How to help people learn and progress – create the conditions for flow

by Bee Heller
December 28, 2016

Most organisations are now bought in to the idea that if you want to unlock the full potential of your people you need to tap in to their intrinsic motivations. One important source of motivation for people is our desire to learn and progress. We want to feel like we’re getting better or improving at what we do.

Psychologist Mihalyi Csikzentmihalyi pioneered the concept of ‘flow’ – the mental state of being completely absorbed in a task or activity, otherwise known as being ‘in the zone’. People who experience flow describe being totally focused and energised by the task in which they’re engaged and deeply satisfied by the overall experience.

In my view, most workplaces do a poor job of creating an environment that encourages flow. There are certain conditions that increase the likelihood of people experiencing flow, so if you want to encourage flow at your work, here’s five things that will make it more likely.

1. Make sure goals are clear

It’s not just the long term goals that need to be clear but also the immediate next steps – the tangible things people need to do in the short term to keep making progress. Chess players experience flow when they know the next two or three moves they want to execute to set up their check mate strategy

2. Give people access to immediate feedback

Whether it’s qualitative feedback from colleagues or quantitative data specific to a task or project, giving people immediate feedback they can act on helps them to adjust their actions in the moment and learn and progress more quickly. Musicians receive instant feedback as they hear the sound they are producing and as a result can constantly adjust how they play.

3. Balance people’s strengths with the challenge of their activities

If a task is too easy, we get bored. If it’s too difficult, we get anxious and frustrated. Flow is most likely to occur when people are required to draw on their strengths while being challenged just enough to keep them on their toes. Computer games are amazing at keeping people in this zone of ‘just difficult enough’. They start with easy levels and slowly increase the difficulty – adding new challenges and developing a player’s skill as they move through the levels.

4. Create an environment that allows for deep concentration

When someone is experiencing flow they are deeply absorbed in their task. However their flow will be broken by distractions and interruptions – things that are all too common in most workplaces. Emails popping up on screen, phones ringing, colleagues stopping by your desk to ask a quick question – all prevent deep concentration and the possibility of flow. When someone wants to settle down to focus on an important piece of work, is there somewhere they can go to avoid distractions?

5. Support people to be in the present and in control

Flow is defined as occurring when someone is totally focused and not thinking about anything except what’s happening at the present time. If people are worried about an unpredictable manager or a restructure rumour this is much harder to achieve. Helping people to feel in control isn’t necessarily about reducing their workload but instead giving them the tools to know what’s going on in their team or their area of work.

During our work with Nando’s we noticed that, when working on the restaurant floor, the best Patraos (restaurant managers) clocked every single customer that walked through the door, every dish that was in danger of sitting too long on the co-ordination counter, every table that needed cleaning etc. They were totally in the present and in control during even the busiest shifts.


For a perspective on flow from an HR Director (who’s also a keen sportsman), you can read a response to this blog from Gary Cookson – Flow. I’ll be posting a new blog on a key source of intrinsic motivation every fortnight or so and Gary will be responding in kind on his blog with his experiences from organisations he’s worked in and his personal views on the subject.

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