Csikszentmihalyi’s Good Business – Flow and Leadership

Professor Csikszentmihalyi’s Good Business is more than a bestseller book. It’s rather a guide for anyone who values the positive contributions of individuals in the changing world of business.

csikszentmihalyi's good businessProf. Csikszentmihalyi, who introduced the concept of “Flow”, extends its application in his book “Good Business” to the role of business in society.

Csikszentmihalyi describes “Good Business” as a guidance for a way of conducting business that is both successful and humane, focusing on how leaders, managers, and employees can learn to contribute to the sum of human happiness, to the development of an enjoyable life that provides meaning, and to a society that is just and evolving.

While most people enjoy working when it provides Flow, too few jobs are designed to make Flow possible. This is where management can make a real difference. For a manager or leader who truly cares about the bottom line in the broadest sense of that term, the first priority is to eliminate obstacles to Flow at all levels of the organization and to substitute practices and policies that are designed to make work enjoyable.

From “Flow” to “Good Business”

Since Professor Csikszentmihalyi published the groundbreaking Flow more than a decade ago, world leaders such as former President Clinton, and influential sports figures like Super Bowl champion coach Jimmy Johnson have all been inspired by the book.

In today’s corporate upheaval, a new business paradigm is evolving. While many CEOs are being exposed for their greed, truly visionary leaders believe in a goal that benefits themselves as well as others. They realize that it is their vision and “soul” that attract loyal employees willing to go above and beyond the call of corporate duty. And their employees are realizing the same thing: while 80 percent of adults claim they’d work even if they didn’t have to, the majority of them can hardly wait to leave their jobs and get home.

Good Business was the first scientific exploration of the relationship between Flow, leadership, and organizations. The research on which that book is based was conducted by the Quality of Life Research Center at Claremont, in cooperation with counterpart institutions at Stanford and Harvard. The purpose of the research was to establish what personal values, attitudes, and skills are found among business leaders whose purposes go beyond short-term profit maximization and personal glory.

csikszentmihalyi's good business

Interviews with scores of successful executives, like Ted Turner (CNN), Michael Markkula (Apple), Sir John Templeton (Templeton Funds), and Anita Roddick (Body Shop) revealed that they considered their professional activities as highly creative endeavors. Further commonalities included their sense of responsibility for the professional and (to a certain extent) the personal lives of their colleagues; their eagerness to share with others their joy of Flow experiences and to help others to experience it; and active attempts to improve the organization.

Good Business reveals how business leaders, managers, and even employees can find ‘flow’ and contribute not only to their own happiness, but also to improved organizational performance as well as to a just and evolving society. It identifies the factors crucial to the operation of a good business: trust, the commitment to fostering the personal growth of employees, and the dedication to creating a product that helps mankind.

(Quoting from Harvard Business School review)

What is Good Business?

“Good Business” means an enjoyable work environment for an organization’s workers, through which a business’ (or any organization’s) “balanced scorecard” improves, thereby contributing to healthier and more sustainable societies at large.

Leadership is a privilege that requires asking tough questions. For example, “What is my business doing to benefit human well being?” Business is now our most crucial institution, so it has an obligation to the quality of life not just of its employees, but also of society. Good Business reveals how business leaders, managers, and even employees can find “Flow” and contribute not only to their own happiness but also to improved organizational performance as well as to a just and evolving society.

csikszentmihalyi's good business

The best way to manage people is to create an environment where employees enjoy their work and grow while doing it. An organization whose co-workers are happy is more productive, has higher morale, and has a lower turnover. Work should be fun, and companies should care about something aside from the bottom line. An ideal organization is one in which each worker’s potentialities find room for expression. If there is Flow in your business, employees perform at their peak and work becomes a source of enjoyment and personal growth. Your company will become a place that people will look forward to being a part of.

Our jobs have a significant influence on the quality of our lives. Happiness is not something that happens to us, but rather is something we make happen. As such, work can be one of the most fulfilling aspects of life, provided that employees have an opportunity to do their best and to contribute to something greater than themselves.

Good Business Values

Good Business is about values.

(Prof. Michael Crooke)

Good Business starts with you – who you are, what you care about, and what you want to see happen:

  1. Believe in the Power of Flow – Flow is the mental state of operation in which a person in an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity. The Flow-based organization promotes employee engagement and positive attitudes in the workplace. Done well, it helps to reduce costs, employee complaints and makes the company a place that people enjoy being a part of. Flow has the ability to improve the quality of life.
  2. Visioning beyond the Self – Business that does not contribute to human growth and well-being is not worth doing, no matter how much profit it generates in the short run. The most important distinguishing trait of visionary leaders is that they believe in a goal that benefits not only themselves but others as well. People want to work for a cause, not just for a living. We must have the conviction that our existence serves a useful purpose and has value.
  3. You are the Key to Success – Contrary to what most of us believe, happiness does not simply happen to us. It’s something that we make happen, and it results from our doing our best. The more opportunities you are willing to explore, the better chances you have of discovering your strengths. To experience Flow you must keep cultivating interest and curiosity, respond to a wide range of opportunities, and develop as many skills as possible.
  4. Leadership is a Function of Questions – Management has a lot to do with answers. But leadership is a function of questions. And the first question for a leader always is: “Who do we intend to be?” and not “What are we going to do?” Your creativity depends in a large part on the ability to ask the right questions. The problem finding is rather crucial to creativity than problem-solving.
  5. Let people grow – The main task of a manager is to get people to work together efficiently for a common cause. The best way to accomplish this is to create an environment where employees actually enjoy their work and grow in the progress of doing it. Getting employees to give their best is a way to make it possible for them to grow as individuals. An ideal organization is one in which each worker’s potentialities find room for expression.

Good Business as Ethical Framework

Csikszentmihalyi’s many publications relating to Flow always include statements and discussions of his set of values. The values he promotes reflect his fundamental philosophy of life and its meaning and purpose. At the same time, the values he advocates area also of the kind that, if implemented well, would enhance the satisfaction of individuals (in their private lives and as employees), would improve organizational performance (broadly defined), and would also move people toward greater social harmony within the organization, the nation, and perhaps beyond.

csikszentmihalyi's good business

Csikszentmihalyi’s views on what it means to be an all-around good person can be summed up in three recommended ethical principles of behavior:

  • Do no harm for selfish reasons – Everyone is a leader in his or her own way. Within and around us there are countless challenges and opportunities each and every day. As long as we are guided by “do no harm for selfish reasons”, we can and should learn from our successes and mistakes so that we gradually become better persons and, at the same time, more effective, “value-guided” managers/leaders.
  • Help others experience Flow – Every one of us is a part of several “teams” – from our family to our social group, and in the workplace. It is our responsibility to bring out the best in our team members, including especially our co-workers and subordinates, realizing that our decisions affect their professional as well as personal lives. Extending this to organizations, knowledge-workers (especially) increasingly choose workplaces that offer more than just a paycheck. Organizations that “help others to experience Flow” are proven to be more successful in many performance dimensions than others that do not.
  • Contribute to something beyond yourself – As individuals, while we enjoy doing our best, at the same time we should also “contribute to something beyond self”. Examples from the world of business would be working toward the real sustainability of our goods and services, our business model, and the environment. In more and more societies, such issues are moving from the periphery to the center of concerns; all stakeholders of organizations are expected to be in the forefront of solving the problems of the “commons”.