Going with the “Flow“
With some frequency I get so absorbed in an activity that I lose my sense of time and place. All of my critical faculties are focused on the activity. I look up after what I think is a moment only to discovery several hours have passed and I was all the while completely oblivious to the passage of time, hunger, fatigue and the like.
Positive psychologists describe this phenomenon as “flow,” or the state of being completely immersed in activity for its own sake. The concept of flow comes to us from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (say that 10 times quickly and you are in the flow!)
The quality of flow is that it makes an activity, including workplace activity, seem… well, a lot less like work! Flow not only makes work more enjoyable; flow increases personal performance and engenders further learning and personal development. Why? Because the ability to experience flow indicates mastery. Mastery, in turn, requires we seek out new and different challenges to recapture the experience of flow.
Thus, one aspect of being in the “flow” is that I am completely “engaged” in what I am doing. The notion of “engagement” has become a popular expression among business consultants and like many such terms is amenable to numerous definitions, rendering meaningful knowledge about employee engagement difficult to come by. At least one distinction lies between “Work engagement”— which signifies my relationship to my work itself– and “employee engagement”— which include my relationship with my professional or occupational role and firm. The importance of this distinction, at least for me, is that the former focuses me on what I bring to the table, while the latter focuses me on the environment in which I am operating. While I have control over what I personally bring into my work and workplace, my working environment is controlled to a large extent by managerial decisions occurring outside my domain of influence, as well as by the behavioral dynamics of my co-workers and colleagues.
A literature review suggests perceptions of meaning strongly influence levels of engagement and performance. We tend to look for meaning more often in our day to day work than in our personal or non-work lives. The literature also suggests engagement is on the decline and there is an active disengagement among workers today. Some studies indicate less than 20% of employees fit into the “fully engaged” category. These are the folks that are consistently productive and task-effective, psychologically bonded to their work and loyal to their organization, and are intrinsically motivated by the work itself. Let’s suppose that 20% figure represents one end of a continuum.
On the opposite end of the continuum are those who are actively disengaged in their work, sometimes referred to as the “Quit and Stays.” Quit and Stay folks are those who, for many different reasons, no longer meaningfully identify with their work or workplace, but continue to show up and occupy space. They have quit participating mentally but stay in place physically. They are usually negative, uncooperative, or even hostile— quick to tell you everything that is wrong with the status quo in your organization.
Sandwiched between these two poles are the non-engaged. We might say they, like their actively disengaged cohorts, are outside the flow. They contribute just enough time and effort to meet the minimum needs of their position or occupation, but they are no longer psychologically bonded to the organization. They are extrinsically motivated and likely to respond to recruitment efforts, job vacancies or other external inducements. They are also likely to turn a deaf ear to appeals of fidelity to loyalty to the firm or mission. Approximately 2/3 of workers today are understood to be non-engaged in their work and work settings.
In your firm or organization, you are probably familiar with some of these folks. Fortunately, important connections are being drawn between the varied demands of the legal profession and the resulting emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and reduced sense of personal accomplishment many of us experience. Understanding these connections may help you avoid the personal and collateral damage resulting from entrenchment in our profession’s most destructive tendency– the workaholism that ultimately leads to career burnout.
The Long Road to Nowhere
Burnout is a progressive, all-encompassing process that builds momentum over time and destroys meaning, fulfillment, relationships and ultimately productivity and profits. Its early warnings signs include sustained malaise, generalized frustration, unresolved anger, and dissatisfaction. Its physical symptoms can include low energy, chronic fatigue, sleep difficulties, headaches, physical illness and weakness. Cognitive symptoms of professional burnout may include categorizing and depersonalizing clients and their dilemmas, as well as generalized cynicism directed toward ourselves and our accomplishments. Emotionally, we may experience prolonged feelings of helplessness or hopelessness, guilt, anxiety or the feeling we are trapped on the hamster-wheel.
Contributing to these varied pitfalls are the ever increasing levels of stress and insecurity, the absence of an objective metric for determining whether we are performing well, the absence of job security in an age of reconfiguration, mergers and acquisitions, redundancy and similar externalities.
In our legal and other professional careers, the workaholic’s constellation of symptoms yields increased absenteeism, aggression, job shifting, unemployment, underemployment and ultimately— either voluntary, or in many cases involuntary– departure from our professional milieu. In our personal and social lives, we may experience fractured or broken relationships, substance abuse, divorce … even suicide. In the spiritual dimension of our lives, the casualties of burnout include loss of faith and purpose, feelings of alienation and estrangement, despair, and debilitating changes in our spiritual values, beliefs and affiliations.
Bridging the Gap Between Burnout & Engagement
Without discounting the psychological, material and social rewards of our profession, the personal costs outlined above should move us to confront and address the obstacles that prevent us from living what we believe to be successful, passionate and meaningful lives. Surprisingly, recent research suggests lawyer-burnout is not a result of heavy job demands, specialization, or the intense pressures. Rather, the manner in which lawyers are trained to think and reason is the primary source of susceptibility to stress and burnout. The claim is that legal education, in stressing precedent and doctrine above all, underestimates emotion, interpersonal relations, and social context— all factors from which we generally derive some sense of deeper meaning to our efforts.
One consequence of this claim is that while lawyers as a group may not be as dissatisfied with their careers as many believe, strengthening our emotional capacities and interpersonal skills, managing occupational stress, and adopting or redeveloping positive dispositions should facilitate a greater number of fully-engaged practitioners. In fact, the cluster of emotional competencies labeled “Emotional Intelligence” has emerged as a predictor of both occupational satisfaction and performance among lawyers, just as it has in industry.
Emerging research shows burnout, engagement and workaholism to be distinct concepts, rather than 3 ways of viewing the general concept of well-being. Workaholism is understood as an uncontrollable need to work incessantly. Like the alcoholic, the workaholic is literally obsessed with work and perform beyond all reasonable measures of what is expected to meet organizational and financial needs. While there are positive aspects to such an orientation, its harmful consequences generally derive from the workaholic’s neglect of other aspects of her personal life, including health or marital consequences, for example.
Engagement includes the dimensions of energy, involvement and efficacy, while the dimensions of burnout include exhaustion, cynicism and inefficacy. Thus, the workaholic may or may not eventually burn out. The critical factor in distinguishing the workaholic from the burned out colleague is the latter displays demonstrably higher degrees of exhaustion and cynicism, coupled with lower degrees of perceived professional efficacy. Also, while burnout and engagement act as opposites to one another, workaholism shares features of both.
The implications of these claims, of which I’ve admittedly only scratched the surface, are meaningful for managing partners, supervisors, HR professionals, and rank file folks alike. Firm and organizational managers have a real stake in promoting work environments that foster engagement– including engagement among workaholic staff– while reducing the dangers of burnout and the inefficiencies that result from a cadre of Quit and Stays who are no longer emotionally committed and, therefore, unproductive or grossly underproductive.
Ideas for Further Consideration
For firms and organizations seeking the blue sky of increased individual performance, and organizational productivity and profits, here are a few ideas to discuss at the next round table or weekend retreat:
1. Promote & Foster Individual Engagement & Take the Construct Seriously
Managing engagement focuses on career development, leadership, empowerment and organizational image. Employees give their all and do so willingly and over the long haul when they are provided with opportunities to develop and utilize their abilities and potential, acquire and learn new skills and exercise significant discretion and autonomy in the performance of their tasks. The construct should be taken seriously because engaged employees foster loyal customers, business growth and profitability. Also, higher workplace engagement correlates positively with higher earnings per share in publicly trades companies. Thus, while engagement is an individual level construct, it has critical implications for business-level outcomes.
2. Manage Workaholism to Achieve Sustained Outcomes
“Burned-out” colleagues are generally recognized by their poor health, impaired social functioning, poor performance and task effectiveness, absence from the workplace and heightened cynicism. They are too tired to work hard and too cynical to any longer commit to their work, organization or mission. However, the workaholic, while sharing some of these negative features with his burned out cohort manages to work hard whole at the same time remaining committed to his organization and his work. In short, the workaholic demonstrates a drive, commitment and excess of performance that can be identified and, with appropriate interventions, managed toward outcomes that promote the long-term health of the individual while capturing the benefits of his excessive drive.
3. Lead By Example
Engaged workers across professions and industries surveyed are a function of engaged managers. When managers view their primary function as supporting and serving those in their management spheres, the work environment become highly engaged. Thus, managers must themselves be in the engaged or highly engaged categories if employees are expected to respond to engagement efforts. Simply put, you can’t transmit something you haven’t got. The origin of employee disengagement often lies in management’s disengagement with its workforce. Behavior linked to engagement include: belief in the organization, desire to work and improve conditions, an understanding of the big picture, a willingness to work with and support other and stay current on relevant developments and trends. Links were also found between engagement levels and employees’ sense of how they are valued in an organization. Drivers of these characteristics include: effective leadership, open communication, emphasis on employee development and well-being, and clear and well defined polices and practices.
4. Look Into Programs Tailored To Your Specific Needs & Circumstances
Be mindful that individual and organizational differences means there is no “one size fits all” approach to the implementation of engagement efforts. On the macro level of the organization, the absence of a standard measure means what has worked for one company may not be right for your company. On the micro level of the individual, studies show, not surprisingly, personal variances in psychology, perception, emotion and how we process our experiences all strongly influence individual levels of engagement. At the macro level, before implementing new engagement programs it may be prudent to determine what is already working in your organization, what model of “engagement” you are operating on and what results you are achieving and expect to improve upon. At both the macro and micro levels, individual personality differences coupled with our fast-paced global footprints force us to accept there is no single “silver bullet” approach. Any engagement effort must be flexible enough to account for variations among individual personalities, must have a long term focus emphasizing on-going interactions over time. Such processes should at minimum aim to create mutual obligations of trust, value and reciprocal interdependence.
I.D.E.A.L. Coaching partners with individuals and organizations wishing to explore and implement engagement strategies responsive to identified needs. When we recapture personal and organizational values, or clarify the values we act upon when we are at choice, we live with and project integrity and authenticity. We gain the trust and loyalty of our colleagues, clients, and stakeholders; and, we distinguish the momentary and ultimately fleeting satisfactions of individual jobs well done, from the lasting and sustained fulfillment of individual lives well lived.
I.D.E.A.L. Coaching provides a means for each of us to examine individual and organizational states of being and, where we deem it necessary, to make appropriate adjustments toward the achievement of sustained well-being in ourselves and our work environments.