Musicians describe it as being in the groove. Sports people say that they feel in the zone. Scientists, they call it optimal experience. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi simply described it as being in Flow. Sadly, the author who wrote the seminal work on happiness, called Flow, passed away on the 20th of October, and I’m dedicating this episode to his memory, but also to the idea of Flow and its role in leadership, particularly in chaos.
The good thing about this episode and the whole idea of Flow, is that we are all experts in it because we’ve all had the experience many, many times in our lives. So it’s highly relatable. And the question for this episode really is how do we turn something that we know ourselves, and we’ve experienced ourselves as leaders, turn it to our advantage so that we can improve motivation, improve engagement levels, improve the experience of working and ultimately produce better results for ourselves and our teams.
Let’s get started.
To reiterate some old ground, the whole idea of the leader and the role of the leader is one of contribution. And the leadership’s contribution is by definition to get better results through other people. And in order to do that, it’s manifested in how we impact other people, not how we think about ourselves.
And to quote one psychologist in their reference to leadership and their impact on other people, we should be leaving our people in at least as good an emotional state as the one in which we found them. Obviously leadership is about far more than that. And great leaders have an impact that affects people emotionally in a way that is not just about good enough, but actually leads them and creates conditions where they’re able to access peak performance more regularly and more frequently. And if we can do that for ourselves and we can do that for others, that really is ultimately what leadership is about.
Csikszentmihalyi, or Mike, as he was known to his friends, spent decades researching and understanding what lay behind this state, which he labelled as Flow. And he found that globally, this was a common human experience that was dealt with by people from tribes in Africa and Amazon all the way through to stage performers and artists, musicians, all the way through, again, to captains of industry and business leaders. It’s a common human experience, which as I mentioned earlier, is one we can all relate to ourselves because we, even fleetingly, have experienced it many times. The Flow state, which is also technically referred to as the state of optimal experience, has got four main characteristics or features.
The first is, we have a feeling when we’re in the Flow state of total absorption, nothing else matters. We have this sense of deep concentration. The feeling we have is of effortless being. Our worries and cares are suspended and forgotten during the time. And we feel instead a sense of liberation, personal freedom. Our concern for self during the time of being in the state is completely gone, so we have this selflessness, and at the end of it, when it’s all over by contrast, we feel that we have a sense of greater self enhancement. As well as being all of these things, time seems to stand still, we are so absorbed in the moment or in the now, it’s a timeless experience.
The second feature of the Flow state is one of immense and intense concentration. And this is usually down to two things. The reason we’re able to concentrate so intensely is because it’s very clear what the goal is. And the second thing which underpins our allies with that is that we get constant, ongoing feedback in the moment as to how we’re doing. This could be something as simple as trying to play the piano, where it’s very clear what we’re trying to accomplish. And with every note that we play, we know whether we’re on track or off track. It’s the same for playing tennis, a round of golf or performing a task, which is challenging for us, but we’re getting feedback in the moment.
The third feature of being in a Flow state is that it allows us to exert control. So we feel that, for better or worse, depending on the feedback we’re getting, at least we’re managing and we’re in control of what it is that we’re doing, which in turn gives us a sense of power or being empowered. Not in the bumper sticker that you see in organizations sense, or not in the egotistical sense of power, but more, there’s a sense of personal capability or ability that we’re able to demonstrate and exert.
The final feature of the flow experience is one of energy. We feel immensely and intensely energized in the moment. In fact, it gives us boundless or limitless energy, at that moment in that space. The beauty of this of course, is that we can all identify with it, we’ve all been in the. And it’s like a superpower and because it’s so powerful, it didn’t take long before the research behind the book got to the attention of enterprise.
And McKinsey conducted a 10 year study to understand more about this Flow or optimal experience state. What they discovered from all of the research, two things that stood out. The first was that when people are in a state of Flow, they’re five times approximately more productive than when they’re not in a state of Flow, which means that you could start and just do your work on a Monday, spend the whole day in Flow, take the rest of the week off. I think this is something to do with Tim Ferriss’s four hour week. But more seriously, if you simply increased the Flow experience, by 15 to 20%, it would make you twice as productive as you currently are now, you do the same in half the time.
Let me overlayer this with the pandemic legacy of where we are 20 months after the main event. There are three legacy challenges that have come directly as a result of our experience with COVID. The first is as leaders we’ve got to maintain and improve productivity across all our people in a Twilight zone, half-baked, remote hybrid world, hybrid environment. Second challenge we have is the big resignation means that people are leaving in their droves, and they’re going to other places that are more attractive apparently than where we currently are. How do we retain, how do we attract people? And thirdly, the whole idea of people being burnt out, worn out, mental health is a major challenge, that’s a legacy or residue from the fallout of COVID.
The beauty about the Flow state is that it’s a panacea for all three things. Because we can create or enable a flow state irrespective of where we are in the world who we’re with in the world, and whether we’re working from home or working in an office or somewhere in between, and we get an uplift in productivity.
Secondly, if people are leaving it’s because they’re not motivated or inspired. And by definition, the Flow state is one which is completely motivating and people are completely absorbed, so they , won’t want to leave.
And thirdly, if mental burnout is about the depletion of energy, the Flow state is the exact opposite. It’s about the creation or the enhancement and generation of energy.
In the McKinsey study, they went further than just trying to understand what the human and commercial advantages were of the Flow state or optimal experience. They went to 5,000 executives to understand from them what it was that, when they found themselves in the Flow state, what were the factors or the assets or the contributors that made that so, or that made it happen. And broadly, all of the answers, as the respondents thought about what was it that put them in a state of Flow, fitted it into three core categories.
The first category was they were clear. They were clear on what the goal was, what the vision was, what the expectations were, what the standards were that were required, what the goals were. There was a real sense of clarity about what was expected and what was directed as opposed to the typical ambiguity that reigns, particularly when things are uncertain.
The second category surrounded the idea of the quality of interactions that people were involved with. So they were surrounded by people where there was high level of trust, there was a sense of respect of one another. There was a lot of talk about oneness or togetherness, where there’s a feeling that we are all in this together. People felt safe psychologically in the environment to speak up, share their truth. Safe, to take risks, and fail, without reprimand, within certain contexts and parameters that were clear, back to the clarity piece.
And the third category of conditions that enabled people to feel the sense of being in Flow, was around the sense of meaning. That there was something more involved in what they were doing than just turning up to work, to draw a pay check. There was something where perhaps there was high stakes involved, or there was a challenge that they needed to raise their game to meet, and this was exciting. And this isn’t in the meaning connected to, we need to save the world purpose thing. It is something as simple often as, I know that if I do that and do it well, it can make a difference to some customer and their issue on the other side.
So recapping on those three qualities or categories, is it as a leader within our gift to create the clarity necessary for people? And at the same time to enable a culture to happen where people feel safe and can interact with one another in a way where the quality is high? And can we provide some sense of why, and context for why this is important, and what it means, and how it makes a difference to any of the stakeholders we’re involved in? This really is the definition of leadership.
So where does Flow live, and where can we find it and how can we create it directly, and practically? Flow is created where skills and challenge are equally matched. It’s a corridor. And the corridor is boarded on two sides by two neighbours, one of which is boredom, and the other of which is anxiety. If we get that vital sweet spot, where somebody’s capability is just enough to meet the challenge that they’re being asked to do, that’s where we get the sense of Flow.
As a simple example, if you hire somebody for a job and they’re overqualified, while their skill levels are far too high for the demands that they’re going to meet in terms of challenge, so they fit into the boredom category, they get bored. On the other hand, if you promote people too fast, they get to a point where the Peter principle says they get promoted to a point of their own incompetence, where they now become highly anxious because their skill levels they’re out of their depth. Just not enough to meet the challenges at hand. We want to set the bar or the challenge to such a degree where people are stretched, but they’re not snapped.
For those of you who like metrics, the research actually goes into the detail that suggests that if the challenge is just 4% higher than people’s skills or capabilities, that 4% is where people get the stretch. And of course, when they have to stretch, they have to grow. Overachievers love this because they feel the growth, but sometimes they set the bar even too high for themselves, and they don’t get to experience that sense of Flow, which is in that 4%. Underachievers on the other hand, when they try to get to a point where they have to go that extra 4%, they recoil because they don’t like the sense of discomfort. The truth, is all growth is on the other side of some discomfort, just not too much discomfort.
As leaders, it’s our role to set the direction. It’s our role to deal with people individually, relative to their robe, but also their activities and their tasks, in a way that enables them to access more of the Flow state. That’s our role and our job. And by the way, it’s not a static activity. It’s something that’s constantly dynamic in a dynamically changing world. And this is a dialogue we need to be having with our people all the time, because the payoff for us is, if we can find that sweet spot with each individual, for what it is they’re being asked to do, we end up with somebody who’s fully absorbed, who’s totally concentrated, who feels a sense of control and empowerment, and whose energy and creativity is boundless, because that’s the Flow state. Isn’t that what we’re paid to do? Isn’t that what we’re looking to do as leaders?
I want to sign off this episode by sharing a quote from the book Flow from Mihaly, and there were so many that could be taken out, that I just selected this one simple one to sign off today. It goes as follows:
“The best moments in our lives are not the passive receptive, relaxing times. Although such experiences can also be enjoyable, if we’ve worked hard to attain them. The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.
Optimal experience is thus something we make happen. For a child, it could be placing with trembling fingers, the last block on a tower she has built, higher than any she has built so far. For a swimmer, it could be trying to beat his own record. For a violinist, mastering an intricate musical passage. For each person there are thousands of opportunities, challenges, to expand ourselves.”
I hope you’ve enjoyed the episode. In the meantime, stay sane, stay safe, stay connected. And may the Flow be with you.