Getting into the flow at work – What leaders can do to engage their staff

“There are only three measurements that tell you nearly everything you need to know about your organisation’s overall performance: employee engagement, customer satisfaction, and cash flow. It goes without saying that no company,  small or large, can win over the long run without energized employees who believe in the mission and understand how to achieve it.”

Jack Welch, former CEO of GE

“Everyone enjoys doing the kind of work for which he is best suited.”

Napoleon Hil

“TURNED ON people figure out how to beat the competition, TURNED OFF people only complain about being beaten by the competition.”

Ben Simonton, author of Leading People To Be Highly Motivated And Committed

If one considers the above three quotes, which are but a tiny selection of comments made by business leaders, entrepreneurs and leadership gurus that relate to the need to engage staff at work, it should become clear that, in order for companies to be successful, to thrive and to consistently beat the competition, it is critical that their leaders ensure that their employees remain motivated and give of their best when at work. However, while this idea is obvious in theory, exactly how leaders consistently achieve this in reality is less clear.

One approach that explores positive experiences and employee engagement is Csikzentmihalyi’s (1975) “flow” construct. This construct places emphasis on enjoyment as a key component to an intrinsically motivated activity. Flow is a positive experience created when challenges are congruent with the skills of the individual. In order to experience flow, there must be a unity between challenge and skill, and this needs to be above a critical threshold level. To remain in flow, one must increase the complexity of the activity by developing both new challenges and skills.

Since the experience of flow is operationalised as the unity between challenge and skill, a sense of anxiety or stress is produced when challenges are higher than the individual’s skill or ability. Conversely, boredom is experienced when skills are higher than the challenge of the task. Similarly, boredom occurs when there is no challenge in a task to meet the skills of the individual. This means that a task significantly below the capabilities of the individual will result in frustration due to the ease of the task. Flow is thus poised between boredom and anxiety.

However, research undertaken by Gallup suggests that only 13% of employees worldwide are engaged at work, in over 140 countries. This suggests that a massive proportion of the global workforce is disengaged at work, meaning that organisations around the world are likely to face both direct and indirect costs associated with demotivated and disinterested employees. These costs can span the salary bill of employees who are only applying themselves to their work for a meniscal portion of their day, the direct recruitment costs of finding able replacements when turnover increases, as well as the indirect costs such as increased absenteeism, empire building, power struggles and so on.

So how exactly can leaders ensure that their employees remain engaged and “in flow” with their work?

  1. Clarifying organisational goals: it is difficult to achieve company goals if they are not clearly understood. Thus, clear communication systems should be instilled to ensure that every employee, at every level, understands what the organisation is aiming to achieve and how their unique contribution assists the organisation to “get there”
  2. Clearly communicating performance goals: well-communicated organisational goals are not enough for people to be fully engaged. They also need to know precisely what needs to be done, how well they need to be doing it, where to stick to job components and where discretion is expected, both in the immediate and the long term.
  3. Being open with performance: Knowing precisely what needs to be done is useful if one knows, step-by-step, if they are getting closer to their goal. Obtaining and providing feedback is time consuming but it is time well spent. Its absence leads to no learning, no growth, and only routine and apathy. Feedback that leaders can draw on includes feedback from other people, feedback from the work itself and feedback from one’s own personal standards.
  4. Matching challenges with skills: While the work environment often determines how fully a person can develop, it is the leader’s responsibility to provide opportunities for skills to be used and refined. This implies that people should be hired to fit goals, values and the environment, and should only be placed once their strengths and weaknesses are known. In addition, the requirements of the position and the level of capability of the person to do this work should be assessed to ensure as good a match as possible between the two.
  5. Providing Opportunities for Concentration: Constant interruptions may build to a state of chronic emergency and distraction. Stress is not only a function of hard work, it is also caused by having to constantly switch attention from one task to another without having any control over the process. Concentration is also disrupted by new technologies, e.g. email and the Internet. It is easy to form a dependence on a steady flow of information (email is the biggest culprit here), but this should not to a point of preoccupation and feelings of guilt if questions do not get immediate replies.
  6. Allowing control over jobs: Control should not be misunderstood as a need to “set and control parameters”, follow rules obsessively or disrespect the independence of others around you. Control refers here to the feeling that, when the occasion demands it, the individual has the necessary skills to set new strategies to reach an ultimate goal with some latitude to reach a sense of flow. It is a sense of having a choice about how to perform their job in the best possible way, and that they are trusted to come up with the best possible solution.

For more information on how to create the conditions for flow and ensure your staff are engaged please email: