Let’s continue with Martin Seligman’s PERMA Framework in the context of organizations. So far, we have looked at Positive Emotions and Meaning. Let’s take a look at processes, systems, culture and so forth that support Engagement. The photo above is our team at the Center for Positive Organizational Scholarship. In future posts, we will come to Positive Relationships, and Achievement.
Probably the most well known construct related to engagement is Flow, by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi.
“Flow is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does… Nakamura and Csíkszentmihályi identify the following six factors as encompassing an experience of flow.
- intense and focused concentration on the present moment
- merging of action and awareness
- a loss of reflective self-consciousness
- a sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity
- a distortion of temporal experience, one’s subjective experience of time is altered
- experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding, also referred to as autotelic experience
Those aspects can appear independently of each other, but only in combination they constitute a so-called flow experience.”
Most of us have been in Flow at various times in our lives. When I think about when I have experienced Flow in my own life, neither of the two first examples that come to mind involve me sitting in my office. One is from many years ago, when I was able to compete and win cross-country races on a reasonably regular basis. There were some times when I felt so in control of the race that I could win it any way it played out. There was no doubt involved, just the sheer joy of running itself, and expressing myself through running. The other is when I am facilitating group discussions, and sometimes the group responds by forming in such a way that is greater and more powerful than anyone could have deliberately directed themselves. In these situations, I am no longer leading the dialogue, I am just a conduit for the group to form and connect, and create.
Other people may describe different Flow experiences. For some, activities may be more private and personal, such as writing a book, or creating a work of art. For others, it may be in situations where there is immense teamwork involved – collective Flow experiences.
So what leads to these experiences? One characteristic is a high degree of comfort with the activity. In many cases, there is often natural capability in the area. This talent is turned into a deep skill by practice, often over a prolonged period of time. Training and practice have led to a critical level of skill and comfort in the activity. The basics are mastered, and we can do them in our proverbial sleep. As such, it becomes an opportunity to express ourselves and feel connected to something more than ourselves. It becomes an art form. In this great TED video, Ben Zander (the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra) describes this process and outcome as the path to “one-buttock playing”!
Organizationally, there are a range of things that can make Flow states more likely in our organizations. Here are three that come to my mind, and I would love to hear others:
1) Job Crafting. Aligning the work that people do on a regular basis with the things they are naturally good at and enjoy doing makes it more likely that they will reach the level of comfort and competence necessary to attain Flow states.
2) Invest in training and development in a focused way, that supports the key areas of skill needed for the role. Being a generalist is good, and often necessary. But it is hard to reach a Flow state unless you become an expert. So be a generalist as needed, but invest in a couple of areas per person in which they can become so skilled and comfortable with the work that they can reach Flow.
3) Create structures to encourage mono-tasking. Focus on one thing at a time. Unless you are like Neo, in the Matrix movies, it is unlikely that you can do many things simultaneously in a state of Flow. This is not one of my particular strengths these days. However, I do schedule weekly 30 minute meetings with everyone in my team – my manager and all people doing projects that depend on me. I encourage people to hold as much as possible for these meetings. This allows me to reduce the number of requests – especially emails – that can pull my concentration in a hundred different directions.