“Flow” as a corporate value

Suppose you discovered something that would make your firm’s employees perform better and would also make them happier.

Would you try it?

Why we work

In response to a recent post about “humanizing” the corporation, a concerned friend sent me a note suggesting I was (and I’m paraphrasing) “nuts.”

She said, in essence, that the only reason people put up with work and all it entails – the hours, the commute, the commitment – is money. People work to get paid. When they want “humanizing”, they go home.

She was right. Kind of.

If the jobs aren’t well-designed, if the work environment isn’t engaging, if the culture is bad, then, surely, the firm needs to pay you to show up. They have to pay you to “do your job.”

But there’s plenty of evidence that money isn’t enough. That, beyond a certain point, extra money doesn’t produce extra performance. And appealing to basic human motivators does.


One of the things that people inherently seem to want is “flow”. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced mee-hy cheek-sent-mə-hy-ee) describes flow as a state in “which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter.”

Most people might associate flow with athletes. The archer or pro golfer or rock climber who can tune out all distractions, focus on the task at hand, and achieve excellence.

But flow is relevant for everyone.

“flow is completely focused motivation. It is a single-minded immersion and represents perhaps the ultimate in harnessing the emotions in the service of performing and learning. In flow, the emotions are not just contained and channeled, but positive, energized, and aligned with the task at hand.”

Csikszentmihalyi posits that people can experience flow at work, too. That corporations should want flow opportunities for employees because it will help them achieve peak performance. And individuals would want those opportunities because it makes them happier.

Our current view of our corporate cultures

Valuing flow at work isn’t just a topic for psychology books or the product of a naive view of the workplace.

As the Economist recently noted, more and more firms have “decided that their rules-based cultures are too inflexible to cope with the challenges of globalisation and technological change.” Increasingly, firms want and need more than people just doing their job. They require employees who care enough to go beyond boundaries to produce results.

And the ultimate employee engagement at work is flow.

But most people at work still view their corporate cultures as “command-and-control” rather than “self-governing” and conducive to flow. And that matters.

“Nearly half of those in blind-obedience companies said they had observed unethical behaviour in the previous year, compared with around a quarter in the other sorts of firm. Yet only a quarter of those in the blind-obedience firms said they were likely to blow the whistle, compared with over 90% in self-governing firms. Lack of trust may inhibit innovation, too. More than 90% of employees in self-governing firms, and two-thirds in the informed-acquiescence category, agreed that “good ideas are readily adopted by my company”. At blind-obedience firms, fewer than one in five did.”

A better way

Csikszentmihalyi notes that it doesn’t have to be this way. In reviewing societies with dysfunctional cultures, he notes:

“There is no evidence that any of these cultures chose to be selfish, violent, or fearful….[the behaviors] evolved…but once they become part of the norms and habits of a culture, people assume that this is how things must be; they come to believe they have no options.”

He points out that a better culture is one that creates more opportunities for people to experience flow.

“…one society is ‘better’ than another if a greater number of its people have access to experiences that are in line with their goals. A second essential criterion would specify that these experiences should lead to the growth of the self on the individual level, by allowing as many people as possible to develop increasingly complex skills.”

So, we can choose. We can decide that we want the jobs in our firms – and our corporate cultures – to be better.

Of course money is important at work. But if you want to produce extraordinary results, you’ll need to do more for employees that just pay them, and that includes making more flow possibilities possible.

Why wouldn’t you?

About John Stepper

Driving adoption of collaboration and social media platforms at Deutsche Bank. (Opinions here are my own.)
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9 Responses to “Flow” as a corporate value

  1. Lee Bryant has a great presentation on the intrinsic motivation of work. I’ll see if I can find it. Also, make sure you’re reading Stowe Boyd who’s written a lot along these lines.

    Your fan,

    • John Stepper says:

      Thanks, Susan! I’ll be sure to explore more.

      I’m hoping I can implement a small part of these ideas with the course that’s starting this week at work (“Building a purposeful social network”) so more people can access opportunities that better suit them and make flow possible.

  2. Jon Smart says:

    Agreed, why wouldn’t you.

    See also http://blogs.wsj.com/management/2009/12/16/management%E2%80%99s-dirty-little-secret

    From a Towers Watson Global Workforce Study “barely one-fifth (21%) of employees are truly engaged in their work, in the sense that they would “go the extra mile” for their employer. Nearly four out of ten (38%) are mostly or entirely disengaged, while the rest are in the tepid middle. There’s no way to sugarcoat it—this data represents a stinging indictment of the legacy management practices found in most companies”

    • John Stepper says:

      Thanks, Jon. I love this quote: “represents a stinging indictment of the legacy management practices found in most companies”

      So true that most management practices (annual performance reviews, curve-based rankings, most communications, annual budgeting, etc) are grossly ineffective.

      Deming, for one, knew that in the 1950s. I’m hoping social tools and practices can accelerate changing how we manage as well as how we work.

  3. ” Lack of trust may inhibit innovation, too. More than 90% of employees in self-governing firms, and two-thirds in the informed-acquiescence category, agreed that “good ideas are readily adopted by my company”. At blind-obedience firms, fewer than one in five did.”

    As the saying goes…if you put fences around people you get sheep.

  4. John says:

    John – Once again, nice post. The commanders and controls would want a method to measure “Flow” so it could be put into a spreadsheet and charted. It is the only way the bean counters can see any value. Curved based ranking, annual reviews, budgets fit the I can measure and count it model, flow doesn’t. I really liked the analogy to the athlete who may be in the flow(in the zone) and focused on excellence. However, that doesn’t help the fanatasy league manager or rotisserie gm because flow is not a stat.
    P.S. – nice to see you last Saturdat.

  5. Fun subject! When I look at some of the activities that I enjoy most – mountain biking, cooking, playing guitar, really “good” client business meetings or planning sessions with my team, conversations with friends… they all seem to have this “single-minded immersion” quality. One of my own “quality of life” pursuits… is to tip the balance of time I spend doing these things to be a bigger part of my life. I imagine that when I’m retired… I’ll actually spend “a lot” of time doing these sorts of activities.

    The fact that there are people in the workplace concerned about this (aka – you!) is certainly a measure of our progress as a society… and a key ingredient of evolving our workplaces to do a better job of being additive to our quality of life.

    Still struggling with pronouncing Mihaly’s last name… even with the phonetic spelling!!!

  6. Pingback: “How’s work?” | johnstepper

  7. Pingback: Avoiding learned helplessness at work | johnstepper

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