A Dog and His Bone.

Posted by jlubans on December 12, 2011

Insert flow faucet from desk top:
A friend, knowing my interest in Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s “flow” concept, sent me a quote from the artist Henri: "Love your work as much as a dog loves to gnaw on a bone."

What about flow – those fleeting or lasting moments of loving our job - and work? How do we turn on the flow faucet?

Flow helps explain when and why work feels good or not. When challenge and skills are near equal, then we can experience something similar to Henri’s dog. And, when challenge and skills are clearly out of sync, (for example, high challenge with low skills or low challenge with high skills) then we can experience frustration, boredom and apathy.
This is a picture of my Riga students – on the first or second day of the class earlier this year - figuring out how to wrap a raw egg so it will survive a drop from a height of 10 feet onto a hard floor.
20111212-egg.jpegThese students are engaged, they lean in to the task. Their facial expressions suggest a playfulness and interest in the task – however puzzling it may be. My class pictures during the final exam are different – the students appear anxious, worried, regardless of how much I assured them of the fairness of the test, that it would be in English and in Latvian, etc. All did well, they met the challenge but I would hardly call taking the test a flow experience. Perhaps flow comes through experience, of mastering challenges for which one feels slightly less than prepared. Perhaps one aspect of flow is the pleasant post-realization of survival!

Csikszentmihalyi’s 1990 book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience includes his thinking on flow in the organization.

“In theory, any job could be changed so as to make it more enjoyable by following the prescriptions of the flow model. At present, however, whether work is enjoyable or not ranks quite low among the concerns of those who have the power to influence the nature of a given job. … This is regrettable, because if workers really enjoyed their jobs they would not only benefit personally, but sooner or later they would almost certainly produce more efficiently and reach all the other goals that now take precedence.”

Can we job design Flow?
Csikszentmihalyi cautions us that… “it would be erroneous to expect that if all jobs were constructed like games, everyone would enjoy them.” There is no guarantee that everyone loves games. I have certainly observed the reservation – even disdain – that a few display during my workshops when I use “games” to illuminate some point.

He further complicates the idea of on-the-job flow with examples of three people (a shepherdess, an all-purpose factory worker and a butcher) doing seemingly mundane work. Yet, each worker gains the highest level of self-satisfaction. Each approximates what Maslow called “self actualization”. They love what they do and they do it masterfully.
So, for Csikszentmihalyi, it matters greatly how a person perceives the task. Mary Poppins would agree. In the film’s Spoonful of Sugar sequence, she shows the children how a positive attitude can make boring work like picking up one’s room, a fun experience.

Flow comes to the person open to it. Csikszentmihalyi terms that person “autotelic” – someone that is goal-oriented and able to discipline self to do whatever needs doing.

The autoelic person may well be another term for the effective follower – an independent and critical thinker, goal-oriented and self-motivated. As we know, the effective follower is someone often perceived as a threat by bosses and co-workers. They label the effective follower as out-of-step and not a team player. Csikszentmihalyi offers sage career advice to the effective follower: Yes, set challenges for reaching your goals but do so “while helping the boss and colleagues reach theirs; it is less direct and more time consuming than forging ahead to satisfy one’s interests regardless of what happens to others, but in the long run it seldom fails.”

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