Going With The Flow

Photo by Jad Limcaco on Unsplash
Photo by Jad Limcaco on Unsplash

Flow is such an interesting concept.  From its apparent ability to help us concentrate to the fact that it is becoming increasingly rare, the idea of flow helping us be better at what we love is something that really motivates me.  I can pinpoint events in the past, the recent past, where I have been in that state of flow (“in the zone”) where everything seems easier and more straightforward.  I recently looked at the solution to a problem that I was having where I managed to get into that perfect mental state and, to be honest, I had no idea how I was able to come up with the right answer.

But in our work lives getting into that state, getting the proper environment to facilitate flow, that’s something that your manager has to help you cultivate.  At least, that’s what this article says – The Manager’s Guide to Cultivating Flow at Work – and I believe them.

The authors start off by talking about how a happy employee is twenty-two percent more productive than the unhappy and disengaged employee.  On the flip side, an engaged employee is more likely to stay loyal to the organization.  But what is it that makes an employee happy and engaged?

For me, it’s always been about doing something different, achieving something that people didn’t think was possible or coming up with a solution to a problem that no one thought of.  Doing something challenging, and succeeding, that’s what makes me happy.  According to to the authors of the article, that’s what makes most people happy.

But how many of us are actually engaged in our work?  How many of us are just going through the motions, filling out the appropriate tick boxes so that we can go home, go to sleep and wake up to do the same thing again?  How many of us tell our boss “Oh, I’m really happy, thank you” while inside we cringe and hope that they go away so that we can get back to our dreary, boring work?

If surveys are to be believed, a surprising number of people don’t really feel engaged at work.  And while little Johnny Smith, fresh out of school, is thrilled to be working, Arthur Curmudgeon, a longtime employee, is just coasting until he retires.  In ten years.  But he fills out the survey as if he is because he doesn’t want to rock the boat.

If you have the desire to do your best and you have the capacity to do your best, you have the makings of the flow.  However, just wanting to be better, wanting to be the best, that’s not enough.  In order to achieve what you want, you need to have focused attention.

Deep work, the distraction-free state that really pushes you to your limits, that is where you gain the real benefits of employee engagement.  There are some requirements for deep work, however, and that is where the manager can be effective in helping to create the proper environment.

The authors sum it up in just a few words:

  • Distraction-free single-tasking.  Focus on a single task in an environment that is not distracting.  If you can hear the guy next to you chewing, it’s not a distraction-free environment.
  • Unity with the collective mission.  People need to be on board with what is going on.  If they understand the overall object and the reason for that objective, they are more likely to commit to resolving the problem.
  • Autonomy to act. Don’t tell people how to achieve their objectives, just tell them what the objective is and let them reach it themselves.
  • Accurate, timely feedback.  Don’t micromanage or wait too long to give feedback.  Learn to walk the fine line between letting the employees progress on their own and providing feedback too late to be effective.
  • Room to grow.  As I mentioned at the top, I was most productive when I had something challenging to work on.  Provide growth for people by giving them tasks that they are capable of doing, but that stretch their capabilities.

Knowledge workers are a curious breed.  There is so much potential in their heads, so much capability for growth, that being able to harness it, bring it out into the open, is often more challenging than the tasks that they are being asked to perform.  Keeping them engaged, keeping them focused, those are the keys to success.  Failing to understand that every knowledge worker needs these factors is something that many organizations fall victim to and, as a result, suffer at their own hands.

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