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Paul Baard's Motivation Matters: Creating 'flow' in the workplace

June 24. 2018 10:46PM

“PLAYING IN the zone” often describes the athlete who is performing at an extraordinary level of success.

“The ball seems bigger when this happens” is how baseball players on a hot streak describe it.

Commentators often quip, “He’s playing over his head!” but this is incorrect: A player can only do what he is capable of doing. In this case, he was playing at a level unexpected by the observer, but obviously within his abilities.

The variable involved is a psychological one. While physical and biological factors certainly play a primary role in athletic performance, “psychological flow” is a term used for the aforementioned phenomenon, a coinage largely attributed to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.”

This author describes flow as “a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.” Think of mountain climbers.

Here are a few illustrations out of daily business life. On some days, I can move with relative ease in responding to dozens of complex emails as if I am riding a wave. At other times, it is like moving in stop-and-go traffic downtown. Similarly, exchanges with others can sometimes seem like a ping-pong game, with oral communications flowing readily with clarity and sufficiency. Ideas pour out as if from a fountain.

In contrast, there are times when conversations are more stilted. While it is easy to point to having off-days attributable to other factors (e.g., lack of sleep), including the other parties involved, there is enough research that supports the idea that something may be going on inside ourselves. Csikszentmihalyi provides many illustrations of this flow phenomenon in his book.

Flow, in effect, is a superior state of mind; research shows that work is done more creatively and efficiently in it. Collaboration is increased. There is less anxiety associated with the task at hand. Distractions are kept to a minimum. Another benefit is the sustained energy level in activities performed in this mind set.

Here are some tips for creating an atmosphere for a psychological flow state-of-mind in yourself and for those under your influence:

1. Devote complete concentration to the task at hand. While one could argue we truly live in the “day of distraction” where multitasking reigns (it was once called “not paying full attention”), entering into psychological flow comes about more readily when we shut out the noise (e.g., smart phone) and worries of life for the time needed to master the task at hand.

2. Make clear the goals and rewards of the endeavor being undertaken. Set up a means to get feedback on how one is advancing toward the targets.

3. Keep a healthy balance between challenges and skills. There should be an opportunity to use one’s current knowledge and abilities and to go beyond. Activities that are excessively difficult raise the prospect of failure; ones that are overly easy result in fatigue and disengagement.

4. Question how things are being done. Solicit ideas on ways to discover and implement improvements.

5. Encourage interdependence. Have each individual take responsibility for his or her part of outcomes, while being ready to offer encouragement to colleagues.

6. Try to structure work so as to minimize boredom. Solicit input from employees as to ways to bring about a greater sense of ownership of their work — how it gets done.

One ingredient affecting psychological flow is motivation. If one’s focus is to master the task at hand in large part because it is interesting and worthy of our attention, we have a better chance of having an intrinsic or self-motivating experience. When the attention is more about a contingency outside of the activity (such as a reward or ill consequence), then one is in an extrinsic motivation state, which carries with it increased anxiety. Intrinsic motivation increases the possibility of being in a state of psychological flow.

Dr. Paul P. Baard is an organizational psychologist, specializing in motivation, with Fordham University, a former senior line executive in the television industry, and the lead author of a book on leadership and motivation. He and Veronica Baard, a former managing director responsible for HR at a major international investment banking firm, head up Baard Consulting LLC, a firm in the greater Boston area, focusing on motivation, conflict reduction, and team building. Questions are welcomed at


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