How to Support Employee Flow

Many are familiar with the feeling of flow. When things come together seamlessly. In a team, it is the feeling of collaboration that contributes to positive progress, where things flow smoothly, and the process almost gives you a feeling of “happiness”. As a leader, you must be able to support your employees in achieving flow. In their everyday lives, in their tasks, and in the various professional networks they engage in.

Below, I have outlined some important points to consider when creating flow in your employees’ daily lives.

5 key elements when creating flow among your employees

As a leader, you have a significant impact on the culture of collaboration among employees in your organization – whether it’s a team, a department, an administration, a company, etc. And with the right influences, you can strengthen the possibility for them to experience flow. In my opinion, you should pay particular attention to the following elements in your work with the organization’s culture if you want to support the flow among your employees:

  1. Establish clear goals.
  2. Provide a high degree of autonomy.
  3. Ensure that employees, at least periodically, can give their tasks and important collaborative relationships full attention.
  4. Create a constructive culture of failure.
  5. Provide space for improvisation.

I will now attempt to elaborate on these five elements further.

Establish clear goals

Psychology professor Csikszentmihalyi (yes, the last name is spelled correctly) described in his theory of individual flow how clear goals are a crucial requisite for achieving flow. A study on companies has also shown that unclear goals were the biggest obstacle to effective teamwork, which most of us can also relate to from our daily lives. Csikszentmihalyi also believes that it is important for the flow state that we work “at the edge of our abilities.” Hence, there must be a reasonable balance between the challenge, our goals, and our abilities.

To succeed with liberating leadership, it is important that the goals are both individual and at a team/department level – also that the goals are formulated in a way that fosters inclusion. Creating inclusion means creating a “we feeling” – that the group sees itself as a unit working together towards a common goal. So, the goals, as I see it, must motivate, be at the edge of our abilities, be unifying and create inclusion, in order to support both flow and liberation. Furthermore, it is crucial for your employees flow that you as a leader create ownership of the goals. In my experience, ownership of the goals is created through involvement and a good process where the goals are unfolded and developed together with the employees.

Provide a high degree of autonomy

Groups with a high degree of autonomy have a much greater chance of achieving flow. Having autonomy means that they have control over their process and product themselves. Also, that they feel they can influence or create the project group’s collaborative culture. Many studies show that autonomy is the most important factor when getting a team to perform at their best. Thus, it is up to the leader to find a suitable balance between structure and freedom – both in terms of planning, follow-up, and in relation to the employees’ task organization.

Autonomy is important in relation to achieving group flow, but it is rarely without challenges to give all employees an experience of autonomy. Because the experience of autonomy can send employees on too many individual journeys and therefore undermine the common group flow. In my experience, autonomy can be balanced, but it requires that the leader creates the necessary inclusion through the goals. Inclusion is the foundation for balanced autonomy.

Ensure that employees, at least periodically, can give tasks and important collaborative relationships full attention

Our work is typically challenged by a reality where everyone is super busy and engaged in many tasks and collaborative relationships across the board. A daily life where our immersion in specific tasks is constantly interrupted by other tasks such as project and committee meetings, phone calls, and emails that need to be answered, etc.

According to Csikszentmihalyi, individual flow requires concentration and full attention. Similarly, we can only achieve flow in our team, group, or department if we give participants the opportunity to give the task their full attention. Not necessarily constantly, but periodically. We must organize our everyday lives so that it becomes possible to immerse ourselves in the tasks in “protected” concentration spaces. This may require, in some worlds, that we adjust our understanding of how important our own “here and now” management really is and adjust our expectations for each other’s availability.

Create a constructive culture of failure

As mentioned earlier, flow requires a balance between a current challenge and employees’ abilities. Thus, the flow state depends on some degree of professional security regarding the task. Appropriate professional skills gives the individual employee professional security, and this professional security is the foundation for achieving flow.

In my experience, this fundamental professional security cannot be properly created in a zero-error culture. In a typical zero-error culture, we are too busy ensuring ourselves, controlling others, and pointing fingers at the responsible when something goes wrong. And in such a collaborative culture, flow cannot be achieved. As leaders, we must therefore try to foster a culture where it is okay to fail. Where mistakes can be used constructively to create learning. Learning that can ensure that we do not make the same mistake again. Of course, this is easier said than done. A zero-error culture typically does not just arise in the individual teams but reflects the culture of the organization. This is a larger management and cultural problem that the top management of these organizations should work on. I understand that a zero-error culture can be very difficult to incorporate in a public administration context, where the media pounce on the slightest mistake. But the zero-error culture is poison for the flow state, and something must be done about it.

Provide space for improvisation

As a final element, it is my belief that the flow state depends on a culture where there is room for improvisation. We can easily organize and plan everything to death. Improvisation involves both frameworks and an appropriate degree of autonomy – and also our way of accepting each other’s ideas and actions. Improvisation is based on a “yes, and” culture. That we meet each other’s ideas positively and build on them. Instead of, almost as an automatic reaction, being critical or shooting down others’ ideas – which often characterizes the zero-error culture.

Psychologist Marcial Losadas found in his research that management groups permeated by a “yes, and” culture that also had a positivity ratio of 3:1 or higher (positive things outweigh negative things three times as much) by far were the most successful and excelled in almost all parameters in terms of productivity. As leaders, we must try to work on increasing the positivity ratio for our organizations. We must create positive relationships among our employees. We must create a “yes, and” culture where we naturally build on and extend each other’s ideas, and we must use the energy and ideas to ensure positive progress in tasks.

Good luck with creating flow in your employees’ everyday lives.