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Is There a Flow State of Leadership?

By Evan Sinar, Ph.D.

Evan Sinar, Ph.D.

Think of the last time you were completely immersed in a particular activity. You lost track of time; your concentration was at its maximum; it was instantly clear what to do next and how; all the day’s typical distractions just faded away. When you eventually got jarred back to the here and now, you looked back on what you’d accomplished and were surprised at the creativity and sheer volume of what you’d produced—but you still weren’t entirely sure how it happened.

There’s a name for this very specific state you were in: it’s called “flow.”

The essence of flow is total absorption in the task at hand; the task taking precedence over everything else, and actively working on the task itself becomes its own reward.

Now, let’s apply this concept to leadership. Being a strong leader is often defined in terms of the mastery of distinct, carefully considered actions—coaching a struggling employee, reviewing and making decisions based on data, creating a long-term operational plan for your business unit, among many others. Given the diversity of these actions, it might seem counterintuitive that one could enter a flow state while engaging in them, shifting from one distinct activity to another.

But what if truly great leadership required transcending a varied set of deliberate, learned actions? What if, instead, it required achieving a flow state? Also, given that leadership is multi-faceted, are some leader behaviors more likely to elicit flow than others? And when and how does this happen?

Let’s consider these questions.

What triggers flow?

Before we explore flow as it applies to leadership, let’s first examine flow and its inherent advantages and risks. It’s important to understand how people—at work or otherwise (since flow isn’t an exclusively on-the-job concept)—get into a flow state. Extensive research into flow’s origins based on the foundational work of Mihály Csíkszentmihályi consistently cites it as falling at the intersection of two factors: an activity’s degree of challenge and how skilled someone is at it performing the activity.

While flow is the culmination of high challenge paired with high skill, it’s worth keeping in mind that many other states are possible, as well, depending upon the level and blend of these factors. The graphic below, drawing on Csíkszentmihályi’s wide-ranging body of research on flow spanning work and non-work settings, shows eight different ways that challenge and skill can combine. It’s important to recognize this framework of states when taking action to seek or foster flow for leaders or employees.

  1. Flow—achieved when an activity is high challenge and requires high skill.
  2. Arousal—an activity is challenging and the person performing it is moderately skilled.
  3. Anxiety—an activity is challenging but the person performing it lacks skill, confidence, or capability.
  4. Control—an activity requires high skill but it presents only moderate challenge to the person performing it.
  5. Relaxation—an activity poses only minimal challenge and the person performing it has mastered it.
  6. Worry—an activity is moderately challenging and it slightly exceeds the skill level of the person performing it.
  7. Boredom—an activity poses a low degree of challenge but performing it nonetheless requires moderate skill.
  8. Apathy—there is near-absence of both challenge and skill requirement.

Flow Diagram

Image by Aly Juma

This framework, illustrated above, shows the complexity—and the frailty—of a flow state for leaders. Flow isn’t all-or-nothing: it’s hard to get into and easy to fall out of. Only by understanding this framework can companies put together a plan to guide leaders into flow, tap into its powerful positive effects for leaders, and take corrective action.

How do leaders get—and stay—in flow?

The most critical driver for getting into a flow state is the combination of high skill and high challenge at a given moment, for a specific task. But other factors can also push leaders toward or away from this mode of total absorption. The activity needs a clear goal, and while the goal can be self-imposed, it is essential to focus one’s entire attention on achieving this outcome. The activity also needs to provide immediate, unambiguous feedback.

So far, we’ve talked mostly about the “when” and “how” side of flow; however, it’s also important to understand “where” flow occurs, and for “whom.” Surprisingly, Csíkszentmihályi’s research shows that flow is much more likely to be triggered when at work than at leisure. This is best explained by recalling the near-maximum levels of both challenge and skill needed in place to trigger a flow state. A research team led by Robert Eisenberger found that certain personality traits—openness to experience, adaptability, and need for achievement—are also linked to longer-duration and higher-intensity flow experiences.

What parts of being a leader are likely to lead to flow?

Turning to the activities themselves, many leader roles—coach, director, innovator, visionary—are unquestionably challenging, draw heavily on skill, and, under certain circumstances, can be as immersive as any job task.

In fact, in a study by Csíkszentmihályi spanning several different jobs, managers spent a larger proportion of their time in a flow state than did employees in administrative, assembly, or logistics jobs. Notably, some leader activities were more flow-inducing than others: most of all, the time leaders spent working with others to discuss and resolve issues. Less flow-inducing activities included scheduling, paperwork, individual problem-solving, and preparing work for others.

Two critical points are important from this research. First, the concept of flow is even more relevant to a leader’s job than it is to an individual contributor’s. Despite—or perhaps because of—the complexity associated with leader roles, it’s still possible to maintain a flow experience across a range of varied and disconnected tasks.

But only to a point as shown by the second key research finding: Some leader activities are more likely to induce flow than others. Specifically, they include those that involve interacting with one’s employees toward a defined objective (in the case of this research, issue resolution, but it could be any well-defined, collective goal), and not just assigning tasks or completing administrative work.

We’ve also seen signs of how interaction-based activities help promote leaders’ flow state in our own research, the Global Leadership Forecast 2014|2015. The companies that prioritized interacting as the most important role of a leader had leaders more than twice as likely to be engaged in their jobs—a key sign that leaders consistently and commonly experience flow.

How do leaders—and their employees—benefit from a flow state?

Extensive research by Eisenberger and colleagues has resulted in a lengthy list of positive outcomes linked to flow states at work. Individuals in a flow state are happier, friendlier to others, and much more often find themselves in a positive mood at the end of the day. Flow’s benefits extend beyond mere appearances and mental states, however. While in a flow state leaders are more creative, more likely to spot and take advantage of continuous improvement opportunities, and more spontaneous, often breaking out of convention and status-quo thinking.

It’s not hard to see how a leader’s team benefits from these flow-driven tendencies, too. Authentic leaders who are able to get into and maintain an employee-centric flow state produce cascading effects of stronger and more frequent flow for their employees.

This blog is excerpted from the essay Is There a Flow State of Leadership? from DDI’s Challenging Thinking Series. Read the entire essay to learn about the risks of “over-flow” and find out what’s required to create an environment for leader flow.

Evan Sinar, Ph.D. is the Chief Scientist and Vice President of the Center for Analytics and Behavioral Research (CABER). Evan is a frequent author and presenter on leadership assessment and development, talent management analytics, data visualization, and generational differences. Evan says that data visualization has been the first thing he’s worked on that his kids find interesting; though it’s not all he does at his job, he tells them it is to score “dad points.”

Posted: 31 Mar, 2017,
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