How Shared Learning Opportunities Create Flow Experiences

Written by Paul Marchildon, on February 4, 2014.


There is something very intimate about flow experiences. They occur when we are at the threshold of our ability – when activities or tasks are just challenging enough, when they push us just enough. Time stands still, and we create. To add a team component seems like an invasion, at first, doesn’t it? Like inviting someone into our private thoughts or playing two-person Solitaire. Shared flow experiences, though, can be even more gratifying and productive than those we achieve solo. So, how do you create conditions that make more of these moments possible for your entire team?

Group Flow, or “Co-Active Social Flow”

At Atlantis, we had a “buddy system”, in which a junior was always paired with a senior. We even custom-designed our office space to account for fostering team cohesiveness and create an environment that inspired cooperation – that facilitated flow, if you will. Say we had a four-person team – again, with mixed levels of seniority – working on a big client. The design allowed them to interact at any point, and thus serve our clients better.

The account director could be on the phone with the client, for instance, and the account coordinator was always within earshot. We had a team who did this so seamlessly that while the AD was having the conversation, the AC was already starting to action items from the call. The AD might say to the client, “Oh, you need this document?”  Seconds later, it was waiting for the client in his email inbox, courtesy of the AC. It was remarkably effective because the team was so in tune with each other they were able to offer superior customer service.

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This system was about more than sticking a few people together. We had a binder we called, “The A Advantage,” which contained all our best practices. Every account person had one on their desk, and continually added to it. Every week we would revisit each individual’s binder and update the master document – combining the best ideas from every member of the team. The AD would coach the ACs through the items in the binder and continually develop new strategies to enhance our way of doing business. It was a way of sharing our learning, pushing everyone to elevate their game, and dev­eloping new and creative ways to do our jobs.

Don’t Go with the Flow – Create the Flow

Professor Charles J. Walker of St. Bonaventure University, conducted a series of studies on social flow and found that while individual flow experiences are profoundly satisfying, “doing it together is better than doing it alone.” And in this “buddy system” example above, we set the stage for creating flow experiences:

The team is highly interdependent. According to Walker’s research, “participants in highly interdependent teams reported more joy in flow than individuals performing less interdependently.” These reciprocal relationships are a precondition of social flow experiences.

The levels of experience differ. This enables both team and individual flow experiences. There are a lot of tasks, for instance, that the AC can take off the AD’s plate, which are below the “flow zone” for the AD. That is, they do not challenge him or her enough to produce flow experiences; they’re too mundane or easy. For the AC, though, they fell into that zone where a challenge tests skill but does not overwhelm it.

On the other hand, it may be in the mentoring of the AC that the AD finds his or her flow. Something he/she can do blindfolded won’t produce flow, but teaching the AC how to do it and do it well becomes the new challenge. It’s like helping my son with math. Even though I know my multiplication tables, it is a great exercise in patience!

There is “emotional contigation.” Not to be confused with “contagion,” which we try to limit in the office, “contigation” refers to individuals whose emotions converge. In this case, they’re invested in the same goal – i.e. serving this client – and they work in concert, as we saw when the AC actioned items even before the AD was off the call.

The team wants to enjoy more flow experiences.  Once they taste this bit of success and enjoyment, they want more! Rituals develop – like adding to our A Advantage binder – which helps foster conditions for more flow experiences. Flow begets flow.

Professor Walker concludes that, “Solitary flow, while quite enjoyable, is not as enjoyable as social flow.” But why choose? You can create the conditions for both by mixing juniors with seniors, providing them with challenging tasks, and giving them the space and freedom to find their flow.


Paul Marchildon

Paul Marchildon

A self-proclaimed Leisureologist and Motivational Speaker, Paul Marchildon applies his vast expertise in human engagement to help leaders create more productive, effective organizations. Building on an influential career as a pioneer in employee incentive and loyalty programs, strategic creative communications, social media and mobile marketing, Paul provides insight into the advantages of incorporating a leisure culture in the "work" place. He is past president of Society of Incentive and Travel Executives’ (Site) Canadian Chapter and founder of Atlantis Creative Group (now part of Maritz Canada). He is one of a select group of Canadians who have received the Certified Incentive Travel Executive (CITE) designation.