Leader's Mind

About focus, performance, and the concept of Flow

June 9th, 2021 · No Comments

In his book Flow (1990), Csikszentmihalyi describes an intrinsically rewarding state, called flow, in which the body and mind are in perfect harmony and a person can fully immerse in a specific task with seemingly inexhaustible energy and focus. Although the pop-psychology audience received Csikszentmihalyi’s work well, the practicality and implementation of flow remain controversial. Csikszentmihalyi positions flow as a secret to happiness, which is unsupported and idealistic. 

Csikszentmihalyi explains the advantages of being in the flow; however, he does not provide direct methods on how to attain and sustain the experience of flow. He describes six conditions of flow, which are clarity of goals, immediate feedback, feeling of control, concentration on the tasks, intrinsic motivation, and challenge. All of these factors should align at the same time or in a short subsequent period to achieve flow. This can be challenging in daily life, and hence the state of flow can be a rare state.

Further, Csikszentmihalyi suggests that a person in a state of flow forgets about negative aspects of life and that flow is the closest state to true happiness. This statement is however questionable. On one side, philosophers such as Nietzsche, Seneca, and thought and spiritual leaders of a modern age such as Dalai Lama and Sadhguru, also relate happiness to active engagement and to feeling independent from outside conditions. On the other side, in a broader sense, these philosophers connect happiness to acceptance of reality as oppose to Csikszentmihalyi’s chase for ecstasy. Ecstasy is defined as an episode that is not sustainable (Beck, Rosenbaum,1994). Moreover, Csikszentmihalyi describes flow as such an enjoyable experience that people can experience compulsion and accept great risk just for the sake of engaging in activities evoking flow. The combination of these factors further suggests that there is also a downside to flow. Although Csikszentmihalyi provides solid arguments that flow leads to increased productivity, proclaiming that it is a key to happiness is arbitrary.

Csikszentmihalyi argues that any activity can produce a flow experience and that work, as it has a structure to accommodate conditions of flow, has a higher potential to be enjoyable than free time, which tempts to be unstructured. To improve the quality of life through work, the jobs should resemble flow activities and help should be provided to develop autotelic personalities. As in the general application of flow so in the workplace, positioning high productivity, which can be similarly experienced as ecstasy, as a source of satisfaction should be taken with reservation. The intensity of flow requires a significant recovery period. Without it, employees could experience burnout (Kroon et al., 2009).

Industrial-organizational Psychology is suitable for leveraging and managing the flow to increase work satisfaction. Personnel psychology is in a position to address aspects such as the selection and training of employees to optimize flow benefits. Ross and Keiser (2014) claim that there is a substantial overlap between flow propensity and Five-Factor Model personality traits. They stated that low neuroticism and higher conscientiousness were the most relevant predictors of the propensity to experience flow. Although it is unclear how many innate traits can be altered with training, neuroticism and conscientiousness can be managed or strengthened respectively through goal setting, strengthening decision-making abilities, and mindfulness (Langer, 2014; Landy, Conte, 2019). Human engineering can help support the concept of flow by providing adequate external conditions such as an environment where employees feel safe to take risks, by structuring tasks so that they minimize multitasking, and by communicating a vision to cultivate a sense of purpose and intrinsic motivation. The challenge can be to provide a continuous and skill-appropriate challenge, especially in lower-level occupations. This is why an autotelic person, who naturally seeks opportunities, eases this process. Strategies of personnel psychology and human engineering are complementary and should be applied simultaneously to allow for the benefits of flow.

The concept of flow describes conditions, that can improve performance and satisfaction. Although considering flow a key to happiness is inadequate and even dangerous, applying flow in a considerate manner can be beneficial to improve life satisfaction, including work satisfaction.


Tags: Organizational Psychology

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