Startegies that will definitely kill the flow in your teams
You certainly know it: When you are in a state of flow, you find it easy to square things away. You are focused, in a good mood, full of energy and so absorbed in your work that you forget about the world around you. But how can we achieve flow? And what are the biggest flow killers that prevent us from getting into this state?
According to well-known Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, environments of a certain kind make people achieve flow state—i.e. a state of joyful productiveness—regardless of gender, age or cultural background. However, in everyday business, they are given too little room: “Many companies want innovation and creativity, both of which can emerge only in flow state. Alas, pressure, routine, red tape and hierarchical structures all too often put an end to flow,” says Helga Pattart-Drexler, Head of Executive Education at the WU Executive Academy. She has identified nine flow killers that executives unfortunately use again and again:
The project's objective is clear; how to achieve it is anything but clear. This can block flow or prevent it from developing in the first place. In his book “Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention”, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi recommends concretizing every single step. In flow state, we always know what needs to be done next. Incidentally, brain researchers say that problem-solving is a task perfectly suited for the human brain. It is fun and stimulates us to think creatively.
We have all been there: You never find the solution to a problem while you are at your desk racking your brain but only once you relax: in the course of jogging, while taking a shower, before falling asleep. Your thoughts can flow freely and do not get blocked by pressure or anxiety.
Flow can be found where new things are emerging—and this rarely happens in your comfort zone. If we want to come up with novel ideas, we need to leave time-tested approaches and routines behind and break new ground. The desire to discover something new makes it easier for us to achieve flow. Conversely, flow is a sine qua non for the emergence of the new.
Getting into flow state as an individual in the course of your work is one thing. But at the team level, too, collaboration should be as smoothly as possible. Alas, employee roulette is a popular game in many places: People get employed where they are currently needed—irrespective of the fact that their strengths and interests may lie somewhere else. “If, as an executive, I assign projects and tasks in accordance with the competencies and interests of employees, I will unlock plenty of innovative energy. In order to be able to do this, I have to develop a good understanding of people's personal characteristics, motivations and needs,” says Helga Pattart-Drexler. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says that with regard to flow it is absolutely necessary for tasks and skills to be in perfect harmony. Being in flow state is synonymous with walking the fine line between anxiety and boredom: We consider the task to be challenging, exciting but doable. One thing is clear: The best way to achieve team flow is to give people a say in the organization of work processes and the distribution of tasks.
When you leave employees in the dark about whether they have done a good job or where there is room for improvement but instead direct sweeping criticism and personal reproaches at them, flow and motivation will soon be gone. “Giving negative, destructive feedback or none at all is a sure way to kill flow,” says Helga Pattart-Drexler. Flow cannot be achieved unless we receive feedback on our actions that is swift, specific and results-oriented—and given to us in an appreciative manner.
Correcting others, demonstrating to them that one could have done a better job and criticizing their mistakes while belittling or selling short their achievements: This kind of behavior kills collaborative flow on a long-term basis. But executives should be role models and foster a climate where there is no room for envy and condescension: “In my team, we celebrate the small mistakes as well as the big achievements. We are happy for one another and grateful for the opportunity to learn from mistakes together,” says Helga Pattart-Drexler. Understanding one another and learning from each other motivates people and is conducive to flow.
Where a team does not work smoothly, there is, more often than not, a lack of open communication. Environments in which openness and constructive criticism are ill-tolerated give rise to grapevine communication and subliminal sabotage as a result of misunderstandings or false expectations. When working in teams, we need to openly discuss all concerns, misunderstandings and expectations with regard to a specific task or project. Otherwise, we cannot come up with new ideas and approaches. Every opinion matters. Through free association we achieve flow. And in order to be able to associate freely, we must be allowed to openly say what we think.
It has happened to us all: You are busy squaring away the tasks on your to-do list, e-mails keep popping up on your computer screen, the boss approaches you with a request and your coworker is loudly talking away on the phone. At first, you feel distracted, but soon you become frustrated. In order to achieve flow, one thing is crucial: Being absolutely concentrated and focused on the one task that is in front of you at this moment. Executives, too, have to see to it that the right working conditions for this to happen are in place.
When it comes to making teams and the entire organization achieve flow, executives need to turn their attention to what is known as “organizational flow”, as management consultant Gustav Greve points out in his book of the same name. Executives are the ones to create an environment conducive to flow. And they have to start with themselves and their “flow competence”.
For more information about our Executive Education portfolio, please click here.