Flow State - Making Work Better By Making It Harder

In Brief

It’s a problem that customer experience leaders deal with all the time. Whenever we find teams of customer-facing employees dealing with repetitive, relatively low-skill tasks, we discern a natural temptation for them to fall into a rut and start behaving robotically.

This is a huge issue for the company and the brand because bad customer service ultimately alienates customers. But it’s also a problem for the employee. These people really need to be adding value to the customer experience if they want to have jobs in the future. After all, if your job has you behaving robotically, nobody will be surprised when you’re replaced with a bot.

After all, if your job has you behaving robotically, nobody will be surprised when you’re replaced with a bot.

So, how can we help our fellow humans press their unique advantages and add value? How can we get them to shine in the face of monotony? The answer turns out to be found not in making their jobs easier, but rather in making them harder. It has to do with a behavioral science concept called “flow state,” which offers us a view into how people get bored and frustrated when their jobs have them stuck in tasks that fall below their capabilities. Perhaps more importantly, it gives us a framework for understanding the specific ways we can make their jobs harder so that the worker becomes more engaged.

Lessons in fixing the mundane...from something complex

One of my favorite examples that illustrate this point appears in the nearby video we did on this subject for our CX vlog, 40 Billion Reasons. We unearthed a video from way back in 1997 of the Russian pianist Evgeny Kissin, still quite young at the time, performing the incredibly demanding piece, La Campanella. It’s absolutely jaw-dropping.

This performance is also probably the best example I know of demonstrating flow state. It helps us vividly understand engagement, not just in something incredibly difficult like Kissin’s performance of La Campanella, but also at the other end of the spectrum in relatively simple tasks.

Flow state is a term coined by the Hungarian-born psychologist, Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi. (Pro tip: “Mee-high Chick-sent-me-high”) We actually wrote a chapter about him in our book, Design-driven Feedback.

Czikszentmihalyi’s theory explains how engagement is the product of matching two things:

  • Level of difficulty of a task
  • Level of skill you bring to bear on that thing

Have a look at the chart below. The vertical axis represents the difficulty of a challenge. The horizontal axis represents the skills level you have to accomplish that challenge. A line right up the middle represents a perfect balance of skills and challenge. That’s flow state.

A person with skill level 1 tasked with a job of difficulty 1 would land low on the flow state line, and a person with skill level 5 tasked with a job of difficulty 5 would sit high on it. But they’re both on the optimal place in the Flow State line for them under the circumstances.

Reframing the discussion about work difficulty and engagement

What’s important about this is how it frames this discussion of things like work satisfaction or engagement and difficulty. In his research, Csikszentmihalyi found that people who landed on the line — in balance between skills and difficulty — tended to be the most satisfied, engaged and present.

This explains how Kissin manages to stay at this. He worked day-in and day-out over what I estimated to be 40,000 hours at something that is exceedingly difficult and involves frequent struggle and failures along the way. Yes, the work is a 10 out of 10 difficulty. But he’s pretty much got 10 out of 10 skills. As long as he’s in balance or pretty close to in balance, he can stay in there, fighting his way to master the task.

He worked day in and day out over what I estimated to be 40,000 hours at something that is exceedingly difficult and involves frequent struggle and failures along the way.

Okay, so what about when people end up in situations where the job difficulty exceeds their skill level? In that case, they end up what I call north of flow state. They encounter a constant state of feeling they are in over their head. The dread this produces creates all kinds of problems, and that is a subject worthy of study. But in the case of the employees we’re talking about — those tasked with simple, repetitive tasks — that’s not really what’s going on.

No, most of the people we’re talking about today — like those people you see working at TSA — end up south of flow state. Their skills actually exceed the difficulty of the job. And that creates boredom, frustration and eventually they just kind of check out. And boy can you tell.

Making the job harder

So, what’s the solution? You’ve got to make the work harder, moving them back “north” on the chart so that they’re closer to the flow state line. They’ve got a job that remains a good match for their social-skill capabilities.

Does that mean we make them juggle chainsaws while they work? That kind of harder?

No, there are four specific things you’ve got to do — four conditions you can create that will keep your company culture “flow state-friendly.” In the next couple of articles (and episodes of our vlog, 40 Billion Reasons), we’ll learn from CX leaders at companies like Trek Bicycles, Microsoft, Premera Blue Cross and Verizon how they leverage flow state.

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