Csikszentmihalyi’s Good Business – Flow and Leadership

The Role of Business in Society

Professor Csikszentmihalyi’s Good Business is more than a bestseller book. It’s instead a guide for anyone who values the positive contributions of individuals in the changing world of business. Csikszentmihalyi, who introduced the concept of “Flow,” extends its application in his book “Good Business” to the role of business in society.

He describes “Good Business” as a guide 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 priority is to eliminate obstacles to Flow at all levels of the organization and to substitute practices and policies 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, visionary leaders believe in a goal that benefits themselves and others. They realize that their vision and “soul” attract loyal employees willing to go above and beyond the call of corporate duty. And their employees realize the same thing: while 80 percent of adults claim they’d work even if they didn’t have to, most 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. In cooperation with counterpart institutions at Stanford and Harvard, the Quality of Life Research Center at Claremont conducted the research on which that book is based. The study aimed to establish personal values, attitudes, and skills among business leaders whose purposes go beyond short-term profit maximization and personal glory.

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) their colleagues’ personal lives; their eagerness to share with others their joy of Flow experiences and to help others experience it; and active attempts to improve the organization.

“Good Business reveals how business leaders, managers, and employees can find ‘flow’ and contribute to their happiness, improved organizational performance, and a just and evolving society. It identifies the factors crucial to the operation of a good business: trust, the commitment to fostering employees’ personal growth, 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 is obligated 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 to their happiness, improved organizational performance, and a just and evolving society.

“The greater the Flow in an organization – that is, the greater the number of key employees who are in that state – the better the unit’s performance.” – Prof. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

The best way to manage people is to create an environment where employees enjoy their work and grow. An organization with happy co-workers 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 where each worker’s potential finds 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 look forward to participating in.

“Our jobs have a significant influence on the quality of our lives. Happiness is not something that happens to us but 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.” – Prof. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Good Business Values

“Good Business is about values.” – Dr. Michael Crooke

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

  1. Belief 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 activity process. The Flow-based organization promotes employee engagement and positive attitudes in the workplace. Done well, it helps to reduce costs and employee complaints and makes the company a place that people enjoy being a part of. Flow can improve the quality of life.
  2. Visioning beyond the Self – A 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 them and others. People want to work for a cause, not just for a living. We must have the conviction that our existence serves a valuable 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 we make happen, resulting from our doing our best. The more opportunities you are willing to explore, the better your chances of discovering your strengths. To experience Flow, you must keep cultivating interest and curiosity, respond to many opportunities, and develop as many skills as possible.
  4. Leadership is a Function of Questions – Management has much to do with answers. But leadership is a function of questions. And the first question for a leader is: “Who do we intend to be?” and not “What are we going to do?” Your creativity largely depends 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 enjoy their work and grow in its progress. Getting employees to give their best is a way to make it possible for them to grow as individuals. An ideal organization is one where each worker’s potential finds room for expression.

Good Business as Ethical Framework

Csikszentmihalyi’s many publications relating to Flow always include statements and discussions of his values. The values he promotes reflect his fundamental philosophy of life and its meaning and purpose. At the same time, the values he advocates are 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 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 their way. Within and around us, there are countless challenges and opportunities 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 to 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 workplace. It is our responsibility to bring out the best in our team members, especially our co-workers and subordinates, realizing that our decisions affect their professional and 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 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 the self.” Examples from the business world would be working toward the real sustainability of our goods and services, business model, and the environment. In more and more societies, such issues are moving from the periphery to the center of concerns; all organizations’ stakeholders are expected to be at the forefront of solving the “common” problems.
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