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Is There a Flow State
of Leadership?

Challenging Thinking Series

Challenging Thinking is a series of Think Pieces—essays, videos, and other content—that ask and answer bold questions about leadership. While the leadership-related topics vary widely, each piece will inspire novel thinking.  

“Flow” is the state of being totally immersed in an activity. Can leaders attain this state, too?

By Evan Sinar, Ph.D.

Thinking PointsThink 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?

Which leaders get into this mode more frequently than others and, as a result, to what heights do their talents take them? What’s more, if a leader is often in a flow state, what does it mean for his or her employees? Do they become beneficiaries or, conversely, casualties of a manager’s complete immersion in his or her role?

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.

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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.

What are the risks of “over-flow”?

For all their advantages, flow states are not without risks. Recent research led by Julia Schuler shows that individuals deeply immersed in a flow experience have impaired risk awareness, which in turn leads to riskier behavior. While this can be an advantage in environments defined by risk aversion, it can also be problematic. Flow-state leaders deep “in the zone” can become overconfident, and quickly find themselves rashly expending company resources and making decisions without fully factoring in available data and potential consequences.

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A leader’s complete immersion in current activities can be a concern if his or her employees feel left behind or that their ideas are marginalized or abandoned while the leader storms ahead. Transformational leaders shine in their individualized consideration for each one of their employees.

A final set of risks of a too-heavy focus on leader flow stems from it not being a permanent state. Leaders can be easily dislodged out of flow, which can detract from its potential benefits. Flow also needs to be refreshed and reestablished—no one activity will continue to produce flow-inducing effects if the challenge it offers remains constant.

Flow is fragile even within a workday. Research by Maike Debus and colleagues shows a U-shaped pattern, with rates of flow highest at the beginning and end of the day, while slumping in-between. Since flow is a mix of challenge and skill, it’s susceptible to variation in either of these factors. For example, if a leader’s skills are imbalanced—strong in coaching but weak in delegation—he or she may drift in and out of an immersive state based on the current activity. If any of these circumstances occur frequently, and if signs of slippage aren’t closely tracked, they may entirely negate the advantages of flow.

Creating an environment for leader flow

Though some leaders do experience flow more than others, it’s nonetheless a heavily environmentally driven state, and companies that lay the groundwork for conditions likely to induce flow will see it occur much more often. Here are five recommended actions to promote a flow-friendly environment:

  • Craft development assignments—Coming back to the core basis for flow—a blend of high challenge and high skill—companies can target the first part of this equation by crafting development assignments that fill this function, and that do so not just once, but continually. These can be long-term development assignments such as international or rotational placements, but only if they are structured to provide high and consistent challenge. Also, consider short-term assignments stretching over just a few days or weeks—long enough to allow immersion, but not so long they become routine and thus fall short on the challenge scale.
  • Build and sustain leader skills—The second lever to pull in prompting higher instances of leader flow is ensuring that leaders have and maintain the high skills to match the high challenges they’re facing. Otherwise, challenge begets anxiety, which won’t produce the effects for which flow is uniquely suited. To generate flow, target the skill profiles needed to match the opportunities available to leaders. In a management-centric culture, these may be planning and organizing, and information-monitoring; in an interaction-focused culture, they may be coaching and inspiring others.

    Skills honed through practice and experience also alleviate concerns about excessive risk-taking while within a flow state. The negative outcomes of risk-taking are less likely when leaders are experienced.
  • Design a flow-inducing work environment—There are surprisingly many steps a company can take to make flow states more common through work environment design. Many center on the concept of recovery time, a critical counterweight for flow. For all flow’s benefits, it also involves a substantial energy expense, which then must be frequently replenished. Mindfulness programs can speed recovery time after productive yet exhausting flow experiences. Flow will only be possible under conditions of deep concentration; in open office layouts, alternative “focus room” locations away from the open-plan fray will be key.

    Additionally, encourage leaders to create workdays that line up with their personal flow patterns. This could involve periodically turning off e-mail notifications or scheduling meetings mid-day (when flow states are rare) if those interruptions detract from a leader’s ability to get and stay immersed in his or her work.
  • Monitor vigilantly and enable real-time feedback—Constructive, in-the-moment feedback is a key precursor to leaders achieving flow states. First, consider the people sources of feedback—coaches, mentors, fellow leaders, and employees—and give them the awareness and knowledge of how they can collectively induce flow states for each other. Informal mentors can play a valuable role to help leaders spot or renew their sense of challenge based on what’s coming their way.

    Experiment with other sources of feedback as well, such as gamified systems that allow leaders to self-correct their behaviors without withdrawing from a flow state, and technology tools that provide prompting, instant self-checks, and suggestions to nudge leaders toward a preferred path for employee interactions.
  • Measure, analyze, and adjust—Leader flow experiences can be systematically progressed by seeking out and expunging signs of complacency and balance. While these states aren’t typically seen as problematic, they also aren’t conducive to the high skill-high challenge combination flow requires. Companies must actively watch for signs of slippage—for example, when flow fades to relaxation due to a lack of challenge, or to anxiety due to a lack of skill. This may also require a “pulse survey” approach with frequent, briefer, and tailored data-gathering rather than once-a-year, company-wide surveys, which can paint a misleading picture of employee flow states if they are focused on avoiding disengagement (that is, minimizing low scores) or are not broad enough to measure both the skill and challenge requirements of flow.  

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Flow is all about the combination

Leaders who reach a state of total absorption in the interacting and management aspects of their roles are likely to be more creative and less bound by conventional approaches, and the authenticity that comes from this immersion carries through to induce flow for their employees, too. Only when these are combined within a well-crafted work environment will the transformational outcomes of flow for leaders and their employees be possible.

Yes, it’s true that leadership flow is fragile, requires constant reinvigoration, and is dependent on clear goals, a unifying purpose, and a steady supply of activities that demand a leader’s full attention and capability. However, the advantages of a flow state mindset for leadership are too numerous to be overlooked, and the many evidence-based actions that companies can take to improve the rates of flow—for leaders and employees alike—provide an achievable path forward for attaining its returns.

About the author

Evan Sinar, Ph.D. Evan Sinar, Ph.D. is DDI’s Chief Scientist and Vice President of the Center for Analytics and Behavioral Research (CABER). Evan is a thought leader on leadership assessment and development, talent management analytics, and data visualization.

Follow @EvanSinar

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