Find That Flow

Best-selling author Dan Goleman explains how a combination of emotional intelligence and finding meaning could increase productivity fivefold. 

Daniel Goleman, author of the best seller Emotional Intelligence, and host of the podcast First Person Plural: Emotional Intelligence and Beyond, is a regular contributor to Korn Ferry. His latest book, Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body, is available now. 

First there was IQ (intelligence quotient)— a way of measuring a person's intellectual and cognitive ability to reason. Then came emotional intelligence, popularly known as EQ — a way of understanding our ability to recognize and man-ge emotions in ourselves and in our relationships.

Then consultants started talking about something called “MQ,” or meaning quotient— a way of measuring the extent to which people find purpose in their work.

Taken together, these three Q’s, according to these consultants, could increase the rate of people’s productivity five times over.

The reason is due to an increase in what the psychologist Mihàly Csìkszentmihàlyi came to call “flow”— a mental state in which a person is fully energized, focused, and immersed in the process of an activity. Known as being “in the zone,” flow represents an optimal state of intrinsic motivation— almost like a wellspring of joy, inspiration, and determination that bubbles up from deep within us as we perform a particular set of tasks. In this state, things like time and hunger all but disappear. We are so engrossed with what we are doing that we step outside the confines of our day-to-day existence.

To understand flow, Csìkszentmihàlyi studied thousands of people, from sculptors to factory workers, examining their varying levels of creativity, concentration, and motivation. His seminal book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, posited that people are not only at their happiest in a state of flow, but are far more productive and satisfied with their work, regardless of whether or not they are being compensated.

In my talks on emotional intelligence, I put this state in terms of the Yerkes-Dodson Law, a bell curve representing the relationship between stress and performance. While the psychologists Yerkes and Dodson couldn’t have known it a century ago, they were actually tracking the impacts of the HPA axis, the circuitry that secretes stress hormones when the amygdala is triggered.

The three main states depicted in the Yerkes-Dodson Law—disengagement, frazzle, and flow—each have a powerful impact on a person’s ability to perform at their best. Too little stress and we are not motivated; too much and we tip over the edge into total overwhelm; and just the right amount keeps us in a state of optimal engagement.

When you look at your workdays, how much are characterized by that great feeling of being completely and entirely in flow?

According to many researchers, you’re lucky if you spend even just 10% of your time there. Considering the impact on productivity, organizations would benefit greatly from creating workplaces where employees felt in the zone more rather than less of the time. Even a 20-percent increase could have enormous benefits.

This means focusing on all three Q’s: keeping people intellectually engaged to solve meaningful problems; equipping them with the skills and strategies to manage their emotions and relationship to stress; and ensuring they feel connected to a purpose  bigger than their day to day work.

Click here to learn more about Daniel Goleman's Building Blocks of Emotional Intelligence.