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Understanding the Triggers for Group Flow

Humans are social beings. We thrive from the collaboration of others. Seeing someone else be present, and do something incredible makes us want to do that as well. Previously we have talked about how individuals can harness flow, but forming a creative and collaborative group experience can be an even more rewarding and beautiful thing to be a part of. This phenomenon that occurs is described as Group Flow.

It can happen to all groups of people. Creative collaborations and meetings are essential for companies like Google, or Apple. Jazz groups rely on the improvisation and challenging of its members to create their masterpieces. It even occurs in operating rooms: "Surgeons say that during a difficult operation they have the sensation that the entire operating team is a single organism, moved by the same purpose; they describe it as a 'ballet' in which the individual is subordinated to the group performance, and all involved share in the feeling of harmony and power".

And of course, it can happen to sports teams as well. How many times have you witnessed, or may have even been a part of some match or performance in which everyone seemed to 'click' and sort of 'flowed' through the movements, as if one organism? That is when the group becomes one, and enters a vastly creative and exciting state of group flow. But how can teams create an environment that can foster this type of performance? To understand this better, we have to look deeper into the mechanisms of successful group collaboration.

Studies done comparing "solitary flow" to "interactive flow" showed that the more social an activity, the higher "flow enjoyment" was for the participants. This means that flow is experienced better when we are in a group. We also know that higher enjoyment, leads to higher motivation, which ultimately can fuel great performance.

However, it is crucial that each individual understands that they are responsible for their own motivation, and clarify the reasons for why they are there at this very moment. Motivation must come from within, and only then it can be combined with others. It is clear that to establish conditions in which individuals will share their motivation, a greater self-awareness and enhancement of role perceptions must first take place. Therefore, to create an environment conducive for flow, the group must adapt a self-leadership type environment where everyone is allowed to contribute their expertise at any given time. This way leadership is a flowing process that does not designate one specific leader, but allows the collective contribution of certain individuals at specific times in which they feel they have great competence in because of the self-efficacy established in creating a self-motivated environment.

What this means is that group flow occurs in environments where everyone can be a leader and have the room to build upon their own motivations for being there. Group collaboration starts from the individual, but it is the collective contribution of individuals on the same page that fuels performance. Furthermore, successful groups and teams practise these essential "flow triggers":

1. Serious Concentration- Be here and now!

2. Shared clear goals - Who are we as a team? What do we want to accomplish?

3. Good communication - Plenty of immediate feedback

4. Equal participation - everyone gets a chance to be a leader and contribute

5. Element of risk- Mental, social, etc.

6. Familiarity - Research shows the more familiar a group is with each other the better they perform. (But only too a point; when the group gets too close momentum is lost, as opposing views are essential for groups in order to keep challenging each other)

7. Blending egos- No one hogs the spotlight

8. Sense of control - autonomy of choice combined with a feeling of competence is the key to control over your performance

9. Close Listening- We'll say it again. Be here and now! Maybe there are some issues that need to be resolved, or challenges to face, so really listen to what others have to say.

10. Always say "yes, and"- The goal is to gather momentum. When an improv group member starts a scene with "Hey there is a blue elephant in the bathroom", then " No, there is not" , is not the right way to further enhance the scene. "Yeah, sorry, there was no more space in the cupboard" makes it go somwhere really interesting!

Teams and groups should create an environment where these elements are embraced and practised consistently. Only then can we not only grow as individuals, but as a group striving for excellence.


-Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (HarperPerennial, 1991)

-Steven Kotler, The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance (New Harvest, 2014)

-Keith Sawyer, Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration (Basic Books, 2007)

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