Flow – the ultimate mental state

Picture a memorable concert you have been to. Can you remember the musicians performing with unsurpassed enjoyment, passion and skill and seemingly completely lost in their own world for the duration of the performance? Now think back, when the last time you, like your favourite musicians, were so engrossed in the work you were doing you lost track of time, forgot all about lunch, and could zone out while the hours flew by. Redounded psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi refers to this state of being as ‘flow’, the optimum mental state. When you are in ‘flow’ you experience the following seven conditions;

  • Completely involved in and focussed on the task at hand 
  • A sense of ecstasy – of being outside everyday reality 
  • A sense of inner clarity, of knowing what needs to be done 
  • Trusting in our capability – that our skills are adequate for the job 
  • A sense of serenity and feeling of growing beyond the limitations of the ego 
  • A sense of timelessness where you are totally focussed on the present and the hours melt away 
  • Intrinsic motivation 

Imagine a workplace where everyone is working in a state of continual flow. Can you envisage how productive and fulfilled we would all be? Let’s take a better look at this concept of flow, as there is, of course, a formula that seeks to aspire to a state of flow. This is a particularly useful concept for leaders to know as we can employ it in our everyday management practices to encourage our team to operate to their best potential maximising their creativity.

How we can reach a state of flow

In order to understand flow, we need to examine and measure the degree of challenge versus the level of skill one hasto complete any one task. If an employee is performing a job or working in a role well below their skill level, we can categorise the job as unchallenging. There is an imbalance in that the skill exceeds the challenge at hand. The employee becomes disengaged. On the other hand, if an employee is given a task whereby the challenge is far too great, exceeding the actual skill/ ability the individual has to perform the task properly, then there is an in-balance again, resulting again in an unmotivated and dis-engaged employee. If the challenge is too low, we experience boredom. If the challenge is too high, we experience anxiety. Both these equate to dis-engagement, which we know is a red-flag for leaders. However, if the task at hand provides the right amount of challenge for the skills of the individual, any potential anxiety or boredom dissipates and they can potentially enter the ultimate state of being – que the angel singing music – FLOW.

We all have unique set points for flow to occur

We are all unique and different and we all have a unique set-point, specific to ourselves, where our skills meet our challenges. This happens when our skills are higher than average and our challenges are also higher than average. Flow happens when we do what we are passionate about and good at. It happens when we have really invested a lot of time, effort and energy into developing our skills. Enough to become good at it. When our work allows us to use our best skills and provide just enough challenge without being too much or too little, then we have all the ingredients for flow to happen naturally.

So how do you apply this theory to your management of people?

The first step in applying this concept is of course to gain feedback from your team through conversation. It’s vital you gauge if they are bored, anxious or unmotivated and examine if their skills are adequate for the work they are performing. Again, bored indicates the challenges outweigh their skills and anxiety indicates their skills outweigh the challenge. A good manager should be able to facilitate making changes to increase or decrease the challenge, or increase the skills to find the right balance. Your team may need help and encouragement in improving their skills with formal and informal training. Perhaps they need more challenge and more responsibility to meet their level of skill. It’s an important balancing act to constantly ensure employees are challenged just enough to stay engaged. For a more detailed explanation of flow, I recommend this enjoyable TED talk with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi https://www.ted.com/talks/mihaly_csikszentmihalyi_on_flow#t-1119503

Would you like to have your employees working in their ultimate mental state of flow? I can help with my leadership training and custom workshops. Get in touchtoday.

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