Is Work Engaging or is it Just Work? Five Elements of "Flow"

by Wally Hauck, Ph.D.

A recent article in a professional Human Resources online magazine in the United Kingdom raised a disturbing and controversial question. Is employee engagement just about helping employees "feel good" or to have fun at work? Has feeling good overtaken the need to improve the quality and efficiency of our work?

The premise of this question is wrong. It ignores the correct definition of engagement. It also ignores research that already exists. This research proves that fun, engagement, productivity, and conscientiousness are all compatible, and interdependent.

Doing more work and high quality work are compatible with employee engagement. People want to be challenged and they want to accomplish tasks. The definition of engagement I use is from the Conference Board: "the heightened emotional connection that an employee feels for his or her organization such that they exert greater discretionary effort." Engaged employees willingly give their energy and time to the work they love to do.

According to a University of Chicago professor, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, people can achieve a "Flow" state of mind at both work and at leisure. Csikszentmihalyi describes Flow as a set of conditions that allows people to achieve their greatest level of productivity, quality, creativity and engagement. Flow is another word for fully engaged. Flow means an experience of joy. Flow means being "in the zone" with a task. Flow is putting all the concentration and energy toward a task for intrinsic reasons only.

Flow requires a very specific environment with very specific elements. Unless these elements are in place, Flow will be illusive. Furthermore, if Flow equals joy, engagement can and will be achieved with these elements.

Csikszentmihalyi conducted a 25 year study as a professor of psychology. He asked hundreds to wear random timers that would "buzz" 20-30 times per day. Participants were instructed to write down what they were doing and how they were feeling each time the "buzz" occurred. The results were compiled and analyzed.

From this research the professor uncovered five key elements that create Flow. These are the same five key elements that can define an environment with optimum engagement. The elements are: a clear sense of purpose; the opportunity to focus full psychic energy on the tasks of the job; a balance of challenge and skills for the job responsibilities and tasks; the opportunity to make choices and to make decisions; and finally having a clear sense of progress.

1. A clear sense of purpose
This element confirms the need to have a clear vision statement and a clear mission statement. A vision is an ideal picture of the future state of the organization. A mission is a statement of purpose about why the organization exists. Once employees appreciate both of these statements and can see a connection between those statements and their everyday tasks, they experience a sense of purpose.

2. The opportunity to focus psychic energy
We have all had the experience when time flies by while fully involved in a task. Employees who have the opportunity to focus their full attention on a task can experience this feeling. Full focus is always an element of engagement. Focus is also directly dependent upon a balance between the skills of the person and the challenge of the task.

3. The balance between challenge and skills
Focus is required when the challenge employees feel is balanced with the skill(s) needed to complete the task. When the challenge is too small, employees can get bored or feel indifferent. When the challenge is too great, anxiety or fear is the result. Employees may freeze with indecision. Csikszentmihalyi's research confirms that employees desire to be challenged at work. This part of his research destroys the myth that people can't or don't enjoy work. Work can be joyful. This element contradicts the premise of the UK article. Joy and challenge are compatible; work and joy are also.

4. The chance to make choices – autonomy
People crave the freedom to make their own choices. The overused term is "empowerment" but having choice to achieve Flow goes well beyond empowerment. Freedom to make choices motivates employees to do their job better. It means less bureaucracy and more autonomy. Having choice requires high levels of trust and a clear understanding of the vision, mission, and responsibilities. We can begin to see how all of these elements work as an interdependent process to generate a valuable environment.

5. A clear sense of progress
People need feedback. They can't always depend upon managers to observe their work and tell them how they are doing. They need some other systemic measures that provide an indication of solid positive progress.

When you combine all five of these elements in your work environment, you have created an engaged workforce. Joy and optimum performance can occur simultaneously and are indeed compatible.
Dr. Wally Hauck is a Communico facilitator and author of Art of Leading: 3 Principles for Predictable Performance Improvement and Stop the Leadership Malpractice: How to Replace the Typical Performance Appraisal. You can follow him on Facebook.
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