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Helping Your Employees Find Their "Flow"

We all know the saying "If you want something done, give it to a busy person." It’s sound advice—but it’s also a dangerous habit unless you step back occasionally to see what impact it might be having on the busy person’s experience at work. For most managers, having a "go to" person is a great asset, but make sure you don’t overdo it by going to the same person again and again.

This is a dilemma for most managers. It’s only natural to assign tasks to the most accomplished people on your team. And while that might make sense if the only goal of a manager were to get things done, one of the things we've stressed in this column is that the real goal of leadership is to get things done while creating an environment that is engaging and encourages long-term growth.

To be successful as a leader, you have to balance a short-term need for immediate results with a long-term view for growth and development of your people.

Finding the perfect balance

In the book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi highlights the importance of finding the right balance.

He uses the term "flow" to describe the mental state where a person is fully immersed in an activity, performing at his or her best, and feeling energized throughout the process. One of the keys to achieving this state is finding the perfect balance between challenge and skill on one axis and anxiety versus boredom on the other.

Managers need to step back and take a look at each person's job to identify where that person falls in relation to these four elements. If people are bored, they are not in flow. There is no tension, nothing new, and nothing exciting to keep their interest. On the other hand, you don’t want them to be under so much tension that it turns into anxiety. Bear in mind that some anxiety may be normal in a brand-new employee. However, a long-time veteran who is more settled may be craving something fresh to focus on. So have conversations with each of your people regarding their own appropriate level between those two extremes. It is every manager's responsibility to make sure direct reports are individually challenged.  

Three ways to get started

Managers can get started on the right path by following three rules:

  • Become more aware of your goal-setting habits.  Have you optimized the challenge inherent in each person’s goals or tasks, or have you fallen into the habit of overusing and under-challenging your best people? Have you focused more on your own needs instead of theirs by giving them routine work you know they can accomplish successfully with little intervention on your part? 
  • Focus on both the long and short term.  Manage the urge to assign a task to a proven winner to ensure quick completion versus assigning the same task to someone who is brand new and may require some direction and support. But don’t go overboard. You don’t want to focus solely on employee development and compromise organizational effectiveness. Balance is the key.
  • Create variety for yourself and others. According to Warren Bennis, the most effective managers are the ones who actively engage in clear periods of reflection as well as action. Balancing task variety is one of those projects that requires some discipline and awareness to think through.

Get started today

We recently spoke with a manager who told us about an ongoing conversation he was having with a direct report. Even though both of them could remember the manager saying when the employee was first hired, "You are very smart and this job is great, but if you're still doing this same job in five years, I'm going to be disappointed—in you and in me."  But guess what? Eight years later, they found out that was exactly what happened.

Don’t let this happen in your organization. Create a landscape of your direct reports and see if there isn't someone on the "bored" side of this scale who might need help becoming reengaged. Keep in mind that most people become bored because they're doing boring tasks, not because of a character flaw. Instead of moving away from a person you might see as a complainer, see that person instead as someone who is not really "in flow" and work with him or her to find out what the right mix could be.

Maintaining task variety is a must-do for managers. It's like flossing your teeth—it's not the most fun, but it's something you have to do on a regular basis—and if you don't tend to it, you're going to have bigger issues down the road.

Scott Blanchard is the Executive Vice President of Client Solutions for The Ken Blanchard Companies®. Ken Blanchard is the best-selling co-author of The One Minute Manager® and 50 other books on leadership. You can follow Ken Blanchard on Twitter @KenBlanchard or @LeaderChat and also via the HowWeLead and LeaderChat blogs.

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[Image: Flickr user Fathzer]

Add New Comment


  • David Kaiser, PhD

    There is more to just "bored" and "scared." Different people have different strengths and weaknesses and preferences. Some people love details, some prefer the big picture. Some like to work with people, others want to be left alone. You should hire someone whose temperament and preferences (in addition to experience and qualifications) match the demands of the position, then you should do your best to make sure that people are doing what they like and what they are good at (while keeping in mind there are still some tasks that just have to get done, even if they aren't fun, of course). People are in flow when their work is meaningful, not just when they are good at it.

    David Kaiser, PhD
    Executive Coach & CEO

  • Jameson

    Thank you for posting this. I'm a big fan of the book, which I look at as a psych book for people who want to get more out of life. The flow diagram in M.C.'s book is a little dry so I took a stab at giving it some color - I posted that here:

    On the other side of the coin, M.C. also has some specific advice for the managed too: "...set the challenge of reaching one's goals while helping the boss and colleagues reach theirs; it is less direct and more time-consuming than forging ahead to satisfy one's own interests regardless of what happens to others, but in the long run it seldom fails." Chap. 7, p. 161.