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Flow at Work

Mihályi Csíkszentmihályi (pronounced: Me-HIGH Cheek-SENT-me-high) is a professor of Positive Psychology at Claremont Graduate University (Claremont, CA).  He has made a name for himself with the concept of “Flow.” This flow theory holds that when a person has a challenge which completely engages his/her attention and the skillsets exist to meet the challenge, then s/he can reach a state of flow.  The immediate feedback one gets from performing at a level that meets the challenge successfully is the reinforcement loop, which psychologically propels the individual to continue to perform well and enjoy what s/he is doing.  In other words:

Task + Skill = Gratification

Some people refer to this concept as “being in the zone.”  Csíkszentmihályi chose the word “flow” because it often feels like effortless movement.  The challenge (task) is met by natural or well-honed ability (skill).  If the task is higher than the skill, then the task becomes overwhelming and anxiety increases.  This is how organizations set up employees for failure

Task > Skill = Anxiety

If the task is lower than the skill, then the employee is left underutilized and bored.  This is how organizations experience turnover — by employees leaving, “goofing off” and/or distracting other productive employees. 

Task < Skill = Boredom


The Mozart Effect

Many Boomers are irritated with Millennials who wear their headphones at work.  Boomers think that their younger colleagues are “goofing off,” while Millennials feel that music helps them get into flow.  Studies indicate that, yes, flow is aided by music.  According to a report in the journal Neuroscience of Behavior and Physiology, a person’s ability to recognize visual images, including letters and numbers, is faster when classical music is playing in the background.

Productivity increased by music has been termed the “Mozart effect.”  The term got its name after a study showed that college students had performed better solving mathematical problems when listening to classical music. The Mozart effect also seems to apply well with other mammals…cows produce more milk if Mozart is played, for example.



  • Experiential. Give direct reports the opportunity to rise to the occasion in a safe environment, to keep them challenged, engaged, and learning.
  • Interpersonal. Provide employees with growth opportunities, such as Executive Coaching &/or Leadership Development workshops.
  • Private. Hold conversations 1:1 (one-on-one) with employees on which skill sets they would like to strengthen.
  • Support. Engage Human Resources, Organization Development, &/or external consultants to advise the employee on reaching his/her flow.
  • Leadership / Accountability. Refuse resignations &/or self-demotions, if the employee does not feel adequate for his/her position.  This is a sign of failure on management for not prepping and supporting the employee well enough.
  • Environmental Priming. Experiment with replacing the “white noise” with a nearly imperceptible low-level classical music.



Rossina Gil, MSOD, MAIS, is a Leadership and Organization Development Practitioner, and the founder of Corporate Looking Glass – a diverse consultancy of OD experts and strategic thinking partners.  They find their flow developing leaders and integrating organizational cultures.  Visit us at

©Rossina Gil, 2014


Jon Haidt. The Happiness Hypothesis. Basic Books: Philadelphia, PA. 2006

Mike Seddon. Oct 30, 2006