This is the first in a series of blogs discussing the concept of motivation and what its sources might be. Its prompted by a conversation I had with Bee Heller, from The Pioneers.  Bee asserts that there are seven different sources of motivation, and is writing about each of them on The Pioneers website.

We decided I’d write a commentary piece about each one on my own blog, and look at what’s happened in organisations I’ve worked in and with – whether the source of motivation Bee’s blog discussed has been used to good effect or been neglected; what’s worked well in terms of creating an environment that enhances that motivation; and what’s not worked so well or undermined that motivation for people?

Here’s the first of Bee’s blogs – on the subject of FLOW.  Flow is described as “the mental state of being completely absorbed in a task or activity, otherwise known as being ‘in the zone'”.  Bee suggests that most workplaces do a poor job of creating an environment that encourages flow, and suggests there are five things organisations can do to ensure flow happens:

1. Make sure goals are clear.
2. Give people access to immediate feedback
3. Balance people’s strengths with the challenge of their activities
4. Create an environment that allows for deep concentration
5. Support people to be in the present and in control

I recognise the concept of Flow very well. In my sporting endeavours I’ve experienced Flow many many times. When you’re in the zone, you tend to have no concept of the passing of time, and pretty much everything you try comes off. Although I have had it in my triathlons, I experience it more in my crown green bowls career – and that’s not such a mental leap because the need for concentration and coordination of physical and mental activities is greater in that sport than any other I’ve taken part in.  But when I am in the zone in bowls, I am a different person. I feel alive, like I could win my game with my eyes shut and standing on my head, and in fact when I become conscious that I am in the zone I find it amusing and baffling in equal measure. I can’t figure out how it started or what caused it, and there’s no prompt for it finishing either (even, surprisingly, the act of becoming consciously in Flow doesn’t make it suddenly stop). 

But this echoes my experience of Flow in the workplace. I’ve experienced it. I’ve seen others experience it. But can anyone pinpoint a cause for it or say how long Flow will last? I’m not so sure. 

I know Bee has said the five things help. And I can see that they would help anyone to feel more motivated, but would they create Flow?

Again, I’m not so sure. 

The best example of Flow I have experienced in the workplace is on my final day before a significant period of annual leave. On that day, because I know I’m not around for a week or more, I’m at my most productive. Work comes easy. I do some of my best work too. I waste no time, I am assertive, completely in control, and able to perform to the very best of my abilities without much effort. 

But, at the end of the day, I am tired and often I get a cold when I go on annual leave. Always did when the school holidays came around too. 

So what does that say about Flow?

That Flow must involve considerable adrenaline. The ultimate fight or flight reaction. 

That Flow, containing adrenaline, can only be sustained for short bursts but that in those short bursts it produces extraordinary results. 

That Flow, in short bursts, must end and when it does, the individual is vulnerable to a range of things that may stretch to illness but most commonly will be no more serious (?) than underperformance. 

So to return to Bee’s questions to me – I think Flow is neglected as a source of motivation, but not necessarily because organisations don’t want to, more because many don’t know how to, and many don’t want the consequences. 

But – have I seen instances where the five criteria Bee outlines have been present?

Yes. But I wouldn’t call that Flow in the way Flow was earlier described. 

Would those things help performance though?

Yes. And I have worked in places where they’ve been present, but not for everyone. And not all the time. 

Some are brought about by good leaders. I worked for a fantastic Chief Executive who encouraged all of those five things for me, and I did some of my best work as a result. The whole organisation had some element of Flow as described by Bee, but without the adrenaline I’d associate with it. But when that Chief Executive departed, so did the sense of Flow for me and I suppose for much of the organisation. But even then not everyone performed, as there were some individuals for whom even the presence of the five factors made no difference. 

I call such people wrongens.

I’ve also worked for an organisation where, from looking at the five factors Bee mentions, I know I had 4 out of 5 regularly and on some occasions all 5 but not once did I feel in the zone in that organisation, not once did I feel motivated and in fact I felt completely demotivated.  Was I a wrongen?  Maybe I was.  My demotivation stemmed from some past event where I felt completely devalued having given my all for the organisation and had it thrown back in my face.  So no amount of the 5 factors would change that for me.

So Flow is not dependent on the 5 factors being present, but its doubtful it could be present unless the 5 factors were there.  I think what I’m saying is that there is probably a 6th factor, that differs for individuals, and is the key to unlocking motivation.

I guess all organisations can do is as Bee says – ensure the five factors are present, for as much as possible and for as many people as possible. 

Basically, as I’ve said before, create the conditions where people want to, and can, go the extra mile. 

Is that Flow? 

You tell me. 

Till next time…


PS in other news, Xmas was fantastic and I had a fortnight off work completely, something I’ve not done even for paternity leave, wedding or honeymoon or any holiday. I enjoyed the rest, and, much like in Julie Drybrough’s recent post, I didn’t actually rest at all, just took a complete break from professional life and threw myself into other things at home and in my training. Really really enjoyable and highly recommended. 

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