The Power of “Flow”
Part 1 of a three-part series on Intuitive Leadership: Transformation and Change from the “INSIGHT” out.
By Edie Raether, MS, CSP – Change Strategist
Future leaders will need to become masters of the mind. They will teach people how to rewire their brainware and thus reprogram their minds for sustained peak performance. It will include properly selecting the right person for the right job or task so that natural skills and abilities are utilized for maximum benefit and people are in personal and team alignment, exercising the power of ”flow.”
Flow moves people to do their best work, no matter what work they do. Flow blossoms when our skills are fully engaged and then some. The challenge absorbs us so much we lose ourselves in our work, becoming so totally concentrated we may feel “out of time.” It is a pleasurable state in which we seem to handle everything effortlessly and with ease.
Athletes refer to flow as the Zone, a special place where their performance is exceptional and consistent, automatic and flowing. An Olympic figure skater described it as “the performance where everything clicks. It’s very fun to be in. No worries are present.” Michael Jordan so eloquently demonstrates flow when he shoots a 3-pointer with a split second on the clock in a triple overtime. Wynton Marsalis is one with his horn to produce music that awakens the spirit and Tiger Woods illustrates flow when he is in the Zone. Most recently, Sarah Hughes demonstrated flow at the 2002 Olympics with her breathtaking performance in the women’s figure skating events. When she approached the ice, she said quietly to herself, “I’m going to have fun” – a key component of flow.
People in flow often make the difficult look easy, an external appearance that mirrors what is happening in their brain. Flow poses a neural paradox: We can be engaged in an exceptionally demanding task, and yet our brain is operating with a minimal level of activity or expenditure of energy. The reason seems to be that when we are bored and apathetic, or frenzied with anxiety, our brain activity is diffused: the brain itself is at a high level of activation, albeit poorly focused, with brain cells firing in far-flung and irrelevant ways.
But during flow, the brain appears efficient and precise in its pattern of firing. The result is an overall lowering of cortical arousal, even though the person may be engaged in an extremely challenging task.
Mihalyi Csikzentmihalyi, the University of Chicago psychologist who pioneered the study of flow, outfitted 107 people in positions from management and engineering to the assembly line with a beeper that periodically reminded them to note what they were doing and how they felt. The results were surprising. They reported, on average, being in flow about half the time while on the job, and less than twenty percent of the time during their leisure hours. The most common emotional state reported during leisure time was apathy!
But there was also a wide variation in just how much of the time people were in flow at work. Those with complex, challenging jobs, who had more flexibility in how they approached each task, were most likely to be in flow. Managers and engineers had more flow time than those in routine jobs. More control means more opportunity to maximize flow. Control can take many forms, even putting something off until the last minute as a way to up the challenge, creating a pressured “rush” period that adds adrenaline to an otherwise easy task. Great performers learn to quiet their brains and create a state of quiet alertness in they are which mentally relaxed but 100 percent focused on the task or activity in which they are engaged. Psychologist Michael Posner of the University of Oregon used a new technology called PET scanning to look at the brain activity of people who were paying attention to a new task. When they tried the task for the first time, their blood flow increased in the brain. But as they had more practice with the task, the blood flow and brain electrical activity decreased.
For top performers, there is an especially tight calibration of flow and task; flow occurs in the work that is most critical to their goals and productivity, rather than in fascinating diversions or irrelevancies. For the stars, excellence and pleasure in work are one and the same.
To achieve team or group flow, there must be a strong challenge or worthy mission. The vice president of space launch systems at Lockheed Martin said, “ One of the reasons group goals often fail is they’re too materialistic. I look for super-ordinary – goals big enough that the whole group can get behind them. Such work has compelling meaning and motivation: working toward something monumental deserves everyone’s best effort.”
The late Nobel Prize-winning physicist Prichard Feynman remembered how differently people worked on the Manhattan Project before and after they knew what their effort was for. Originally, strict security meant the whole team was kept in the dark, so they often worked slowly, and not always very well. Then Feynman convinced Robert Oppenheimer to tell the
team of technicians what they were actually working on – it was during the
darkest days of World War II, and their project was a weapon that might stop the Axis enemy who were at the time ascendant. From that point on, Feynman recalled, “complete transformation. They began to invent ways of doing it better…” He calculated that their work went ten times as fast after they understood the goal.
Flow accelerates when we are challenged and our skills are fully engaged to stretch us. No matter how routine the task, flow stimulates people to do their best work. Flow is the ultimate motivator. It is built into the work we love to do and is its own internal reward. Motive and emotion share the same Latin root, motere, “to move.” It is thus our emotions that fuel our motivations and behaviors. Computers lack the guide force that emotions and motivations allow us. Many people may unconsciously procrastinate on projects and then create a last minute “rush” to create a challenge and surge of adrenalin. In fact, it may be considered an internal drug addiction, similar to the natural “high” produced by endorphins. This internal stage of pleasure is the essence of self-motivation.