Flow, Leadership and Serious Games: A Pedagogical Perspective – Part 1

By: Zoltan Buzady Ph.D., Central European University Business School, Hungary.


This special issue of the ‘World Journal of Science, Technology, and Sustainable Development’ focuses on new, computer-based and/or online learning tools with the aim to present current trends and innovations to professionals, consultants, instructors, and academics. The author of this contribution is a researcher and professor of leadership, who has encountered a truly innovative leadership development simulation game – FLIGBY – the features of which will be presented here.  Its relevance for management education is grounded in its scholarly background: the theory of Flow, a core concept in positive psychology. Its relevance for practitioners in management and training is rooted in the way this serious game helps players to transpose abstract, theoretical concepts into daily management practices.

Roots in Positive Psychology

One of the founding fathers of positive psychology, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, focused his research on creativity and happiness (1991 and 2003). Positive psychology is a branch of the discipline that relies on scientific understanding and effective intervention to aid in the achievement of a good and socially productive life, rather than treating mental illnesses – as outlined by Linley, A.P., Joseph, S., Maltby, Harrington, and Wood (2012). Findings of positive psychology are of particular relevance for scholars in management theory and organizational sciences. The focal question is whether satisfied workers enjoy advantages over their less happy and satisfied peers and whether they are likely to improve the performance of the organizations where they work. For an overview see the works of Luthans and Youssef (2012) and Salanova , Bakker and Llorens (2006).

Research has shown that, regardless of context, culture, age, gender or education, when people feel a deep sense of enjoyment they describe the experience in very similar ways (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975). What they feel in such moments is rather consistent. This common experience of feeling a deep sense of enjoyment has been given the name Flow, because respondents often made the analogy to be moving effortlessly in a current of energy where action and awareness follow each other spontaneously and freely as being “carried by a river or a stream”.

In short – the central concept of positive psychology – Flow is a mental state in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment.

Note: As the focus of this article is to present an intellectually interesting combination of theories (Flow and Leadership) with modern simulation (Gaming) technology for the purpose of leadership development, we will use the concepts of Flow, happiness, (job) satisfaction, engagement, enjoyment of work/life/gaming, somewhat loosely and interchangeably.

The Flow state can be achieved by a careful balance between two extremes: the state of anxiety, which is characteristic if the challenge at hand is far greater than a person’s requisite skill level, and the state of boredom, which persists when a person’s skills far exceed what’s necessary. This balancing process happens sequentially: when a person needs to accomplish a new- more difficult than usual – task she/he begins to learn and gradually develop the necessary skills, thus moving away from a  state of anxiety towards that of arousal and finally into Flow.

Alternatively, people who feel bored tend to seek out new challenges, which test their skills, so they start to feel relaxed than in control and finally in Flow.

Thus “being in the zone”, as Flow is often paraphrased, leads to people’s greatest performances and personal bests.

Extending Flow into Leadership

Creativity, Flow and happiness, core concepts of positive psychology, have particular relevance for organizations especially in forming business management practices.  (Buzady and Marer, 2016)

Csikszentmihalyi conducted focused “conversations” with thousands of individuals, trying to understand the sources of individual creativity and happiness in one’s life in general and at the workplace in particular. He found that people were happy when the activity they were engaged in was rewarding to them in and of itself, not just to make a living, or out of duty.  Csikszentmihalyi’s subjects often described the feelings they experienced when engaged in activities on which they were fully focused and enjoyed as “things flowing effortlessly, like being carried away by a river”. So he decided to call such states “Flow” experiences.

Being in Flow does not require engagement in a momentous task. One can experience Flow repeatedly even while doing relatively simple things if one does them extremely well.

Flow states can be described in terms of the following basic preconditions and characteristics:

  1. Balance between challenges and skills
  2. Goals are clear
  3. Immediate and clear feedback (need not be positive but must be constructive)
  4. Intense concentration
  5. Effortless action; loss of ego
  6. Sense of control
  7. Distortion of temporal experience (unaware of time, space, noise, hunger)
  8. Doing an activity because it “feels good” in and of itself, not in expectation of any external reward.   (Csikszentmihalyi, 2003, pp. 42-56)

Since most of us spend the largest portion of our waking hours at work (or at school), it is a commonsense observation that our jobs determine, to a large extent, what our lives are like. Just think of what happens when one comes home from school or work all stressed out as opposed to arriving home and telling a loved one, “today (or in a past week or month) I have really accomplished things and my achievements are appreciated (at school or at work)”.

In response to these findings, Csikszentmihalyi wrote in his book Good Business: Leadership, Flow, and the Making of Meaning (2003) about what we as individuals, as members of teams, as managers, or as leaders of any group or organization – be it an educational institution, a business firm, a unit of government, or an NGO – can and should do to make the workplace attractive. The key statement that summarizes his Flow concept’s relevance for managers and leaders is this:  the best way to manage people is to create an environment where employees enjoy their work and grow in the process of doing it.

While the extent to which we enjoy our work and are contributing to the organization is partly a function of the attitude we bring to our tasks, managers and leaders can do a great deal to create a more rewarding work environment, thereby increasing the chances that the employees will be highly (or at least more) satisfied.

High satisfaction at work also brings substantial benefits to the organization because such a workplace

  • attracts the most able individuals and is likely to keep them longer
  • obtains spontaneous effort from most as they do their tasks
  • promotes individual and team productivity
  • leads to a more committed organizational citizenship behavior, and
  • improves organizational performance, broadly defined. (Ceja, L., 2011)

The author also categorizes the positive consequences of work-related flow into “benefits for the individual employee(s)” and “benefits for the whole organization”.

The first and perhaps relatively the easiest of tasks to create an environment where employees enjoy their work is to ease or remove the many obstacles that typically stand in the way of experiencing Flow periodically, as well as engagement more continuously.  Concurrently, and after the obstacles have been removed as much as possible, the continuing focus of attention of managers and leaders should be to behave and act so as to help generate Flow and to maintain a Flow-friendly organizational atmosphere.

Part 2