Tips for nurturing talent

As leaders, once we have assembled an effective and competent team, we always want to level up. Jim Steele offers some advice on helping employees tap into their hidden resources in order to reach their full potential

Steven Kotler is regarded by many as the world’s leading authority on all things flow-related. He talks about how the research of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and a few other scientists, uncovered 10 core characteristics that experienced together underpin the flow state.

The research his group has done suggests that the first six of these characteristics constitute flow, whereas the last four (intense concentration, immediate feedback, clear goals and the challenge/skills ratio) are characteristics of the state. He goes on to say that these four are what they call ‘flow triggers’ or preconditions that lead to the experience. It’s not that these ‘characteristics’ aren’t present during the state, it’s more that they tend to arise before the state itself and are drivers that propel us into it. So, these are the triggers you need to give to your team so they can enter the flow state and do their best work.

  • Intrinsic motivation: Make sure that the tasks given are intrinsically motivating so that your team do it for love rather than money. The activity itself is so enthralling that it is its own reward. Autonomy is also important to mention here. To be fully motivated, your team need to be able to take ownership of their work and be given autonomy to control how they do it.
  • Intense concentration: More specifically, intense concentration on a limited field of information. Total focus on the right here, right now. Complete absorption in the present moment.
  • Clear goals: These are not big goals, like winning a promotion, rather they are much smaller chunks, like preparing for a client meeting. What’s critical is that teams know what they’re doing now and what they’re doing next, so their attention can stay focused in the present.
  • Immediate feedback: The gap between cause and effect is tiny, so we can always course-correct mid-flight.
  • Challenge/skills balance: The ideal is that the challenge of the task slightly exceeds employees’ skill sets, so they have to push themselves outside their comfort zone – but not too far outside.

So, how do you help your team get into the flow when the work is really hard? This is where having an understanding of the four stages of the flow cycle is helpful for your team so they know what to expect and are able to deal with it.

Stage 1 – Struggle phase

We need to appreciate that the early stages of hard work and focus are going to feel like agitation, stress and confusion. It’s unreasonable to think we’re just going to switch on our laptop and start banging out our best work; we need to accept that when we’re doing challenging work, there’s a period of agitation and stress that precedes dropping into these highly concentrated states.

Before we get into the groove, we need the dopamine reward system to keep us on the right path. Get your team to reward themselves for starting to take action. These small boosts put them on the right path and are essential to get them through this struggle. My list usually includes an epic self-talk to reward myself for being on the path, 15 minutes of breathwork, EDM music, red wine.

Stage 2 – Release phase

In the release phase, we take our mind off the problem. We literally stop doing what we’re doing. We relax. Here you can encourage your team to do what works best for them, but basically anything that’s slightly tactile or physical works. Common activities include low-grade exercise such as walks, gardening or building model aeroplanes.

One of the things that is tricky about the release phase, especially for peak performers, is they don’t want to stop working. So, the reframe here is that during the release phase, you’re literally programming your subconscious to solve the problem for you. That’s not just a positive spin; there’s science to back up that claim.

Stages 3 and 4 – Flow phase and recovery phase

Everyone loves being in the flow state and recovering afterwards is also pleasant if done right. If your team is struggling to get into a piece of work or get into a long training session, just knowing that they’re headed to the promised land of flow, along with some scheduled recovery time afterwards, gives them a good reason to crack on.

Flow is an exceptionally productive state, but whenever we’re running on adrenaline and dopamine, albeit combined with the feel-good chemicals, serotonin and endorphins, it is nonetheless a tremendous drain on our energy stores. At some point your team need to recover – you and your team must ensure you make time for this.

Jim Steele is a business speaker, leadership facilitator, executive coach and author of a new book, Unashamedly superhuman: harness your inner power and achieve your greatest professional and personal goals, published by Capstone

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