Practice #7: Stimulate Creative Flow

Practice #7: Stimulate Creative Flow

Effective leaders understand the connection between work and happiness—and create workplaces in which people are encouraged to innovate and tap their creative flow. In a leadership culture, people are entrusted with responsibility and expected to get things done. They feel supported to try new things—and are not micromanaged. When you stimulate creative flow, people stretch beyond their “safety” zones and tap hidden wells of personal talent and energy. They apply creative thinking to problem solving and achieve significant results in remarkably short periods of time.

The Dynamics of Innovation

Chapter 7 gets at the roots of innovation. As you should know by now, half of the practices in the leadership equation focus on building trust, and half focus on sparking innovation.

  • Innovation occurs when people feel their work is fulfilling to them.
  • Innovation occurs when people are focused on achieving an important goal.
  • Innovation occurs when people have the ability to control what they do and when they do it.
  • Innovation occurs when managers reward people for ideas—and do not squelch them.
  • Innovation occurs when people feel loose, speak freely, and are able to challenge orthodoxy.

Now if you look at this list, it bears an uncanny resemblance to the forces at work when people achieve what psychologists call “flow.” Each of the things I mentioned—being intensely focused, controlling what you do, feeling loose, feeling fulfilled—are precursors to achieving flow. Over the years, I’ve concluded that a significant part of what managers and leaders do to spark innovation is to create an environment where people can easily experience “flow.”​​​​​​​

What is Creative Flow?

For many people, the word “flow” may strike them as odd. But I’ve been focused on it ever since I read the book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. The author (his name is pronounced “six-cent-me-holly”) describes flow as a mental state in which you feel fully immersed in what you are doing. It can occur in any field, in any industry, at any level. It is the feeling that you’re doing exactly what you like doing—and what you’re meant to be doing—whether it’s designing software, selling shoes, or teaching a yoga class. In a word, it’s the feeling that your work is fulfilling.

Csikszentmihalyi presents a compelling case that every human being is capable of and wants to maximize feelings of flow, and he identifies six factors that are necessary to achieve it. These factors can appear independently, but the combination results in the flow experience:

  • You feel personal control over the situation or activity.
  • You experience the activity as intrinsically rewarding.
  • You concentrate intensely on the activity in the present moment.
  • You are so absorbed that you lose reflective self-consciousness.
  • Time appears to pass quickly.
  • Your actions and awareness are merged.

Why is Creative Flow Important?

People feel happiest when they are in a state of flow, just as they are happiest when they experience feelings of trust. That’s the genesis of the leadership equation. When these six factors come together, the alchemy is palpable: You feel your talents and abilities are being fully tapped. You feel like your life has meaning and authenticity. People who find flow in their jobs are genuinely amazed that they are being paid to do what they enjoy. It’s not work when you love what you do.

This is true particularly in America, where we place such a high value on the work we do. Work is central to our sense of who we are. The flexible labor markets and upward mobility we enjoy have led to a universal feeling in America that working hard, and doing meaningful work, are keys to our happiness. What could be more important then, as a manager or a leader, than to create a workplace in which people are consistently able to achieve the peak experience of flow?

By the way, the data about happiness supports this conclusion. Americans who feel successful at work are twice as likely as people who don’t feel that way to say they are very happy overall. This isn’t connected to money. Economists like the Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman have demonstrated that once people have enough money to meet their needs, a big financial windfall has only a transitory impact on happiness. Longterm happiness depends on having a sense of success at work. Again, this is why helping people achieve creative flow is so important. Franklin Roosevelt put it this way:

“Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort.”

Balancing Self-Confidence and Uncertainty

Here’s another key to stimulating flow: uncertainty. In a recent study, managers were given a survey and asked to rate how many of their decisions each day were absolutely correct. They were also asked to evaluate their level of confidence. Employees were then asked to assess their relationships with these managers.

Here’s what the research revealed: Managers who were confident but relatively uncertain were viewed as better managers, more likely to foster creative flow and encourage independent thinking. Those who were confident and certain were viewed as authoritarian and inflexible.

When you think about it, this conclusion isn’t too surprising. When people work for leaders who are confident but uncertain, they feel more relaxed, more expressive, and more innovative. When you work for a boss who is confident and certain, you’re left feeling that your own contributions aren’t as important. You tend to feel second-guessed. Before you know it, most of your energy is devoted to managing your boss’s reactions rather than to finding better ways of doing things.

Too much certainty snuffs out the spark.

To break this cycle, leaders need to openly admit their uncertainty— to confess that they don’t always know the answers, to state openly that they look to others to find solutions. Great leaders go one step further. They continually poke at their own assumptions and expose their “facts” as probabilities—not certainties. They encourage people to search for better solutions.


Companies that place a premium on building trust and generating spark will outperform all others. To spark innovation, you need to encourage people to put their full creative energies to work. Innovation doesn’t flow from a business plan or out of a series of mergers and acquisitions. Innovation arises out of a deep appreciation of the importance of creative flow. Leaders should focus on discovering what people are good at, empower them to experiment, and praise them. In a leadership culture, there’s no room for micromanagement. It’s the leader’s job to make sure the ingredients of creative flow are in place—and then step out of the way.

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