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Reaching Peak Flow: Are Your Teams Safe to Stretch?

“If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.”

That quote, attributed to automotive business magnate Henry Ford, perfectly sums up why taking risks, trying new things and stretching ourselves is so important for a high-performing workplace. After all, without people feeling comfortable to think differently, how can organisations achieve innovation?

It’s also why feeling safe to stretch is a key component of teams creating and experiencing ‘flow’ together. Flow is the optimum state of intrinsic motivation, in which people experience peak performance and greater wellbeing.

Safe to Stretch

Feeling safe to stretch means people feeling able to challenge themselves. It means being able to take risks and make mistakes. Fear of failure is the enemy of innovation.

It also means feeling able to speak up and express our opinions, something that is sadly not a given in all workplaces. According to a 2017 survey by Gallup, only three in 10 employees strongly agree with the statement that their opinions count at work. 

In environments where people do not feel safe to stretch, they can become wary of sharing their work with others and fearful of being blamed for failure. Work suffers as teams struggle to deliver, fearing their outputs may not be ‘good enough’. Extra bureaucracy and levels of sign-off stifle creativity and slow workflows.

Creating psychological safety has become critical in this knowledge economy (A. Edmondson, 2018). Psychological safety means nothing you say or do will be used against you – as long as you mean well (and it means your teammates will assume you mean well until proven otherwise). Creating a culture of psychological safety is fundamental for people to want to stretch themselves beyond their comfort zone for both their own satisfaction at work and for their contribution to the team. This often takes bravery and courage so an environment that really empowers and values learning from failure and removing blame is core to TeamFlow.

In environments where people are safe to stretch, everyone is able to focus on finding their own ‘flow points’, where they find challenge matching their level of skill. According to research, when people feel safe, they are more likely to seek and constructively take feedback, act to resolve conflict and communicate more openly. Teams who feel safe to stretch with each other are more likely to reach a state of collective flow.

Stretching Our Strengths

Traditionally, development has focused on closing capability gaps and addressing underperformance. While there is nothing wrong with improving our weaknesses, it is more powerful to focus on building our strengths where we can achieve excellence.

As a team is made up of unique individuals, tasks should be delegated to the people most able to do them, based on their strengths. This contributes directly to team performance, with Gallup research finding that teams who focus on their strengths every day are 12-15% more productive and separate studies discovering that a focus on strengths leads to a 36% uplift in performance.

If everyone in the team is using their strengths to work towards the collective goal, it contributes to team flow. Using our strengths contributes to several of Csikszentmihalyi’s central elements of flow, including the feeling of control, effortlessness and the balance between skills and challenge.

Achieving Flow Through Safe to Stretch

To create a ‘safe to stretch’ environment:

– Focus on strengths, not weaknesses. Where possible, development should be about making strengths even stronger.

– Encourage team members to stretch their strengths. For example, if someone has a strength of ‘engaging with people’, encourage them to start engaging with larger audiences.

– Focus on potential rather than relying on past experience.

– Leaders and managers must promote a ‘no blame’ culture where it is OK to fail. They should genuinely empower people to try new ways of working and openly create opportunities for team members to understand each other’s positive intentions.