How to Improve

Employee Performance Using 'Flow'

How to improve employee performance and achieve peak performance in the workplace by using 'Flow'

How to improve employee performance is a goal that Toyota, Microsoft, Ericsson, Patagonia all have in common. Do you know something else they all have in common?

They have all adopted the principles of 'Flow' as described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his many books. And, in particular "Good Business: Leadership, Flow, and the Making of Meaning."

Wondering what "Flow" is? It is that space where time stands still. Hours fly by in minutes because you are so absorbed in what you are doing. You lose all sense of self, and you push yourself to the limits of your capability.

When someone is in a complete state of Flow, they make the difficult look easy (a surgeon ... a rock climber ... a pilot ... a painter ... a singer ... who is at peak performance). There is no space for distracting thoughts, worries, irrelevant feelings. No worrying about the future or the past ... just total absorption in the task at hand.


The state of being completely involved in an activity for its own sake

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Mihaly says that you can achieve Flow many times throughout the day. However, it is not usually sustainable throughout an entire eight-hour day.

How to Improve Employee Performance Using the Principles of Flow

To experience flow - which improves happiness and innovation in the workplace - set up these conditions:

  • The ability for people to use their signature strengths,
  • A clear set of goals,
  • Prompt feedback 
  • Challenges that stretch and mesh with the ability to meet them
  • A sense of control

The fascinating thing about Flow is that you may not realize you are in it. Think of your best work experience.

While, at the time you may not have felt overly happy, now with the passage of time and looking back on it, you might well say it was the best of times. For example ...

I recall a time when I was one of the key leaders in the start-up of a factory. We were working exceptionally long hours. The work was extremely challenging and right on the edge of my capability. All-in-all it was a pretty stressful and, at times, an overwhelming time in my life.

Now as I reflect on that time, I remember feeling so very alive and so very absorbed in what I was doing. It was undoubtedly one of my peak work experiences. At the time, though, I didn't realize it was a peak work experience.

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Don't Go Overboard When Providing Challenges

When you are thinking about how to improve employee performance, make sure that you don't go overboard with challenges.

The graph below shows that there is a delicate balance between flow and frustration.

how to improve employee performance by using Flow

Too much challenge/complexity and not enough skill level, results in frustration and paralysis. Also, too little challenge and use of a person's skills leads to boredom. Particularly if it is repeated day-after-day.

Most people want to feel that they have contributed and made a difference. That their gifts, talents, and strengths are being made use of. So, help them to design their work so that they are regularly moving from Arousal around to Relaxation.

The more regularly you can design your (and your people's) day-to-day life with activities that create that feeling of flow, the more fulfilling work will become and people will be able to achieve peak performance in the workplace.

Flow Can Lead to Personal Growth

Referring to the diagram above, you will see that Arousal and Control are two very critical states when you are thinking about how to improve employee performance and how to tip someone into peak performance.

Suppose you are in the area of Arousal. Here you are mentally focused, active and involved. But you are probably not feeling very strong, cheerful or in control. How can you get to a flow state? By learning new skills.

Or, suppose you have a team member who is always in the state of Control. This person would be feeling happy, healthy and satisfied. But may lack concentration and involvement. They may be feeling that what they are doing is not all that important.

So how do you get them into a state of flow? By increasing the level of challenge. Getting them to reach more into their potential.


Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Quality of life does not depend on happiness alone; but also on what one does to be happy. If one fails to develop goals that give meaning to one's existence, if one does not use the mind to its fullest, then good feelings fulfill just a fraction of the potential we possess.

A person who achieves contentment by withdrawing from the world to 'cultivate his own garden' like Voltaire's Candide cannot be said to lead an excellent life. Without dreams without risks only a trivial semblance of living can be achieved.

A Profit for the First Time in 120 Years

According to CFA Institute, Green Cargo, (one of the largest transport companies in Scandinavia), turned a profit for the first time in 120 years, two years after implementing a program that required all its Managers to utilize the principles of Flow with his or her team!

Might that be a good reason for you to do some more reading on Flow and how to implement it in your workplace?

Breakthrough Reflection

  • 1
    What is it that you love to do and when you are doing it you become completely lost in it?
  • 2
    Read the Align Yourself article and use the reflections exercise to help you think about your strengths, and how you can use them regularly in your workday.

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