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The Manager’s Guide to Cultivating Flow at Work

Kate Jones
Jul 20, 2017 · 12 min read
Photo: Startup Stock

A happy worker is 12 percent more productive than the average employee and 22 percent more productive than the unhappy ones. Additionally, disengaged employees cost U.S. businesses up to $450 billion per year in lost productivity. The leader who fails to take these figures seriously places the longevity of their business at grave risk.

On the flip side, employees who care about the future of their company and feel actively engaged in their job are more likely to invest discretionary effort in their work and stay loyal to their employer. At a time when the fight to recruit and retain skilled workers has become a global problem, with 40 percent of companies reporting talent shortages, finding a way to keep staff happy is more critical than ever.

As leaders, it is our job to get the best out of our people. But more often than not, our workplaces aren’t set up for happiness to flourish. Indeed, we unintentionally construct job roles and organizational cultures in a way that actively reduces happiness. Consequently, we are unwittingly setting ourselves up to be less productive.

The best way to sidestep this problem is to design a working environment where flow can thrive; where our people can work to their maximum intellectual capacity by reducing stress, counterproductive interruptions, and disillusionment. But first we must address an underlying misconception about the meaning of happiness at work.

Happiness, engagement, and satisfaction are terms used to explain a myriad of important organizational objectives — from how involved staff are in making business decisions to how satisfactory is the state of office facilities. Throughout this article, you’ll find these words used interchangeably, and, for our purposes, we are referencing the level of enjoyment a person feels when they are doing their job.

A Fundamental Misunderstanding

We hail profitability as the cornerstone of modern business, and how it’s achieved — especially in public corporations — is of little to no interest to the people that count: the shareholders, who will vote with their wallets if the numbers slide. Slaves to the bottom line, leaders perpetuate the view that share yield is king.

So, with profit in our hearts, we set out to boost productivity, tracking and measuring the rate of output to within an inch of its life. Granted, this is more prolific in manufacturing, but the obsession with KPIs also prevails in knowledge work. Even startups aren’t immune to this mentality — the freedom to disrupt and innovate can fade quickly as the business grows and investors expect to see a return.

More recently, nods toward workplace satisfaction have become commonplace with the emergence of annual employee engagement surveys. But for many workers, it feels like a box-ticking exercise — a once-a-year opportunity for leaders to proudly demonstrate their “care” by asking for an opinion that is rarely acted upon.

You can almost hear the words ringing out from boardrooms the world over:

“Sure, we want our people to be happy. We’ll pay them a good wage, give them decent benefits, and make sure the conditions of the workplace are suitable. But come on. This is a business, not a day spa — we’re here to do a job.”

This attitude underlines a fundamental misunderstanding about what happiness truly is and how valuable it can be to a business. We’ve been conditioned to view happiness as hedonic pleasure — the consumption of material goods for our immediate entertainment. We’re obsessed with this type of gratification — it is, after all, extremely profitable.

This view of happiness gives rise to the carrot-and-stick culture we’ve become accustomed to. But to facilitate true happiness valuable happiness — we must strive for more.

We experience true happiness when we’re satisfied in life and living up to our full potential. Achieving this type of happiness isn’t always pleasant — it can be grueling, difficult, and sometimes painful. It is the feeling we experience when we achieve something of great worth that also came at great cost.

A flow activity is a marathon, not a sprint. Photo: ianwakefield1967

When an individual is truly happy in their work, their employer receives the best from them. Work that changes the world. Work that differentiates them from the competition. You cannot buy this kind of happiness with bonuses and promotions — it must be earned through great leadership and genuine concern for your people.

How often does the typical employee feel this way at work? These statistics would suggest not very; just one in three Americans feel engaged at work. One of the key reasons for this is the lack of opportunity to do what we do best.

The average American employee is overwhelmed by stress and underwhelmed by their perceived value. Consequently, the number of Americans voluntarily quitting their jobs is at its highest level in 16 years, and work-related stress costs U.S. businesses $30 billion per year in absenteeism. We’re creating a workforce of sick, disinterested, and disloyal employees.

By seeking to squeeze the most from our people instead of encouraging the best from them, we’re missing a huge opportunity to build a business differentiated by its superior personnel. By ignoring the need for our employees to find true happiness in their work, we’re flushing productivity, and therefore profit, straight down the toilet.

When Productivity and Happiness Meet

The pursuit of profit and the pursuit of happiness do not need to be mutually exclusive. The research of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi demonstrates that for people to be truly happy in their work, they must be allowed to fulfill their individual potential as part of a team.

In other words, to be happy in our jobs, we must have the capacity and desire to do our best work while simultaneously contributing to something bigger than ourselves. This combination results in elite performances at the times that matter the most.

MS Dhoni using his mighty skills to bring about a win for his team.

A person who regularly encounters these circumstances is very likely to experience flow. Csikszentmihalyi coined this term to explain the feeling we get when we are at one with our work: the sensation of being carried away by an external force, of being completely involved with the task at hand. These are the moments when we experience the highest amount of enjoyment at work. These are the moments when we feel true happiness. The great news for leaders is that these are also the times when we are most productive.

Flow can happen with almost any activity. It is the way we feel when we’re engrossed in a great book or when we play our favorite sport. It is found in the opportunity to do a job more effectively, whether you’re a CEO or a fast-food worker.

The simple act of pizza making can be honed to perfection with flow.

The trouble with flow is that it doesn’t come cheap. Having the will and capacity to work in a flow state is not enough on its own. A number of external factors — factors that are becoming increasingly rare in the modern working world — come into play to create the conditions required for flow to thrive. It is the job of us as leaders to cultivate these conditions — to create an optimum environment so our people can flourish.

The first of these conditions has to do with our most undervalued asset: focused attention.

Flow and Deep Work

Flow is associated synonymously with deep work, a notion made popular by Cal Newport, a professor at Georgetown University.

Deep Work: Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.

The ubiquitous use of network tools such as email and social media means that we live in a constant state of chronic distraction. The work that we expect from our people is of a shallow nature: Attend a meeting, juggle five project deadlines, answer your phone on the first ring. This is not only nonconducive to a happy workforce but also incredibly unproductive.

The concept of multitasking is a misnomer. We are incapable of doing more than one thing at a time. Multitasking, in fact, is simply a term that describes a quick succession of separate tasks being undertaken one after the other.

To effectively move from one task to the next, we must remove our attention from task A and fully place it upon task B. The problem is that attention doesn’t follow immediately, because we suffer from what Professor Sophie Leroy describes as attention residue. The result is that performance in task B, and therefore C, D, E, and F, if they follow, is of poor quality. To maximize performance, we must single-task.

Multitasking has become part and parcel of modern working life. A typical workday requires us to switch between several work activities. Additionally, Leroy notes that the higher up the ranks we climb, the more fragmented our attention becomes. Full immersion in a singular task is a pipe dream for many of us.

If we continue to wallow in the shallows, any work done by any business will be replicable. However, if instead we are to foster employees capable of greatness — of the ability to produce at an elite level with both quality and speed — we could create an unimaginable competitive advantage.

Deep work needs its own special set of conditions, namely:

A distraction-free workspace: This can be particularly challenging to achieve in an open-plan environment, but we can employ some clever workarounds to facilitate distraction-free zones. One option is to employ a “green-flag policy” — in other words, a physical signal, such as a green flag, that acts as a do-not-disturb sign. When the signal is in play, everyone knows to respect that person’s need for concentration. Other ideas include:

  • Email amnesty: Scheduling time during the day when nobody sends or opens emails.
  • Focus room: Utilizing a seldom-used office or meeting room as a bookable space for employees to use when they need to work distraction-free.
  • Work-from-home policy: Nothing has done this idea more injustice than the disdainful phrase “shirk from home.” Implementing a work-from-home policy takes trust and mutual respect, but the benefits can be plentiful if managed effectively. You’ll soon know if your trust is being abused.

Single-tasking mentality: Encourage your staff to work on one thing at a time. Do your level best to protect them from the day-to-day whims of upper management. Ensure that meetings are useful, not needless distractions from a task.

Clarity of Organizational Goals

A second critical prerequisite for flow is the ability to connect with a collective vision. But one of the most fundamental problems in organizations — especially large ones — is the lack of effective communication of that vision.

Demands that are understood at higher levels of management determine much of what we expect of workers, but by the time these demands are disseminated into actionable tasks, they become obscure.

For flow to occur, the overarching purpose of an activity must be crystal clear. The job of a leader is to connect the dots; to link every process, rule, and task to a common organizational goal so employees feel engaged.

We can never forget that what seems obvious to us may be completely baffling to our people. I learned this lesson myself several years ago at a time when I led a team of salespeople. We had a third-party distribution agreement with another organization, and every December, we ended up with huge targets to fulfill our contractual agreements. These were never bonusable priorities for the sales teams; they were simply must-dos.

During one November meeting, I presented the target deficit to my team and was met with a challenge:

“Why are we bothering to do this? We get nothing out of it — these aren’t even our products. If I spend all my energy on these targets, I could miss my bonus!”

It was at this point that I realized my error. I knew that the business had several million dollars riding on the contract, and that if we didn’t hit our numbers we’d be left with a massive hole. This hole could lead to budget cutbacks and even layoffs. The stakes were incredibly high, but I had failed to communicate this effectively to my team, assuming they knew what I knew. It’s no wonder they were disengaged with the task.

Having a company mission statement can help, but the devil is in the detail. As leaders, it is our job to bring the mission to life for our people — to help them understand how what they do, day in and day out, contributes to the bigger picture.

Consider creating a team-specific mission aligned to the company statement. Ask employees to create their own individual purpose statement — to think deeply on how what they do specifically contributes to the overall mission. Something more personal than a generic role profile. This exercise will serve two purposes: It will encourage employees to consider their unique value, and it will identify any gaps employees have in their understanding of the bigger picture.

Supported Autonomy

Performance targets are tricky beasts, especially in knowledge work. It’s notoriously difficult to build measures of productivity for creative or professional work. The temptation, therefore, is to grab hold of any metric we can get our hands on.

Some detailed measures are, of course, necessary, especially in sales or manufacturing. But autonomous control of the task at hand is vital for achieving flow, and, where we are able, we should allow our employees to navigate the how for themselves and focus instead on appraising the outcome of their work.

This approach, of course, needs careful management, and flow cannot occur without accurate, timely feedback. Attempting to complete a task without understanding your proximity to the outcome is like flying blind. And while it is crucial that leaders make themselves available to evaluate and appraise their people’s performance, feedback is a shared responsibility — employees must find their own ways to monitor progress.

Equally, it’s important to provide feedback often enough. Once a year, once a quarter, or even once a month isn’t sufficient — at this point, the commentary is stale and out of date and therefore unactionable. Truly useful feedback needs to be immediate and specific.

We must, however, be careful not to become helicopter leaders. Nothing kills happiness in the workplace as effectively as micromanagement. It undoes every positive step we make toward encouraging autonomy and devalues the unique abilities of our people. Allowing our staff to make their own mistakes and learn from them is just as important as offering our support and attention.

Encouraging Growth

Flow occurs only when levels of challenge and skill are high and equal to each other. To be fully engaged in a task, we must believe we are capable of achieving it. Equally, the task must feel like a test of our abilities. Too easy and the task is boring. Too hard and we are likely to suffer from anxiety.

This is a tricky equation to master. Creating a balance between support and challenge for your employees is a tightrope walk that takes years of practice to perfect. The key here is to allow access to learning and to engage in an ongoing dialogue with your people. Cultivating a feeling of trust and openness is critical — employees must feel empowered to tell you when you’re getting it wrong.

How to Cultivate Flow in the Workplace

Distraction-free single-tasking. Unity with the collective mission. Autonomy to act. Accurate, timely feedback. Room to grow.

These are the essential ingredients required for flow.

It is our job as leaders to create these conditions for our people. To honor the flow-giving policies we put in place, live the philosophy ourselves, and challenge the status quo where necessary. More than anything, we must trust and empower our employees to do the right thing.

When optimal working conditions for flow are present and paired with a belief that work is meaningful and worthwhile, the magic starts to happen. With this comes a greater sense of ownership, commitment, and loyalty, as well as a more productive, increasingly valuable workforce.

Recommended Further Reading

  1. Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Cal Newport
  2. Good Business: Leadership, Flow, and the Making of Meaning, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

Kate Jones

Written by

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.