Tip #484: How to Get Employees into Flow- A Motivational Model

“At 211° F water is hot. At 212° F it boils. With boiling water, comes steam. And steam can power a locomotive. It’s the One Extra Degree that makes all the difference.” Mac Anderson

When employees work in order to gain something else, they are operating from an extrinsic, or external, motivation. For example, employees may first come to a job simply to get a paycheck (an extrinsic reason).

However, if the employees feel valued, have sufficient challenge, and are successful in the job, they may start to come to work because they feel good about the job itself (an intrinsic reason). Employees have intrinsic motivation when they receive satisfaction from the work itself.

Converting extrinsic employee motivation to intrinsic motivation is the key to creating a self-directed workforce.

In his book, The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi outlines his theory that people are happiest when they are in a state of flow- a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation. It is a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter. The idea of flow is identical to the feeling of being in the zone or in the groove. The flow state is an optimal state of intrinsic motivation, where the person is fully immersed in what they are doing.

“This is a feeling everyone has at times, characterized by a feeling of great absorption, engagement, fulfillment, and skill-and during which temporal concerns (time, food, ego-self, etc.) are typically ignored.

To achieve a flow state, a balance must be struck between the challenge of the task and the skill of the performer. If the task is too easy or too difficult, flow cannot occur. Both skill level and challenge level must be matched and high; if skill and challenge are low and matched, then apathy results.

See Flow diagram under “Conditions for Flow” 

The left axis shows the challenge level of assigned tasks moving from low to high- and the right axis shows the skill level of the employee moving from low to high.

Flow will occur when an employee is given a challenging task that requires the employee to use his or her highest skill level.

Apathy will occur when an employee is given a low challenge task that requires the employee to use a low skill level.

So the question that every manager needs to answer is: are you enabling your employees to perform tasks that they are skilled to perform and are sufficiently challenging?

It might be a good idea for managers to place each of their employees in the flow diagram- and then identify one action they can take to move the employees who are currently far from flow closer to the flow state. That way, they will help their employees move that one extra degree.

The human resource management staff from Zambian private medical training institutions thought that this was a useful model. What do you think?

May your learning be sweet.


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