Personal Side of Flow

By Kimberly Barney, M.S., and Cristina Wildermuth, Ed.D., SPHR

Flow-inducing work environments can promote employee experiences of joy and significant creativity and productivity. Recent research explores the flow–personality connection.

Have you worked on a project when suddenly you looked at the clock and realized hours had passed without your noticing? If so, you may have experienced flow.

Introduced by psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, the term flow refers to the experience of being completely immersed in a project or activity while experiencing joy or happiness (Bakker, 2007). This powerful combination of total focus and positive feelings can make even complex work feel as effortless and natural as breathing.

Flow can happen while skiing, playing cards, singing in the choir or reading a good book (Csíkszentmihályi, 1997a). One can also experience flow at work — especially when optimum conditions such as clear goals, immediate feedback and a reasonable balance between the challenges and skills are present (Csíkszentmihályi, 2003).

Arguably, the growth, happiness and self-confidence associated with flow are more deeply connected to situational aspects than to individual ones. After all, flow is considered to be universal, something anyone can experience (Csíkszentmihályi, 1997b). There might, however, be a personal side to flow — a natural tendency toward the flow experience. Specifically, personality traits could best support the intrinsic motivation, deep concentration, persistence and positive emotions connected to flow.

As we explored existing literature and research on flow, we wondered whether there might be an additional component to the flow formula at work: the manager’s personality. After all, managerial personality has been linked to overall job satisfaction, organizational commitment and turnover intention of subordinates (Smith & Canger, 2004).

Recently, we conducted a preliminary study to explore the flow–personality connection. Our investigation
was guided by two questions:
What is the relationship between the employee’s personality and his or her state of flow?
What is the relationship between the employee manager’s personality and the employee’s state of flow?

Personality and Flow

First, we compiled a survey including 13 flow and 46 personality questions. The flow questions were designed by Arnold Bakker (2007). The personality questions were developed by the Center for Applied Cognitive Studies (Howard & Howard, 2001) and measured Big Five personality traits in the workplace. Table 1 includes descriptions of each of the traits.

Participants were asked to assess their own and managers’ personalities. This technique was inspired by Howard and Howard’s (2001) description of the use of the “form R” (other-assessment) in recruitment, as per the Workplace Big Five professional manual (Howard & Howard, 2001).We collected data in three phases. First, we recruited participants through the Central Iowa Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). Next, we sent the survey to members of Linked:HR, a large (almost 800,000 members) networking group on LinkedIn. Finally, we wrote three additional questions on personality and flow and distributed them to Linked:HR members. Following are the results obtained at each phase of the study.

Phase 1: Three Iowa Businesses

Three small to midsized organizations in insurance, accounting and human services agreed to participate. HR representatives in those organizations forwarded our survey to other employees. From this first try, we received 60 usable responses (a 51 percent response rate).

We calculated the personality scores (for managers and employees) following Howard and Howard’s (2001) professional manual instructions. Next, we ran a correlation analysis connecting flow to the five personality traits. Results suggested a modest relationship between one of the Big Five personality traits and individual flow: extraversion. Relationships between flow and other traits were not statistically significant. Table 2 details the correlations.

Finally, we correlated the employees’ flow scores and the managers’ personality scores. Once again, the only significant relationships identified were between the manager’s extraversion and the employee’s flow. Results are included in Table 3.

Concerned with the small sample size, we decided to try again with a larger sample (Linked:HR). These results are described in the following section.

Phase 2: Linked:HR

For the Linked:HR sample, we decided to focus on only one personality trait: extraversion. We received usable responses from 381 participants and ran correlation analyses on: (1) employee extraversion and flow, and (2) manager’s extraversion versus employee flow. Results are included in Tables 4 and 5.

The analyses conducted on the Linked:HR sample, therefore, confirm previously identified relationships between extraversion and flow. Both the self and the manager’s extraversion mattered. The problem is we didn’t know why. Correlation analyses, after all, simply tell us that two or more variables are related. Intrigued, we decided to take one more step.

Phase 3: Qualitative Survey

We sent a brief qualitative survey to members of Linked:HR. The survey included three questions asking participants to share flow experiences, explain the relationship between extraversion and flow and comment on the impact of the manager’s personality on employee flow. We received 92 responses, including rich anecdotes, examples and personal stories on personality and flow. Following are summaries of responses for each section, including the most critical themes identified in the data.

Question 1: The flow experience. Participants painted a fascinating picture of joyful relationships, enriching networking and challenging tasks. Three categories appeared to be particularly relevant: Calling, Camaraderie and Concentration.

Calling. Flow work is meaningful and useful to others. Participants felt that they were contributing to the greater good or helping their organization or other employees succeed. The following example illustrates this theme:
“I knew that I could make a huge difference to the outcome if I worked well. I enjoyed it so much that night, days and stuff didn’t matter.”
Camaraderie. Participants expressed feelings of chemistry, respect and positivity among team members or fellow staff. This camaraderie might help individuals stay in the present, unencumbered by worry or concerns with safety. For instance:
“The negativity wasn’t there and there was general predisposition to treat me like an expert in my field and that further got strengthened with what they experienced.”
“We were all engrossed in the different ideas being thrown around and building on each other’s concepts, being engrossed in the information and connecting the dots to make a powerful presentation with strong ideas. These brainstorming sessions create a state of flow for me.”
Concentration. During flow moments, one no longer thinks about what he or she is doing — instead, action is almost automatic (Csíkszentmihályi, 2003). This theme emerged as an example of “blocked flow”: instances where co-workers or chatty managers interrupted flow experiences on a daily basis. For example:
“I do not report to anyone, but I do have a partner who does impact my state of flow. He often just barges in when I am lost in flow. This catches me off balance and I have trouble getting back into it again.”

“My manager is very chatty and finds a lot of time in the day to talk about things that could be saved for another time. . . . If she is in a particularly talkative mood, I find that I cannot enter a state of flow because she is constantly interrupting my thought processes.”
Question 2: Extraversion and flow. Most respondents felt that extraversion did not matter much. The following comment is representative of the data:
“My level of extraversion does not impact my ability to reach ‘flow’ because I can be in that state among people or alone, physically tired or alert, on a team or on my own. . . . It’s the passion for, the fit with, the stimulation of the task/project — all relating to my innate talents and top strengths.”
Thus, participants felt that other components of flow — challenge, stimulation, feelings of safety — had a higher impact on flow than extraversion per se. One participant summed it up:
“Although an introvert by nature, I do find that interaction with bright colleagues and coworkers contributes to my ability to reach ‘flow’ . . . although it also depends on which stage I’m in regarding my work or project. Not particularly creative, I do find it helpful to have others to brainstorm or bounce ideas around with. . . . Once I have the ideas, which are gained by interaction with others, I can buckle down and focus on my own to develop whatever it is I’m working on — my own ‘flow.’”
Question 3: The manager’s personality and flow. Most respondents agreed that the manager’s personality does affect employee flow. One participant wrote the following:
“I am much more productive and successful when I have a manager who operates more like a partner in generating ideas, solutions, etc., rather than someone who dictates the solution, which results in a feeling of work being drudgery!”
Arguably, however, “operating like a partner” and “helping generate solutions” are desirable behaviors, not traits. Other flow-blocking behaviors listed by participants included curbing freedom, micromanaging, imposing solutions, refusing to “share the limelight,” demonstrating suspicion and mistrust and behaving in an exclusionary manner. As one participant stated:
“I guess I like to be included . . . and many times the manager has control over that level of inclusion. In addition, if a manager treats me like a resource or an object or puts me on projects without purpose it is hard to maintain engagement, interest, flow.”
Creating a safe and trusting environment appeared to be particularly important. The “flow-inducing workplace” described by participants was fun, energetic, pleasant and open. For instance:
“There is also an element of fun with flow. If my manager doesn’t support having fun, creates a high stress/stakes environment, doesn’t support his/her team . . . has his/her own insecurities that impact others . . . then I need to separate from that personality and emotion to obtain Flow.”

What seemed to matter the most, however, was not the manager’s personality per se. Instead, participants referred to the impact of personality differences. For example:
“In fact, as an ENTJ (on MBTI) [Extraversion, Intuition, Thinking, Judging type on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator], I relate much better with the Thinkers as opposed to the ones with Feeling types. And I also prefer the structured Judging types than the Perceiving types. On the other hand, I really believe that the Sensing are great complement to my Intuition character.”
In this excerpt, the participant is not saying that Thinkers are better for flow in general, just that they are better for his flow! Further research exploring the impact of manager–subordinate personality differences could be particularly valuable.


We derived a few recommendations from this study:

Explore extraversion.

Both individual extraversion and the extraversion of the manager related to flow experiences. Qualitative responses, however, did not significantly help clarify two critical questions: (1) Under what conditions does extraversion matter? and (2) What can be done to protect the flow of introverts? A follow-up study including a purposeful selection of introverts and extraverts might be helpful.

One size does not fit all.

Some reported experiencing flow during highly sociable moments (teaching, training, working with a team). Others deplored constant interruptions and preferred to be on their own for as long as their flow lasted. Different experiences can promote or block the flow experiences of a diverse group of employees.

The manager matters.

Flow-friendly environments can promote employee experiences of joy. Further, managers can help employees “develop skills and make significant contributions” (Csíkszentmihályi, 1990, p. 42), thus boosting employee confidence and morale.

Future reviews of the personal side of flow might correct some of the limitations of this exploratory study such as follows:
  • Employees assessed the manager’s personality. Although there is some precedent to the assessment of others’ personalities through the Big Five instrument selected (Howard & Howard, 2001), we could not control for depth of knowledge. In other words, some respondents might have answered questions about relatively unknown managers.
  • The qualitative portion of the study involved fairly simple survey questions sent to the group at large. A stronger design might involve the purposeful selection of extraverts and introverts for in-depth personal interviews.
In summary, our study paints a complex picture of flow, one that involves personality differences, managerial behaviors and other environmental factors such as freedom, safety and camaraderie. Such complexity, however, should not discourage HR leaders who seek to provide employees with a positive and vibrant working environment. ■