“Flow”: the elusive peak state of motivation and productivity by Marvin Faure

by Didier Marlier on Tuesday February 28th, 2012

Our partner, Marvin Faure, runs Mindstore Europe. He has recently completed a study on motivation. It is his first publication on our blog.

“The unusual feature of this study was that the participants were all known to be highly motivated amateur cyclists in their private lives: the sort of people that cycle 8000 – 10,000 km per year and think nothing of cycling up and over several Alpine passes before breakfast… The average age of the group was 42 and they were nearly all in employment, so it is interesting to see to what extent and under what conditions their extraordinary motivation can be transferred to the workplace.

The conclusions are quite clear: people are most highly motivated when they get deeply involved in doing something they love, and when they feel they are making real progress in things that are important to them. There is nothing more satisfying than to be totally engrossed in succeeding at something challenging. One forgets everything else in total concentration on the task at hand, while time seems to flash by.

These conclusions remind us strongly of the seminal work of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. In his book Flow[1], first published in 1990, Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced “cheek-sent-me-high”) first popularized the notion that people are happiest and most productive when they are in “flow”. He defined this as being when people are able to lose themselves in a challenging activity which stretches their skills and in which the goals are clear and they get regular feedback. He also noted that when people are in “flow”, their perception of time is altered: sometimes hours can seem to pass by in minutes, while at other moments time seems to stand still as they focus intently on achieving something very skillful.

In Csikszentmihalyi’s words: “The best moments [in our lives] usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile”

Looked at this way, every enlightened manager surely dreams of her people (and herself) being in permanent flow! Think of Apple: one of the remarkable talents of Steve Jobs was to create the conditions where his product development teams could get into flow.

Unfortunately, in most companies the opportunities to achieve flow at work are all too rare, and the “real world” constantly creeps in. As Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer point out in their recent McKinsey Quarterly article “How Leaders Kill Meaning at Work[2]”, “senior executives routinely undermine creativity, productivity, and commitment by damaging the inner work lives of their employees in […] avoidable ways.” They don’t mention flow or Csikszentmihalyi but list some of the ways that managers effectively prevent their subordinates from getting in to flow, such as belittling their work or ideas, taking people off project teams before the work is finished and frequently changing either the goals or even the goalposts. Amabile and Kramer list four traps that senior executives are prone to fall in to:

  1. Mediocrity signals: for example, espousing innovation and growth while in reality focusing on cost-cutting and avoiding risk;
  2. Strategic “attention deficit disorder”: launching frequent new initiatives that are never carried through;
  3. Corporate “Keystone Kops”: creating chaos through complex matrix organizations where roles and responsibilities are unclear;
  4. Misbegotten “Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals”: setting high financial targets to which people have no emotional connection.

Each one of these traps taken individually effectively destroys any real chance of people getting into flow on meaningful work (let alone all four together).

So what can be done?  There are no easy short cuts. As a manager, you must think long and hard about what are you really trying to achieve, and how best to do so. We sometimes remind managers that you are paid for what your people do, not for what you do. The obvious conclusion is that a large part of your time should be focused on making it easy for your people to do their best work.

A good starting point might be to ask yourself the following questions:

  • How much of your work in the past month truly helped your people get into flow (i.e. become productively focused on doing their best work),
  • How much of what you did hindered your people from getting into flow?
  • How meaningful is their work, not to you, but to them? What could you do to help them find more meaning in it?
  • How can you cut down the distractions and the time-wasting activities that prevent them from concentrating on creating real value?

Motivation is a complex and controversial subject. One of the few things the experts agree on, however, is that intrinsic motivation (the sort that comes from within, from the desire or pleasure in doing something for its own sake) is far superior in the long run than extrinsic motivation (the sort that comes from an external reward or punishment). All the millions of hours spent on fine-tuning bonus plans might be far more profitably spent on finding ways to increase the opportunities for people to get into “flow” at work.”

Marvin Faure


[1] Csikszentmihalyi, M (1990) Flow : The classic work on how to achieve happiness.

[2] https://www.mckinseyquarterly.com/Governance/Leadership/How_leaders_kill_meaning_at_work_2910

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