During the pinnacle of his career, Tiger Woods, referring to his peak performance moments, said, “…for me, it just happens, I just get out of my own way and let the training just take over.” Media often calles this a state of “being in the Zone.” Researchers call it “Flow.”
In this state, one is absorbed with relevant factors in the present moment, experiences a merging of action and awareness while challenges feel like a stretch for existing skills, feels in control, and has a sense of curiosity about the task at hand. Flow can feel wonderful, and it doesn’t only happen with athletes. Research has documented flow experiences with artists, musicians, chess masters, surgeons, even motorcycle gang members, and more recently, in business.
Flow isn’t something you can force. You fall into it. Think of your best day skiing, playing basketball, kicking in taekwondo, connecting with your kids, or whatever it may have been. When things clicked, did you make them click? Probably not. But, perhaps you helped set the circumstances for flow experiences to become more likely.
Setting the stage for flow is important to business. Why? Service quality. When employees experience flow, tangible elements of their service improves, they are more reliable and responsive, they demonstrate competence, and they show more empathy towards consumers, attending to demands and preferences.
So how do managers set the stage for flow to occur? They enable employees to have good balance between stress and recovery. This does not mean employers say, “Ah, take another day off, you deserve it!” On the contrary, employers cultivate a culture where stress is embraced, but where true sustainability is also valued; stress needs to be perceived as a rewarding, manageable, and temporary state.
Performing one’s best does not entail zero stress, but with flow, hard work is intrinsically rewarding. In a flow culture, each member of a team is allowed some say in developing the norms and values for the larger group. Individuals have clearly defined roles, yet there is freedom to learn and use a variety of skills. Management has an important role in clarifying the underlying structure: day to day routines and allocation of resources such as capital, material, time, and personnel. So to some extent, management certainly has to be directive, but with any message (directive or collaborative), communication and feedback is clear and aspires toward being both direct and collaborative.
Through this communication, employees have to know that they are considered important. Employers are ultimately in charge and do not have to agree with everything their employees say, but employees do need to feel heard. At both ends, it is necessary to remember that we are dealing with human-beings; mistakes will happen. And at both ends, remember your own role in enabling flow. Managers can help foster a flow culture, but employees need to also set specific goals, embrace a learning attitude, regularly engage in recharge activities, and guide their attention back to most important tasks.
How’s Flow at work look?
Joe comes into work. As he walks through the hustle and bustle, his boss says, “You heard our client wants to add project B by the deadline right?”
“Yup, you let me know last week, I’m good,” he replies with a grin, “Company softball game was awesome, eh?”
His administrative assistant says, “You’ve got a prospective client on line 1.”
He logs onto his computer and sees five emails that need his attention by noon. He smiles as he picks up the phone. “I love my job,” he thinks, feeling the present moment, ready to go, and curious about his prospective client’s needs.