Between hiring practices, mentoring strategies, remuneration packages and more, so much has been said and written about what it takes to facilitate employee motivation.
At some point, though, you realise that mastering the (often seemingly complex) art of motivating your people is less about you pushing them towards a given goal or objective, and more about helping them to unlock the latent reservoirs of self-motivation that are already present within each of them.
After all, as the saying goes, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”
This, however, necessitates an understanding of the psychological state of “flow”, a mental state which researchers have called “the source code of intrinsic motivation.”
Even if you’ve never heard of it before, you’ve probably experienced it at least once over the course of your work life—that state of mind characterised by total absorption in the task at a hand; where everything and everyone ceases to matter (or exist, to you) except yourself and your work.
Numerous psychological studies have found that flow is integral—indeed, even indispensable—to peak performance across various fields of work. Here’s why.
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According to positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who pioneered the use of the word “flow” in relation to peak performance in the 1970s, “flow” refers to a psychological state of complete focus and utter absorption in an activity.
Flow is what’s more colloquially known as being in the zone. In flow:
When you’re in flow, everything clicks—your best work “flows” out of you as naturally and as unencumbered as a river flowing down a mountainside. It’s the same state of mind that athletes, musicians, writers, all experience, and it’s something that can be unlocked in everyone without exception.
What’s more, the flow state is also one of the rare few human experiences that are capable of producing 5 different performance-enhancing neurochemicals all at the same time. That’s what makes it a literally addictive state of mind. Once you’ve experienced it, you keep wanting more of it, so you keep working harder and smarter to enter flow again.
Studies have found that flow is a critical element of intrinsic motivation. People who are intrinsically motivated naturally pursue excellence and peak performance as a consequence of the enjoyment they derive from their work.
Simply put, they strive for peak performance purely because they love the experience of flow and the sheer enjoyment that flow grants them; they don’t do it to gain external rewards or avoid punishment.
One of the most important conditions for flow is to have a balance between your perceived sill level and the perceived difficulty of the task at hand. According to Csikszentmihalyi, flow is achieved in the stretch zone, where skill level and challenge are both high.
Here, the task is neither understimulating to the point of boredom, nor overburdening to the point of excessive stress; it’s just above our current skill level, which provides that extra push and focus needed to enter the flow state.