How to Help Your Team Get in the Zone

Almost all of us have trouble focusing on our work at times. But there are also moments when we find ourselves at the peak point in our workflow when we become so absorbed in our work that all distractions fall away. You might refer to this as being “in the zone”. Psychologists call it being in a state of flow. 

Today we’ll examine why the ‘flow state’ could have a positive impact on your team culture, and how you can apply the model to overcome organisational challenges and perform at the best of your ability as a leader. 

Firstly, what does it mean to be in flow? 

Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, one of the world’s leading researchers in the field of positive psychology, was the first to define ‘flow’ as:

The experience people have when they are completely immersed in an activity for its own sake, stretching body and mind to the limit, in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.

During his research, Dr. Csikszentmihalyi and his team developed the theory of flow by interviewing people all over the world about the times in their lives when they felt most content, most in control, and most in the moment.

From there, he built the flow model, pinpointing that the ideal state came down to the interplay between the complexity of the task and skill. As can be seen in the model below, it is the place where your attention, motivation, skill set, and the challenge before you all meet. As a worker, it is where you are at your most innovative and productive. 

The role of your culture in getting your team to the flow state

When your team are operating in the flow state, it ticks all the boxes you need for a culture of high performance, learning, innovation and creativity in your organisation. First of all, an important aspect of a great culture is seeing your team being fulfilled in their work, and this goes hand-in-hand with improved performance and a sense of achievement. 

Secondly, your team is in an environment that encourages learning and training, because your leaders recognise they need to enable growth and confidence in their team. And finally, when all these factors meet, the flow effect enables innovation, agility and complex thinking. 

How does the flow model help you address the challenges you face as a coach?

Let’s look at two scenarios you might be facing right now in the workplace. 

One: What if I have capability gaps in my team?

We often work with clients needing to see a task carried out that is too complex for a person’s current capability. They need to up-skill their team and they need to do it now. 

If you’re facing this scenario, your team members will likely be showing signs of anxiety and worry in the flow model. At this point, you are tasked with assessing your team’s capabilities and lifting your team when they feel they are at the lower end of capability. 

So, how to move your colleagues back in the right direction towards their flow state? The focus here is to foster confidence, career satisfaction and growth. You’re here to constantly challenge your team to step up into areas even if they don’t have the capability yet, through mentoring, guidance and identifying the necessary areas for training and development. Your team needs to feel they are operating in a culture where they can take on a challenge that is both attainable yet still a stretch. 

Without this, and without the right culture in place, leaders fall into the trap of taking on the work themselves if they feel the capability isn’t there—and before you know it, your team is falling back into the areas of boredom and apathy in the flow model. 

Two: How do I keep talented people in my team engaged?

On the other hand, when you give a team member work which is of a lower complexity, when they actually possess a higher than needed level of capability, the result is that your team member will start showing elements of boredom and apathy. 

Have a think about when you’ve seen your team take sick leave or perhaps start withdrawing from the workplace. This is your opportunity to consider: have you given them a task that is within their area of capability? Or is there a mismatch and you have missed the signs?

In this scenario, it is vital that you are regularly having one-on-one’s with your team to identify these gaps, and providing opportunities for development and challenging your team to do their best work.

What does flow mean for you as a leader?

In 2004, Dr. Csikszentmihalyi gave a TED talk in which he referred to Masaru Ibuka’s original vision for Sony as the perfect example of a leader’s role in fostering flow in the workplace:

“This is an interesting quote from Masaru Ibuka, who was at that time starting out Sony without any money, without a product—they didn’t have anything, but they had an idea. And the idea he had was to establish a place of work where engineers can feel the joy of technological innovation, be aware of their mission to society and work to their heart’s content. I couldn’t improve on this as a good example of how flow enters the workplace.”

As a team and business leaders, this is a call to action to create a workplace where our team members can reach that single pointed focus and flourish in their flow state. And what the flow model does in supporting your workplace culture is to help you as a leader single out two key elements of work: being able to match the complexity of the work with the capability of the individual. 

Consider the following questions to help you reach this state:

  1. How regularly are you having one-on-one’s with your team to make sure they are supported?
  2. How many times a week are you providing both positive and negative feedback to your team to improve their capability?
  3. How often are you feeling the need to step back down in the detail and fix the problems of your team?
  4. When was the last time you actually empowered and challenged your team to take on a greater responsibility/more complex challenge?

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