Few people automatically link the concepts of work and serenity. There’s good news, however. As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote in his book Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life, the “serenity that comes when heart, will and mind are on the same page” can arise through clear, short-term work goals and timely communication that leave “no space in consciousness for distracting thoughts.”

And managers, for whom employee satisfaction is paramount to their team and company´s performance, can follow specific steps to build what Csikszentmihalyi calls flow, and instill this kind of serenity.

Csikszentmihalyi, a psychologist and professor of management at Claremont Graduate University, describes flow, or being “in the zone,” as a bulwark against “irrelevant feelings” such as the professional distraction, discontent and anxiety that arise in flow’s absence. Unfortunately, those feelings are both relevant and commonplace. For while work can be one of the most fulfilling and happiest aspects of our lives, it often becomes a source of frustration and, frankly, misery.

Here the science backs me up. A 2016 large-scale study by Alex Bryson for the National Institute of Economic and Social Research showed that engaging in paid work is one of the activities that makes people the least happy. In fact, of 39 activities measured in terms of the happiness they produced, the only one less pleasurable than work was lying sick in bed. (The survey referred to actual sickness, not the “sickness” so often cited by unhappy workers as a reason to avoid the office.)

This is a problem not just for the individual worker’s feelings, of course, but also for his performance, the contentment of his coworkers and the overall well-being and performance of his company. It’s no wonder, then, that after decades of neglect, psychologists are asking what makes people happy not just in their personal lives, but also in their daily office lives.

It turns out that happiness in both areas grows from the same roots: reliable relationships, a positive attitude, engaging activities, physical and mental health, and a sense of purpose. (Material well-being is also integral to happiness, but mostly in the sense of meeting basic needs.)

How can managers best work toward increasing a sense of flow within their companies?

Match Skill With Difficulty

Their fundamental goal is matching an employee’s skills with a project´s degree of difficulty This is the golden rule of flow. If an employee perceives, correctly or incorrectly, that a challenge exceeds his capabilities, he’s likely to respond with productivity-killing stress and anxiety. This produces the sensation of “drowning” in, and feeling blocked at, work. On the other hand, employees who find a project too easy will probably feel bored.

It is therefore the manager’s responsibility to assign projects that are complex enough to stretch an employee’s skills without intimidating him into panicked submission.

Process-Oriented Goals, Plus Regular Feedback

Once skill and challenge are aligned, communication becomes crucial. And this communication relies on two things: immediate goals and prompt feedback.

Having immediate goals that are focused on the process needed to complete the project at hand, are an important defense against an employee feeling overwhelmed (and thereby blocked.) To use a non-professional example, remember your student days, when it was perhaps all too tempting to put off a term paper until a few days before it was due. Here, the student has neglected immediate, process-oriented goals (such as setting a manageable page quota to reach each day in the weeks leading up to the due date) for the long-term goal (submit the whole thing in the frantic moments leading up to deadline).

In other words, it’s essential for business managers and business people to focus on the process of reaching goals rather than the outcome.

Attention to process allows for the giving and reception of feedback. And early feedback, good and bad, is also necessary for flow. Managers are vital to this, especially in the early stages of a project or employee´s development. But over time, as an employee´s sense of mastery grows, he or she should develop an internal sense of feedback, of what’s going well and not so well, and how to stay or adjust the course.

With careful attention paid to these steps – and in particular to hitting the skills-challenge bullseye – managers and employees can enjoy the benefits of flow: a period of deep concentration and seemingly effortless action, a sense of being in the zone, that will boost individual and company performance and create that all-too-lacking state of serenity.


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