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Enhancing the experience of work

February 24, 2016

I recently revisited the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, famous not only for having perhaps the most unpronounceable name of any psychologist on the planet, but for developing the concept of ‘flow’. This is the state of ‘optimal experience when people feel both total concentration and deep enjoyment’ whether at work or play. ‘Flow’ could be an essential component and even the main driver of engagement for most employees.

Most of us know what it’s like to have a ‘flow experience’; a period, however short, when all seems right with the world, where one loses all sense of time and place and is completely at one with the world.

If you’re keen on sport it may have happened to you when everything came together and you put in a sensational performance. Or you may have climbed to the top of a mountain and been overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of the view and the exhilaration of getting there.

Or perhaps, like me, it’s what happens on those miraculous summer days when every possible condition is right for the ultimate day’s sailing. Somehow all the elements come together – the wind, sea and the time – and the boat responds perfectly to everything you ask of it.

Such days are incredibly rare – but the memories last for ever.

If only one could create experiences at work like that, there would be few problems engaging employees. So is there any application of the ‘flow’ concept to the workplace?

In his book ‘Flow: the psychology of optimal experience’ (Harper Perennial 1990) MC (apologies for not spelling out his full name again) includes a chapter on ‘Work as flow’, in which he tries to explain what might be involved in such a project. Those of us who are interested in the subject of employee engagement might do well to read and take on board.

MC looks at research which has identified optimal work experiences, ranging from peasant farmers to steel foundry operatives and surgeons. He concludes that it’s not the just work itself, but the attitudes of those who do it that affect flow experiences.

Certain individuals have what he refers to as ‘autotelic’ personalities. These people have an ability to see in even the most menial tasks opportunities for autonomy, improvement and excellence. He gives as an example of flow an extract from the writings of Chuang Tzu in which his cook derived enormous enjoyment (flow) from butchering an ox, a process “which went beyond skill”.

As a result of flow, the cook’s work became transformed and became complex, challenging and hugely significant and enjoyable. MC also quotes cases from the present day where apparently menial tasks are regarded by those who do them as deeply satisfying. I have personally met many such individuals and guess they exist in almost every organisation.

MC believes that the personalities of these individuals was key to achieving the optimal experience.

Could that apply to engagement? Do some people have a natural tendency to regard what they do in a qualitatively different way and become more engaged with what they do? Can we help people to see the challenge and potential for enjoyment in work? Surely we can try.

The as well as working to change individuals perceptions, can we change jobs to make them more ‘autotelic’, MC asks? He suggests that the ‘more a job inherently resembles a game, – with variety, appropriate and flexible challenges, clear goals and immediate feedback – the more enjoyable it will be regardless of the worker’s level of development’.

Hunting and fishing are two examples he quotes where tasks which were once basic necessities have become highly desirable pastimes which people now find both enjoyable and highly desirable. Trying to turn every job into a game would be a mistake. Not everyone enjoys every game. Enjoyment (and engagement) also depend on the outlook of the individual concerned. But the elements present in all games could be included in the design of jobs – competition, clear goals, focus, regular feedback, skill and satisfaction, for example.

MC cites modern surgery as the kind of job which has all necessary ingredients for a flow experience. He quotes a number of comments made by these practitioners: “very clear goals”, “… it’s exciting … difficult … enjoyable”, There’s “… immediate, continuous feedback” and the dimension of teamwork is also mentioned “.. when the whole group works together in a smooth and efficient manner the aesthetics of the whole situation can be appreciated”. The work environment (of the operating theatre) is also significant, helping to create a sense of occasion and to shut out distractions. Obviously not all jobs can be as demanding or important as surgery, but the implications are clear.

So here are two crucial elements, the personality of the job holder and the ingredients (intrinsic and extrinsic) of the work itself, which help to create optimal experiences and, as a result greater engagement. But does this tells us anything new? We try to select the right people and to create jobs which do have clear goals.

MC also makes an interesting observation: he claims his own research data suggest people actually enjoy their work (i.e. have more flow experiences) more than their leisure time, even though when asked if they would prefer to be doing something other than working, many will say they would rather be doing something else. In other words there is a paradox here: people at work often say they want to be at leisure even though they seem in reality to enjoy their work more than sitting at home being couch potatoes. He found that when asked people were far more likely to report being ‘strong’, ‘active’, ‘creative’, ‘concentrated’ or ‘motivated’ while they were working than if they were at leisure. His explanation for this disconnection is that most people’s off duty activities tend to contain fewer flow experiences but they often fail to realise it – adopting a culture norm of modern society that work is intrinsically less desirable than leisure which for many people is untrue.

So work can be more motivating than leisure. The question for us engagement specialists is how to find ways to exploit that phenomenon and to drive higher levels of flow at work.

For us the best starting point is measurement of where we are now both in terms of individuals’ own outlook on their working lives (how ‘autotelic’ they are) and in terms of the jobs they do. Having collected these data we can then analyse where and how we need to act. We can then help employees to look differently at their work. We also need to look differently at the nature of their jobs and the work environment to ensure the ingredients of flow are present.

Yet another strategy for increasing engagement by measuring, managing and monitoring employee opinion.

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