Maximizing Flow States: A Key Goal of a Great People Organization

In recent years, the notion of ‘employee engagement’ has been elevated to a major raison d’etre for progressive People teams.  There are seemingly tons of new companies pitching services and products to raise engagement, and a multitude of survey companies offering to more accurately measure and suggest actions to improve it.  

For neophytes, let me explain what ‘employee engagement’ means and why it matters to companies.  Borrowing from Culture Amp’s scoring system, there are 5 conditions that roll up into an overall engagement score:

  • PrideI am proud to work for X company.
  • MotivationX motivates me to go beyond what I would in a similar role elsewhere.
  • RecommendationI would recommend X as a great place to work.
  • CommitmentI rarely think about looking for a job at another company.
  • Long-term growth path I still see myself working at X in two years.

There is abundant research/evidence that when engagement is high, employee productivity is high, absenteeism and turnover is low, employees are nicer to customers, and they treat company resources better.  See this blogpost from CultureAmp (and I think I wrote about this in a previous blogpost…?).

All good stuff!  But how do we do it?  How do we maximize engagement?

There isn’t one easy answer, which is why there are so many survey companies offering to help you figure it out.  However, I have been thinking about one framework that People teams could use as a ‘north star’ –> Maximizing the conditions and capacity for employees and teams to experience ‘flow’.  

The originator of the ‘flow’ concept, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, links the presence of ‘flow’ to enjoyment of not just work, but of life.  He originally noticed that many artists, in the act of creation, fall into a state of utter concentration in which they are so involved in the activity that everything else — awareness of time, basic human feelings like hunger — seems to fall away.  During this period of transfixation, these people would feel ‘as one’ with the work they are doing, and experience the activity is intrinsically rewarding.

Here’s how Dr. C describes the feeling:  “Being completely involved in an activity for its own sake.  The ego falls away.  Time flies.  Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz.  Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”

Luckily, this isn’t the exclusive domain of artists; in fact, anyone can enter the state of ‘flow’; laypeople might describe it as ‘being in the zone’.  His 1990 book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, cites research of dozens (hundreds?) of people across cultures, geographies, socioeconomic strata, and jobs to prove just that, and how maximizing ‘flow’ experiences makes living much more fulfilling.  For me, I find that I reach states of ‘flow’ when I’m writing (like right now!), when I’m taking a barre class, and when I’m engrossed in a coaching conversation with someone.

While I haven’t read much research connecting employee ‘flow’ with better business outcomes (here is something I just Googled from HBR 2014), I have to believe by the transitive property that — if ‘flow’ leads to engagement, and engagement improves business outcomes — then maximizing ‘flow’ should be an important goal of a People team.  

How can we, as a People function, achieve ‘flow’ in an organization?  In reading Dr. C’s book, there appear to be 7 necessary conditions — each which should sound pretty familiar to experienced People folks:

  1. Knowing what to do, i.e, goals
  2. Knowing how to do it, i.e., guidance, direction
  3. Knowing how well you are doing, i.e., continuous and real-time feedback, recognition
  4. Knowing where to go, i.e., a sense of progression, how what you are doing fits with the bigger picture
  5. High perceived challenges, i.e., new problems/expansion of responsibility
  6. High perceived skills, i.e., belief in one’s abilities, growth mindset
  7. Freedom from distractions, i.e., obstacles spanning social needs (see SCARF model as an example), physical needs (workplace and tools), time (meetings), etc.

How could we use this model in real life?  In full transparency, this is currently just a thought experiment for me, but here’s what I’m thinking:

Use this concept as a way to coach managers (new and experienced).  Sometimes managing others can feel like a rote set of exercises and behaviors, and this framework could help tie everyday activities with the achievement of ‘flow’.  Specifically, managers may be better able to connect the activities of goal-setting, development plans, 1:1s, feedback, and recognition as building on one another to create the conditions for ‘flow’.  In addition, the Skill versus Challenge map below (along with the Skill/Will matrix) can help managers modulate the level of challenge to give a team member to keep them engaged.

Screen Shot 2018-03-19 at 4.07.54 PM

Recognize and act on the fact that distractions can nullify the effectiveness of the enablers you’ve put in place.  You can drain your entire Learning & Development budget on skill-building and ‘value-additive’ programs, but if you don’t pay equal amounts of attention to removing barriers and distractions, you will fail to achieve ‘flow’.  Excess or poorly scheduled meetings, continuous context-shifting, poor office layout, dim lighting, and difficult interpersonal/interteam dynamics can totally disrupt how people work. Responsibility for these types of activities can be broken up across Facilities, People, and individual managers, so it’s important for someone — I volunteer People team! — to oversee and steer initiatives like these in a coherent and integrated way.

When employees express dissatisfaction with their experience, probe into these areas to get to the root cause of their lack of engagement.  You may find that what they say is the problem isn’t actually the problem at all, but rather, a symptom.  For example, when folks come to me, disappointed about having not received a promotion, the root issues are often the trifecta of:  perceived lack of fairness, absence of immediate challenge, and uncertainty about their overall direction.  As a coach, you can address these sub-issues in a more productive way than simply appeasing someone about the missed promotion.

Frame the work the People team does against this backdrop of ‘flow’.  As you build  business cases advocating for more resources to better perform your roles, the ‘flow’ model could be a helpful reference.  Lining up all of your team’s activities — performance reviews, benefits, perks, company policies, training, D&I efforts, etc. — against the 7 elements can help you see the bigger picture of the People team mission and purpose.

Over time, I’d love to see how a ‘flow’-oriented People team can impact the engagement scores that come out of an employee survey.  I guess that’ll be my job to figure out.

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