote engagement, and
  3. Satisfy everyone’s basic psychological needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness (2015).

 

Work-life balance is exemplified by leaders who respect internal and individual rhythms of their employees, which in turn allows them to better control time and manage their energy. They role model setting boundaries and give flexibility. They promote physical wellness by offering perks that encourage self-care and do not reward those who never take time off.

Modern workplace design takes into account how our environment affects our ability to thrive at work and today we see more architecture that provides sunlight and access to nature. Specific activities we perform at work require different types of space, so open floor plans should not be the only option. Recent studies show for example that tall ceilings encourage creative ideas while round tables foster better collaboration.

Finally, the satisfaction of basic psychological needs of autonomy, competence and relatedness are at the heart of employee engagement and these trends are well supported by the Self-Determination Theory.

Psychological need for autonomy can be satisfied by empowering employees to make decisions on how, when and where they do their jobs. This can be accomplished through:

  • job crafting
  • flexible working hours, and
  • personalized space.

 

The need for competence can be fostered by effective praise and appropriate on-the-job challenges. Some examples include:

  • meaningful and personalized recognition,
  • opportunities to learn, mentor and teach,
  • time to innovate and to explore without fear of making mistakes.

 

Finally, relatedness is exemplified in high-quality relationships that make us feel like we are a part of a community. Not surprisingly Gallup organizational surveys measuring employee wellbeing show that workplace friendships are a strong predictor of job satisfaction.

Being a part of cohesive and supportive team satisfies not only individual needs for belonging but also organizational needs for greater collaboration (Friedman, 2015).

But what is the recipe for an effective team?

Dan Coyle who studied not only top performing companies and sports teams but also special ops, comedy troupes, and inner-city schools, found that cohesive teams exhibit these three characteristics:

  1. They feel safe to take risks (Coyle offers an assessment of psychological safety at work and you can find it here)
  2. They share vulnerabilities and can count on each other as shared risk is tremendously connecting; and
  3. They have an established narrative which gives their teams a sense of purpose and direction and involves them in a shared goal (2018).

 

Coyle reminds us that collective intelligence is not a sum of its parts. It is not enough to bring a group of talented people in a room. Interactions are more important than individual skills and no one knows it better than Google and Project Aristotle which proved that individual skills did not predict team performance (Duhigg, 2016).

Cultus in Latin means ‘care.’ Culture is a set of living relationships working toward a shared goal. Culture, therefore, is not something you are, “it is something you do.” (Coyle, 2018)

As the study on employee experience by McKinsey shows, millennials who will represent as much as 30 percent of the population within the next decade, are looking for meaningful work with variety and support on the job. They also frequently ask for autonomy, flexibility, mentoring and connection (2018).

A healthy culture that fosters engagement is what enables us to thrive at work and while the employers can go a long way in creating optimal working conditions, a significant aspect of job satisfaction rests with the efforts that are under everyone’s individual control.

Next is what each one of us can do to increase the likelihood of living up to our potential by cultivating mental habits that enable true absorption.

 

The Theory of Flow and Individual Engagement

The mental state of true engagement was first studied in depth by a Hungarian psychologist Professor Mihály Csíkszentmihályi.

He discovered, in his years of research into creativity and productivity and interviews with people who were deemed successful in a wide range of professions and many of whom were Nobel Prize winners, that the secret to their optimal performance was their ability to enter the state of flow frequently and deliberately.

They would describe feeling a sense of competence and control, a loss of self-consciousness, and such intense absorption in the task at hand that they would lose track of time (Csíkszentmihályi, 1990).

Neuroscience of Flow

Flow is a mental state of focused attention so intense that it does not allow us to have cognitive bandwidth left for anything else. It is a state of such profound task-absorption and intense concentration that makes a person feel one with the activity.

Professor Csíkszentmihályi, who coined the term flow, argues that flow is an optimal state of being that brings order to consciousness because “happiness depends on inner harmony, not on the control we exert over our environment or circumstances” (Csíkszentmihályi, 1997).

Research in neuroscience shows how flow states are tied to our biology. A unique cocktail of performance-enhancing neurochemicals that include norepinephrine, dopamine, anandamide, serotonin, and endorphins surge through our brain and are amplified by Theta and Gamma brain waves (Kotler, 2014).

These highly addictive, feel-good chemicals fuel intrinsic motivation and tighten our focus and pattern recognition. We process more information from different areas of the brain and link it faster. The mental state of flow also promotes intuition as we access vivid imagery and information beyond our normal conscious awareness.

More chemicals allow for better tagging of information for storage and greater retention from short to long term memory which is crucial to learning, creativity, and lateral thinking.

We also tune inward and while our pre-frontal cortex is turned off, our perception of time becomes distorted. Essentially our normal externally focused and relatively slow cognitive functions are replaced with energy efficient and faster subconscious processing that allows for heightened attention and awareness (Kotler, 2014).

Flow allows us to experience a sense of selflessness and we realize that we hear no inner voice. During those peak moments, we also withdraw from the external world and often our anxiety is neutralized. Whatever we are doing at this moment feels effortless.

The biggest benefit of being in flow is that it amplifies performance. Malcolm Gladwell’s famous claim in his book Outliers that one needs 10,000 hours to reach mastery of any skill can be cut in half through cultivating flow according to Steven Kotler of the Flow Genome Project (2014).

The Flow Cycle

The state of flow is an intersection of optimal being and optimal doing.

But we can’t be in the state of flow all the time. The cycle of this optimal human experience has four phases that initially require that we step out of our comfort zone and challenge our sense of self.

  • Struggle Phase (Beta brain waves, Cortisol, Norepinephrine) does not feel good as we experience tension, frustration and even stress and anxiety but it is an integral element of the flow cycle.
  • Release Phase (Alpha brain waves) is when we accept the challenge by stepping away from the problem and activating the parasympathetic nervous system.
  • Flow Phase (Theta and Gamma brain waves, Dopamine, Endorphins, Anandamide) comes after release and shifts us from conscious to subconscious processing.
  • Recovery Phase (Delta brain waves, Serotonin, Oxytocin) is the final stage when our brain rewires and stores the experience of flow. It is crucial to re-build and re-balance effectively if we are to retain the newly acquired skills and knowledge during this memory consolidation phase (Kotler, 2014).

Conditions of Flow

The state of flow is created by activities with a specific set of properties: they are challenging, require skill, have clear goals and provide immediate feedback. The key to success here is setting challenges that are neither too demanding nor too simple for one’s abilities, as life can be at times:

“a constant balancing act between anxiety, where the difficulty is too high for the person’s skill, and boredom, where the difficulty is too low” (Csíkszentmihályi, 1990).

Csíkszentmihályi talked about specific conditions that allow for the onset of flow and named the factors related to the flow experiences into nine dimensions:

  1. presence of clear goals;
  2. availability of immediate feedback;
  3. match of challenges with adequate personal skills;
  4. merging of action and awareness;
  5. focused attention and concentration on the task at hand;
  6. perception of control over the situation;
  7. loss of self-consciousness;
  8. absorption so intense that it alters the sense of time; and
  9. intrinsic motivation and autonomous initiative (Csíkszentmihályi, 1990).

 

The Flow State Scale for Occupational Tasks, for example, measures the presence of these nine flow conditions in specific work activities by rating the experience of the task on the number scale from 1-Strongly disagree to 7-Strongly agree with 4 being Undecided:

  1. I had a meaningful time
  2. I knew clearly what I wanted to do or what I should do at every moment
  3. I really enjoyed what I was doing
  4. My abilities matched the challenge of what I was doing
  5. I felt that I could deal with whatever might happen next
  6. It felt like time passed quickly
  7. It was easy to concentrate on what I was doing
  8. I was aware of how well the task was going
  9. The task was really boring (reversed scored)
  10. I had a sense of great control over everything I was doing
  11. I lost track of time while doing the task
  12. I lost myself in doing the task
  13. I wanted to do it again
  14. I knew how well I was dealing with the task (Yoshida, et al, 2013).

 

How Individuals Can Cultivate Flow at Work

The benefits of being engaged at work are many, both for individuals and the organizations alike. The quality of work experience can be transformed at will, but we must understand that optimal experience depends on the subjective evaluation of possibilities for action and one’s capabilities.

Some of the characteristics found in many fully engaged and satisfied employees are amplified performance, greater creativity, more access to intuition, and ever-increasing ability to engage in deep learning. Identifying and then cultivating conditions that enable us to experience flow rests as much with individual efforts as with the leadership and the organizational culture.

1. Clear Goals

For many employees who are not engaged at work, their jobs are simply something they have to do. They often feel they invest their mental energy in achieving someone else’s goals, sometimes against their will. No wonder many experience work as a burden, even in the presence of positive work experience and opportunities for enjoyment.

Knowledge economy is full of ambiguity (Newport, 2018). Clear organizational goals informed by universal values and company culture are more likely to allow employees to identify themselves with, and align their personal strivings accordingly. Similarly, providing a meaningful rationale for why specific tasks need to be performed can empower employees to want to do their best.

In the words of Cal Newport:

“People want to work for a cause not for a living.”

The clarity of goals and the presence of immediate feedback are important not only because they can limit the experience of occupational stress that is caused by ambiguity but also because they enable the experience of flow and engagement with tasks. Particularly when it comes to occupational stress, goals and feedback reinforce competence, while the presence of choice in how to perform a task can fuel a sense of autonomy, and both in combination can create intrinsic motivation (Dahlke, 2018).

2. Immediate Feedback

When we know every step of the way how well we are doing it is easier for us to maintain focus. Many companies today are doing away with annual performance reviews in favor of on-going year-round feedback that can be initiated by employees as well as their managers. The important caveat is to evaluate performance, not the person.

Yet performance reviews are not the only form of feedback. Recognition and coaching are equally effective in motivating and supporting employee engagement and can be done via peer-to-peer programs for those who are not eligible for company-sponsored initiatives.

Csíkszentmihályi proposed that more work activities should be designed to produce immediate feedback and support flow in a way akin to what video games do well. He even designed a Leadership Development Simulator called FLIGBY which represents his philosophy that “Flow is Good Business” (Csíkszentmihályi, 2004).

3. Balance of Challenge and Skill

High challenges matched with adequate personal skills are crucial to triggering a flow experience, which is most often achieved in complex activities requiring specific capabilities. There are a number of resources for assessing and developing one’s strengths and assessments like the VIA Strengths Survey.

The mental state of flow proved to be associated with the above-average challenge and above-average skill condition. As the flow model indicates, we experience apathy when challenges and skills are low and stress and anxiety when demands are too high.

To avoid anxiety, we may choose to deny reality which leads to burn out or reduce challenges to a point that prevents flow. Coasting in the control state is also not the answer as having a sense of control is not enough to produce flow so one must increase challenges to reach a level of alert and focused arousal (Csíkszentmihályi, 1990).

Model of Flow

 

A recent study by Tozman published in the Journal of Happiness Studies found a significant correlation between the perceived level of skill when coupled with challenges and the corresponding stress as measured by cortisol release.

When our skills match the challenges that we are under, we perform our best, when our skills exceed our challenges we are bored, and when the challenge is too high we are stressed and our body releases large amounts of cortisol (Tozman, Zhang, & Vollmeyer, 2016).

“Flow fosters personal evolution because the challenging activity stretches a person’s abilities” Csíkszentmihályi (1990).

We are told that flow is a complex psychic event that mobilizes whatever technical, cognitive or performance skills we have. We are challenged to the top of our skill set in whatever domain we operate.

Awareness of one’s strengths is key in matching them with the capabilities required to do the job. This balance between challenge and skill is integral to flow, and it may help to explain why people are more likely to report experiencing flow when working than during leisure (Csíkszentmihályi, 1997).

4. Merging of Action and Awareness

In the state of flow, our consciousness becomes one with what we are doing, but only if the task is challenging enough to require the mobilization of personal skills, promoting concentration and engagement. Repetitive and low skill activities are very rarely associated with flow.

Optimal performance requires a degree of disciplined concentration. This complete focus is possible only when our consciousness is well ordered and our thoughts, intentions, feelings, and all the senses are focused on the same goal. This experience of harmony can be achieved by establishing control over attention (Csíkszentmihályi, 1990).

5. Concentration and Focused Attention

The development of greater focus facilitates the commitment and trains our attention to be disciplined. Daniel Goleman talks of selective attention as the ability to maintain a beam of focus on one thing despite distractions (2013).

He explains that we can achieve this through involvement in a challenging task and being in the here and now. What we want according to him is a form of panoramic open awareness where we attend to everything with equanimity instead of the bottom up reactivity and judgments (Goleman, 2013).

Strategic allocation of attention, otherwise known as willpower according to Goleman, comes down to:

  • disengaging from the object of desire and focusing on something else;
  • resisting distractions; and
  • maintaining focus on the future goal (2013).

 

An even keel in attention when everything flows through, also known as Emotional Intelligence, can prevent us from getting swept up emotionally and hyper-focusing on one specific thing in our mind. Attention can regulate emotion if we keep focus long enough and practice selective attention to calm the amygdala (Goleman, 2013).

6. Perceived Control of the Situation

Switching to and maintaining this selective attention and open awareness requires cognitive control and well-developed executive function. The executive function produces willpower that combats the emotionally charged thoughts that are connected to our brain’s reward system where the more intense the urge the harder it is to resist (Goleman, 2013).

Tim Gallwey, an expert on the inner sense of control, tells us that dividing our attention by saying yes to everything undermines our need for stability and ability to function well (2000). Our inner stability depends on a sense of ownership, independence, and mastery (Gallwey, Hanzelik, & Horton, 2000).

In the words of Abraham Lincoln:

“A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

Csíkszentmihályi reminds us that how we feel about ourselves, the joy we get from living, depends directly on how our mind filters and interprets everyday experiences (1997). Events themselves are neutral but we attach positive or negative values to them and these can become distractions that occupy our attention.

7. Loss of Self-consciousness

measuring and assessing flow

We also spend a lot of mental energy in status management and worry about our performance and how we are being perceived which takes away more of our cognitive resources from the task at hand.

We worry about rules, expectations, competition and spend a lot of time in a sense of uncertainty about one another. We need to become independent of our social environment and do away with our need for external validation and tendency towards social comparisons.

This was proven beautifully in the well-known team building experiment where kindergartners were paired up against MBA students, CEOs and attorneys in a competition to build a tower out of spaghetti, string, marshmallow, and tape.

The kindergarteners were simply tying a bunch of stuff together, and although they barely spoke to each other, they were more effective, energetic, spotting problems, experimenting, taking risks, noticing outcomes, fixing problems, they worked quickly and helped each other (Coyle, 2018).

8. Altered Sense of Time

Many of the most accomplished and creative people interviewed by Csíkszentmihályi were at their peak when they experienced:

“a unified flowing from one moment to the next, in which we feel in control of our actions, and in which there is little distinction between self and environment; between stimulus and response; or between past, present, and future” (1997).

One of the strongest indicators of deep flow is a distorted perception of time. For some, the time would slow down, while for others hours would go by outside of their awareness. A brilliant study from the Kavli Institute discovered a network of brain cells that operates as a form of neural clock and explains how our subjective experience of time is tied to the ongoing flow of experience (Ratner, 2018).

In another study linked directly to flow, Moneta captured the difference between what he calls “Shallow” and “Deep” Flow and collected quotes from his subjects to describe their experience that can help us to understand the difference (2004).

Quotes used to capture “shallow” flow were as follows:

  • “My mind isn’t wandering. I am totally involved in what I am doing and I am not thinking of anything else. My body feels good… the world seems to be cut off from me… I am less aware of myself and my problems.”

  • “My concentration is like breathing… I never think of it… When I start, I really do shut out the world.”

  • “I am so involved in what I am doing… I don’t see myself as separate from what I am doing.”

But “deep” flow was described in much more dramatic terms:

  • “I am really quite oblivious to my surroundings after I really get going in this activity.”

  • “I think that the phone could ring, and the doorbell could ring or the house burns down or something like that…”

  • “Once I stop I can let it back in again (Moneta, 2004).”

If nothing else, this makes for a good argument why flexibility on the job is so important and why working within the constraints of our internal clocks yields better results.

9. Intrinsic Motivation and Autonomous Initiative

Much of contemporary research in motivation shows that when it originates from internal motives, it is often experienced as more immediate and potent then extrinsic motivation. Intrinsically motivated goal pursuit has greater long-term outcomes because it satisfies our psychological needs for autonomy and competence, and in turn creates more positive mental states which reinforce the positive feedback loop and increase the likelihood of repetition (Reeve, 2018).

Rheinberg and Engeser in their recent study on motivation and flow used the term ‘activity related motivation’ as a substitute for intrinsic motivation. They measured various activity related incentives and found the experience of flow to represent one of the most intensely studied. Positive incentives stemming from learning, goal orientation, an experience of competence, interest and involvement lead to subjects engaging in activities purely for the enjoyment of it (Rheinberg, & Engeser, 2018).

Put another way, if we think we need to have things in order to be happy, we are NOT autonomous. Flow is an inside job and we need to learn to provide rewards to ourselves by pursuing activities that are gratifying in and of themselves. According to Csíkszentmihályi, cultivating flow, which makes us happy, could be the answer (1997).

10. Autotelic Personality

As a mini-theory in the field of motivation, the theory of flow does not try to explain the full range of what constitutes human motivation, but instead, it limits its focus and sees the flow experience as a motivational phenomenon. The most important characteristic of the flow experience is its intrinsically motivated nature.

Professor Csíkszentmihályi defined flow as being autotelic or satisfying in and of itself. He described it as a pursuit of enjoyable, interesting activities for the sake of the experience, where the satisfaction derived from activities themselves is the motivational factor (Csíkszentmihályi, 1997).

Some of us have a greater predisposition to experiencing flow and are said to have autotelic personalities. Dwight Tse of Claremont Graduate University recently published an assessment that can help us measure our tendencies toward experiencing flow called Autotelic Personality Questionnaire (APQ) and you can find it here.

The 26-items questionnaire asks subjects to rate themselves on a scale of 1 through 7 and includes descriptions such as:

  • I like solving complex problems
  • I make a game out of chores
  • I am curious about the world
  • I worry about how people view me (reverse scored)
  • I find it hard to choose where my attention goes (reverse scored) (Tse, Wing-yan Lau, Perlman, & McLaughlin, 2018).

 

Measuring and Assessing Flow

There is a growing interest in measuring flow as an indicator of engagement in an activity and the phenomena of flow promises to improve the design of flow fostering activities. Here are some of the general as well as work-related flow assessments:

  1. The Short Flow in Work Scale (SFWS)
    1. Author(s): Giovanni B. Moneta
    2. Intended Population: 18 and older
    3. Subscale(s), if any: Work Engagement, Positive Affect
    4. More information
  2. The Flow State Scale for Occupational Tasks
    1. Author(s): Kazuki Yoshida, Daisuke Sawamura, Keita Ogawa, Katsunori Ikoma, Kiyoshi Asakawa, Taro Yamauchi and Shinya Sakai
    2.  Intended Population: 18 and older
    3. Subscale(s), if any: State-Trait Anxiety Inventory (STAI)
    4. More information
  3. Autotelic Personality Questionnaire (APQ)
    1. Author(s): Tse, D.C.K., Wing-yan Lau, V., Perlman, R., & McLaughlin, M.
    2. Intended Population: 18 and older
    3. Subscale(s), if any: conscientiousness, openness to experience, extraversion, neuroticism, and internal locus of control
    4. More information

 

The original Flow questionnaires developed by Csíkszentmihályi focused on the quality of experience and were meant to identify specific flow generating activities by measuring the level of engagement. You can find the key sections of the Flow Questionnaire (adapted from Csíkszentmihályi and Csíkszentmihályi 1988) here.

 

What Prevents Flow at Work: Stress and Multitasking

The data collected by Csíkszentmihályi shows that most people are either bored or stressed at work, where “15% never enter a state of flow on a typical day and only 20% enter flow at least once per day” (Goleman, 2013). These statistics are of enormous significance to fostering engagement at work, particularly because many studies show that employee engagement is directly tied to productivity and job satisfaction. The two most significant barriers to experiencing flow are multitasking and stress.

Multitasking is a Myth

To experience flow at work is not the same as multitasking. Productivity is not the same as being busy. If we can’t focus, we don’t live up to our potential. Multitasking has been ingrained in our culture and made the alternative of slowing down unattractive and counter-intuitive. Our mental resources are limited, and we are told that frequent switching between tasks costs us on average as much as 40% of our productivity (Weinberg, 1992).

Multitasking is a myth
Image via Carnegie Mellon University

Csíkszentmihályi reminds us that we should be more concerned with where we place our attention as our tendencies toward rumination and living on autopilot are blocks that prevent us from entering flow (1997). When we factor in environmental influencers and our addictions to electronics and social media, the list of obstacles to finding flow grows exponentially.

Some studies show that the mere presence of a cell phone within our field of vision makes us pay significantly less attention (Przybylski, & Weinstein, 2012).

What we want is to align attention (psychic energy), time and habits and use our values as a guide in investing our energy. Before we can expect to consciously direct our life, we need to be able to consciously direct our attention.

Joy or pain, interest or boredom are represented in the mind as information. What we focus on determines our reality as the information we take in ultimately adds to the content and the quality of our consciousness and our lives. Another reason why focus is important accordingly to Csíkszentmihályi is that the levels of stress we experience are amenable to control of attention (1997).

Stress Can Be Positive

Not all stress is experienced as harmful and not all stress makes for a negative experience. Øystein Saksvik in his recent literature review on Constructive Stress argues not only that good stress is necessary for performance both on the individual and on the collective level, but also that stress in general must be present in our lives as a motivator (2017).

The key is to:

  • understand the difference between stress that is destructive versus constructive,
  • be able to live with both (because we need challenges and counterforces to progress, master hardships and to develop perseverance), and
  • learn to shift one’s perspective from a negative to a positive, both as an individual as well as within an organization.

 

Challenges are inevitable but how we respond to them makes all the difference. Dr. Kelly McGonigal of Stanford University argues that people are less motivated by trying to avoid stress than harnessing it toward meaningful ends and seeing stress as an opportunity to rise to the occasion (2015).

Good and Bad Stress

The model of stress called Yerkes–Dodson law defines positive stress (eustress) and negative stress (distress) and their curvilinear relationship where at one end of the curve, less challenging tasks with low work demands cause distress.

At the other end of the curve, distress is characterized by tasks that are too challenging and work demands too high. The top of the curve is where moderate work demands and moderately challenging tasks cause maximal eustress (Saksvik, 2017). This is essentially another way of representing the balance between challenge and skill necessary for experiencing flow.

Performance and Arousal
The impact of emotion, life stress and mental health issues on driving performance and safety – Scientific Figure on ResearchGate. Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/figure/Performance-and-arousal-Yerkes-Dodson-Law-Yerkes-Dodson-1908_fig2_310651133 [accessed 7 Feb, 2019]

Jeffrey Alan Dahlke from Minnesota State University defines flow as a psychological construct that could be seen as analogs to eustress or positive stress. When talking about job demands, for example, he distinguishes between hindrances and challenges where one leads to the experience of job demands as strain and the other can become a trigger to enter the state of flow when focusing one’s attention on the task (2018).

When demands are experiences as strain, burnout is more likely. Therefore, adequate resources must be present for the job demands to be experienced as a welcome challenge. As Cal Newport explains:

Burnout is not caused by too much work but instead by too little work that is meaningful.

Appropriate challenges coupled with adequate resources create high engagement and Dahlke’s study found that the higher workload produced more flow experiences, and further prevented burnout when enough resources where present (2018). Another study of Swedish organizations predicted job resources related flow when innovative learning climate and social capital were identified (Fagerlind, Gustavsson, Johansson, & Ekberg, 2013).

Øystein Saksvik further suggests that both the positive and the negative stress exist side by side but are caused by different triggers (2017). A recent study by Tozman and Peifer showed that fight and flight response is not the same as arousal created by a sense of challenge when we experience an adrenaline rush that mobilizes our mental energy into a focused effort.

Their subjects showed a variance in the heart rate between those who exerted mental effort toward a meaningful task and those who felt threatened and compelled to act out of fear or avoidance of consequences (2016).

Our growth and development in thriving work environments are fueled by constructive stress but some degree of distress also serves a purpose. From this perspective, strain is viewed as a necessary motivator, even though it may be experienced as unpleasant. Saksvik argues that both types of stress are necessary in specific contexts to motivate action, to develop the awareness that allows us to distinguish between different types of stress, and finally to develop resilience (Saksvik, 2017).

And no one said it better than William James when he wrote that:

“Our greatest weapon against stress is to choose one thought over another.”

Being aware of one’s patterns of reaction to stress is crucial for succeeding during organizational change. From the leadership perspective, an effective adjustment to change can prevent occupational stress when it’s supported by good management of conflict and role clarification as well as identification of organizational and individual goals (Saksvik, 2017). Building social capital through cultivating high-quality relationships is also a great way to address individual and group resilience to stress.

Rodriguez and her colleagues addressed coping with stress through collective strategies. Their study within a multinational company showed the existence of collaborative efforts to interpret the stressful situation, joint efforts to address negative feelings, and strategies to learn and find answers (2018).

This allowed them to conclude that coping strategies, just like the experience of stress, have a collective quality in the occupational setting and that they can be moderated by a culture that sees stress as a mutual challenge to be addressed as part of the organizational environment (Rodriguez, Kozusznik, Peiro, & Tordera, 2018).

 

Team Flow

Experiencing flow as a team
Photo by Matthew Henry from Burst

The number of studies discussing the concept of team flow in the workplace context is scarce. A 2018 conference paper by Magyaródi that compared flow in social versus solitary activities found that flow experiences in group interaction were more intense.

This greater experience of flow in shared and cooperative activities was explained by the satisfaction of the basic psychological need for relatedness as well as other wellbeing factors that included the development of social skills and improved relationships (Magyaródi, 2018).

Researcher R. Keith Sawyer, who went onto studying Group Flow, found that most effective business teams balance tensions of the group in a way that a jazz ensemble or a comedy troupe would when they:

  • listen closely,
  • concentrate on the task,
  • communicate openly so that everyone gets immediate feedback, and
  • trust that genius will emerge from the group, not from any one member (2012).

 

A testable and more comprehensive model of team flow was published just last year by members of the European Flow Researchers Network and listed several conditions necessary for combining individual flow experience with the collective. It lists 7 prerequisite conditions that must be present for the team flow to emerge:

  • Collective Ambition
  • Aligned Personal Goals
  • Common Goal
  • High Skill Integration
  • Open Communication
  • Safety
  • Mutual Commitment

 

Once the prerequisites are in place, the following characteristics of team flow construct can emerge and in combination with the above conditions establish the presence of team flow:

  • Sense of Unity
  • Sense of Joint Progress
  • Mutual Trust
  • Holistic focus

 

According to Jef van den Hout and his colleagues, together these 11 elements signify that the team members are experiencing flow individually and together or as the study defines:

“Team flow, then, is what happens when all members of a team experience flow that originate from a team dynamic and where its members share in feelings of harmony and power (2017).”

 

9 Best Books on Flow and Optimal Workplace

The books below are listed in the order of relevance to the topic of flow and the optimal workplace. Some dive deeper into the theory, others expand on the practice while others yet explain it under a different name:

  • Good Business: Leadership, Flow, and the Making of Meaning by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (Amazon)
  • Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport (Amazon)
  • The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups by Dan Coyle (Amazon)
  • Flow: the Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihályi Csíkszenmihályi (Amazon)
  • The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance by Steven Kotler (Amazon)
  • The Evolving Self: A Psychology for the Third Millennium by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (Amazon)
  • Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence by Daniel Goleman (Amazon)
  • The Best Place to Work: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace by Ron Friedman Ph.D. (Amazon)
  • Inner Game of Stress: Outsmart Life’s Challenges and Fulfill Your Potential by Tim Gallwey (Amazon)

 

9 Quotes on Flow and Work

“The happiest people spend much time in a state of flow – the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”

Mihály Csíkszentmihályi

“Love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness.”

Sigmund Freud

“Optimal experience can be considered the “psychic compass” orienting psychological selection and supporting the developmental trajectory each individual autonomously builds and follows throughout life”

Massimini and Delle Fave

“Blessed is he who found his work, let him ask no other blessedness”

Thomas Carlyle

“For better or worse, our future will be determined in large part by our dreams and by the struggle to make them real.”

Mihály Csíkszentmihályi

“Flow promotes positive affect, creativity, concentration, learning, meaning and purpose in life, and a sense of transcendence or connection with a greater whole”

David, Boniwell, & Ayers

“Contrary to what we usually believe, moments like these, the best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times—although such experiences can also be enjoyable, if we have worked hard to attain them.”

Mihály Csíkszentmihályi

“If you plan on being anything less than you are capable of being, you will probably be unhappy all the days of your life.”

Abraham Maslow

“In the quest for happiness, partial solutions don’t work.”

Mihály Csíkszentmihályi

 

TEDTalks and Videos on Flow and Work

Professor Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi: Flow, the Secret to Happiness

Professor Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi asks, “What makes a life worth living?” Noting that money cannot make us happy, he looks to those who find pleasure and lasting satisfaction in activities that bring about a state of “flow.”

 

Big Think: The Neurochemistry of Flow States

Steven Kotler of Flow Genome Project explains the neurochemical changes during flow states that strengthen motivation, creativity and learning. “The brain produces a giant cascade of neurochemistry. You get norepinephrine, dopamine, anandamide, serotonin and endorphins. All five of these are performance enhancing neurochemicals.” Kotler discusses how each amplifies intellectual and cognitive performance.

 

TED: The Way We Work

There are 3 billion working people on this planet. Only 40% report being happy at work. Watch to hear what makes them so satisfied.

 

Dr. Daniel Goleman: Focus, Flow and Frazzle

Dr. Daniel Goleman is the best-selling author of many books, including Emotional Intelligence and the recent Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence. In this video, he explains the relationship between focus, flow, and frazzle, providing more insight into the conditions that foster flow.

 

 

A Take Home Message

Professor Mihály Csíkszentmihályi argues that the secret to a happy life is to learn to be engaged in as many things we do every day as possible. If work and life become autotelic then there is nothing wasted in life, and everything we do is worth doing for its own sake (2004).

We should not assume that work can’t provide happiness. Some professions are built to experience flow, but we can’t all be surgeons or athletes, so we need to find challenging and meaningful tasks that match our skills, have variety, clear reachable goals and provide feedback along the way. We must be able to concentrate and be able to limit distractions, external and internal.

Jobs should be redesigned to resemble flow activities and we should be teaching people to develop an autotelic personality by training them to recognize the opportunities for action, hone their skills and set reachable goals.

Here is a checklist for what we should consider if we want to experience flow at work:

  • Find a task we love as dread will prevent us from being engaged
  • Make the task worthwhile as it adds to motivation
  • Make it challenging but not too much or we will be stressed
  • Find time when we have energy and can concentrate
  • De-clutter and remove distractions
  • Start small but try to focus for as long as we can
  • Keep practicing, learn what works and notice the experience and the difference (Biggs, 2011).

 

Environments where work can flow are those enterprises where employees experience deep engagement and develop toward greater complexity.

Organizations whose products and services contribute to positive human growth are examples of what constitutes good business according to Csíkszentmihályi. In these unique environments, employees are provided the opportunity to do what they do best and their organizations reap the benefits of higher productivity and lower turnover, as well as greater profit, customer satisfaction, and workplace safety.

The level of engagement, involvement or degree to which employees are positively stretched contributes to the experience of wellbeing at work (Csíkszentmihályi, 2004).

 

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About the Author

Beata Souders is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in Psychology at CalSouth and MA in Creative Writing at SNHU, she holds a master's degree in Positive Psychology from Life University. An ICF certified coach and a Gottman Institute Certified Educator, Beata is on the Executive Committee for the Student Division of the International Positive Psychology Associations and has published and presented on subjects ranging the Flow Theory to learned helplessness. You can find her website at www.michelangelophenomenon.com

Comments

  1. Christiaan Oosterveen

    Great article. There might be something to think about in regards to flow, which is the difference between focus (or attention) and productivity. Most peak performers and outliers use procrastination in a tactical way to boost innovative thinking and creative thinking to come up with better solutions.
    Dr. Srini Pillay speaks about Supertasking which is doing the opposite to maintain the whole brain thinking towards a specific topic or subject. Most productivity gurus believe we can focus for at least 2 hrs in a productive way where this is actually less than 20min. So it is better to switch tasks or topics every 20min to maintain energy and stay in flow state.

    Reply
    • Andrew Pupols

      What happens when we need more then 20 minutes of time… Should we switch to some other activity? My best guess is not, if we didn’t finish the previous we will still be on the previous task, even though we switched to a different task. This might become less efficient, after like 2 of those, the feeling that something is not finished, will start to wear us down. That’s because we are not focusing on the task at hand. Its true that if you are in the flow state you can achieve more in a relative short amount of time, the other times when we stick to a thing until we finish it usually yields better results.

      Reply
  2. Angela Tarr

    I have strived for ‘Flow’ my entire career. Working as a manager in a corporate world that introduced me to this concept and definitely sparked an interest. I see other layers of human behavior that seems to disrupt flow and happiness at work. I would add that insecurities also play a large role driving negative behavior and thought. I will be reading this a several links in greater detial. If you are aware of an communities I could join, or other ideas. Please let me know. Thank you for additional insight! Very much appreactive of the article.

    Reply

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