Reaching Psychological Flow

We have all experienced it.  That feeling of complete focus, where you are entirely absorbed in a task.   You glance at the clock, 1 pm.  You look at the clock a moment later, 3 pm.  You’re not sure where the past 2 hours have gone, but the amount of work you have completed is impressive.  This phenomenon is known as Psychological Flow.

Employees who have experienced psychological flow describe feeling completely involved in their work, a sense of ecstasy, greater inner clarity, timelessness, and a thorough focus on the present.  Furthermore, after experiencing flow, employees note they have an intrinsic motivation to seek it out again.  Engaging a state of flow is motivation to replicate that experience in the future.  Put simply, employees who operate in this state are at their happiest at work.


Psychological Flow is a mental state in which one’s perceived challenge level matches up with their perceived skill level – with both being perceived as high.

Why do you want to improve flow in your workplace?

In workplaces that are not conducive to flow, employees report feeling constrained by fixed-hours, a lack of control over their work, and a lack of meaning, and that they don’t make an impact.  This typically results in lowered morale, poor time management, and can lead to burnout.  Silicon-Valley giants like Microsoft and Apple have already adopted a work model that promotes psychological flow, in order to create more compelling connections with their customers and get the most out of their employees.  

Ericsson, for example, has applied principles of flow to create performance contracts for its employees and increase meetings between employees and managers.  It may seem counter-intuitive that more meetings would lead to greater productivity, however Ericsson saw exactly that happen.  Their employees began to understand their own strengths and weaknesses, were given consistent goals to work towards, and were provided frequent feedback on how they were performing.  It is no wonder they also began producing better results.

How can you help employees achieve flow?

The implementation of management practices that promote psychological flow has been spurred in the last few decades thanks to a wealth of evidence-based research.   Recent models of psychological flow highlight 7 main conditions that must be met for an employee to achieve a state of flow.

Preconditions to Psychological Flow
Knowing what to do
Knowing how to do it
Knowing how well you are doing
Knowing where to go (if navigation is involved)
High perceived challenges
High perceived skills
Freedom from distractions

Since there are certain conditions that facilitate and increase the chance of inducing flow, employers can take advantage of tailored interventions to facilitate employees attaining flow states.  Building on these preconditions to psychological flow, there are several ways organisations can design practices, policies, and procedures that aid flow.  While you can’t (and shouldn’t try to) force flow on others, implementing these seven management practices in your workplace can improve your employees’ chances of achieving psychological flow during their work day.

1. Start a one-on-one or group dialogue with employees about how flow can benefit them and their work

According to lead psychological flow researchers, awareness is a pre-requisite for flow, as knowing the benefits that accompany the state is a step towards achieving it.  This could be a one-time seminar, workshop, meeting, or even ongoing quarterly or monthly discussions.  Managers at Ericsson set up one-on-one meetings with their employees as many as six times a year.  Even just sending this article to colleagues can provide enough awareness to drive individuals towards a flow state.

It is important to consider the psychological safety of your employees, ensuring they feel calm and protected during these discussions.  If they feel as though their performance is being overly scrutinised or assessed, it is less likely they will be conducive to achieving flow.

2. Provide clear goals that align with your vision for managers and employees

When people know what they need to do, and how to get there, they are more conducive to psychological flow.  Utilising SMART goal setting tools can help provide tangible goals to employees that are easy to measure and reflect upon. By providing goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and timely (SMART), employees have the preconditions covered for attaining a state of flow.

3. Give your employees freedom to pursue these goals on their own merits

While it is important to set boundaries about how your organisations goals are achieved, an effective way of driving flow is allowing employees to feel as though they are being challenged, and that they are utilising their skills effectively.  Giving your employees freedom does not mean letting them do what they want, but rather showing confidence in their ability to meet goals using their own strengths and methods.  Empower staff to decide which projects they believe meet their challenge / skill balance.

4. Promote challenging and engaging work

Flow is more likely to occur when performing a task or activity wholeheartedly, or for intrinsic purposes.  If your employees treat their work as a chore, they will never achieve a state of flow.  Even if you manage to create a pleasant workplace culture, this does not necessarily guarantee flow.  Research has shown that performing enjoyable, yet passive activities such as watching TV or staring out the window do not typically induce flow.  The individual needs to be doing something active and challenging to enter ‘the zone’. Therefore, it is important to encourage employees to fully utilise their skills while completing their work.  By feeling challenged, engaged and stretched to the limits of their abilities, their productivity will increase.

5. Offer ongoing feedback to your employees

In order to be clear about their work, and if they are doing the right thing, you and your managers need to be providing consistent feedback to your employees.  This is especially important if providing your employees with extra freedom to work according to their own merits, as feedback allows you to shape their work towards your vision, without taking away the feeling of freedom and confidence. You can try implementing feedback as part of the initial one-on-one meetings and general dialogue around flow in your workplace.  

When providing feedback, frame it in a positive light.  Unless an employee is really struggling or doing something wrong, positive feedback will encourage them to feel more confident in their work.  If they are doing something wrong, or out of line with your goals and vision, you may want to gently nudge them towards the right path by encouraging behaviours that do fit your requirements.

6. Listen to feedback from your employees

Listening to what your colleagues have to say in a non-judgmental, “no consequences” environment will allow them to report to you how challenged they feel in their work.  In addition, by listening to others, you will have the opportunity to hear directly from them what key aspects may be missing from the flow prerequisites in your organisation.

7. Make sure your vision is long-term and relatable

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, it might be worth sitting down and re-evaluating your team’s vision.  If the goals you outline for your employees and your current overarching vision are focused on short-term profits and pleasing the ‘higher-ups’, your employees are not going to be able to relate, and psychological flow will suffer.  

Take Starbucks as an example. When it first started out, Starbucks’ vision was to provide the highest quality coffee products, while nurturing the customer’s experience of buying and drinking them.  However, after huge initial growth, the leaders of the company became obsessed with growth and expansion, sacrificing the overarching vision for short-term profits.  Unsurprisingly the quality of their product plummeted, and their share prices and employee retention along with it.  When Howard Schultz returned as CEO in 2008, he sat down and re-assessed his company’s vision.  He then worked with his management teams to make drastic changes to return to a long-term, customer and employee-oriented vision. A lot of these changes were based on the principles of psychological flow.  

Some of the changes Schultz pioneered included referring to employees as partners, and the creation of one of the most generous employee benefits programs in the world.  Starbuck’s revamp, focused on employee and customer experience, saved it from an impeding economic disaster.

These steps are not a one-size fits all solution but can act as a springboard for long-term sustained competitive advantage in your organisation. Prioritising the implementation of flow principles ensures employees can continue to operate at a highly productive and effective level. Perhaps most critically, helping employees achieve a state of psychological flow ensures they are at their happiest at work.

Do you believe that you operate in a state of psychological flow at work? Take this quick quiz now to find out.

Psychological Flow Quiz
Think back to the last work task you completed, did you feel that:

1. You were able to meet the demands of the task?

2. The task made you happy?

3. You knew what to do at every step of the task?

4. You did not worry about the judgement of others?

5. Time was flying very fast?

6. You didn’t care what others thought of you?

7. What you did was under your control?

8. Time seemed to flow at a different speed?

9. You were excited to tackle the task?

If you responded "yes" to 6 or more of these questions, it is likely that you were engaged in a state of psychological flow!

Do you believe that your organisation would benefit from employees who can reach psychological flow?  If so, please simply contact Psych Press now to learn more about our services and how we can help you across the talent life-cycle.


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