Group Flow: what is it and how to achieve it?
Do you know the feeling when the mind gets carried away and the outside world disappears? Ideas are born, work progresses well and complete immersion takes place. Even physical needs are forgotten so that you don't even realise you are very hungry, or that it has been hours since you went to the bathroom. That's flow.
The flow experience is generally thought to be activated when an individual experiences a psychological detachment without external stimuli. In other words: getting into flow requires solitude far away from others. It is less often known that flow can also be experienced with others. Group flow (or team flow) occurs when group members can immerse together in an interdependent task that all the members are satisfied with. In this era of individualism, it is good to know that flow can also be achieved together with others.
What kind of group is ideal for flow?
Group flow has traditionally been studied in sports and music. The purpose of the flow is indeed easily understood when following a fast-paced ice hockey game or a concert by a full-scale orchestra. However, group flow can also be achieved in the workplace and study situations.
The Hungarian American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the father of flow, has referred to a challenging surgery in his example of group flow. During the surgery, surgeons can feel that the entire surgical team functions as one organism, driven by the same meaningful task. In these situations, individuals seem to submit to the performance of the group while at the same time experiencing feelings of strength and harmony together.
In flow, the challenges and skills should be in the right balance. If the task is too difficult, it can be hard to achieve flow. On the other hand, a task that is too easy can seem meaningless and even boring. In group flow, tasks can become easier due to cooperation and new challenges may be needed to maintain the flow.
You might think that for the team to work together successfully, plenty of time and getting to know each other is required. However, according to research, the emergence of flow in different groups does not necessarily require a profound acquaintance with other team members, and flow can be reached quite quickly. This is because the creation of flow is more closely related to the task's nature than traditional group cohesion. Flow can be experienced in a wide variety of groups, and there are research-based tips for creating it.
How to build group flow?
Dutch researchers led by Jeff Van den Hout have listed the following prerequisites for the emergence of group flow: collective ambition, a common goal aligned with a personal goal, skill integration, open communication, commitment, and a sense of safety. In addition, they list the following qualities to support the emergence of flow in a group: holistic focus, a sense of unity, mutual trust, and a sense of joint progress. According to Van den Hout, these characteristics can only arise if the first-mentioned conditions are fulfilled. Other studies show that flow happens when people are allowed to use their own strengths and give their best to the group.
Jani Romanoff, professor of Maritime engineering, has successfully led groups at Aalto. He emphasises the importance of trust and deep knowledge of group members. He shares an example where he and a few of his colleagues as young assistant professors took over an emergent research group that also included graduate students. Not everything was clear at first, but they were very enthusiastic to try out things. The most important of those were emphasising successes and increasing self-confidence. This was practised regularly in weekly meetings. Eventually the number of successes and of flow started to increase, so that even big problems started to seem small and solvable. Individual successes were contagious and lifted the mood of the whole group.
Communication plays an important role
Communication, both verbal and non-verbal, is vital in the creation of group flow. Only through discussion and message exchange do the group members know what the others are doing and the essential coordinates of the task. Immersing oneself in a task and achieving flow can be quite difficult if messages with other group members get lost. Communication within the group is also important when problems arise, otherwise the work may not progress, and it may be impossible to lose track of time if you need help from others but cannot connect with them.
While in flow, a person may also seem absent from their surroundings, or it may be difficult to get in touch with them. An individual's flow state can also make group flow difficult when a person is so deep - or high - in their flow that their messages would need an interpreter to translate the fast thought paths for others. In Romanoff's example, the challenge was to tell the graduate student that he was in such a high flow, that even the professors in the field couldn't keep up.
The effects of flow
Flow is often referred to as a positive experience. Flow has been found to not only improve performance, but also the group's happiness and positivity. Group flow has also been found to support risk-taking. However, the potential disadvantages or downsides of flow are rarely discussed.
According to Csikszentmihalyi, one thing that defines flow is that a person works with full intensity and capacity when experiencing it. Aalto's Jani Romanoff comments that, in a certain way, the state of flow is always also a state of stress, because once in flow, a person easily gives 100-110 per cent of their capacity. This can be exhausting in the long run, and there would be no reserve or resilience to cope with life's surprises and challenges. Recovering from group flow can similarly take time. Studies have also found that, for example, a musician's risk of occupational accidents increases as the flow experience lasts longer.
It is therefore important to know how to 'get out' of the flow or take a break from it. Romanoff also advises limiting the number of promises made to others and learning to tolerate the fact that promises cannot always be kept. It is also good to understand that breaks from flow are important and natural; otherwise, they may appear sticky or even depressing periods after the joy and successful performances created by flow.
For those who enjoy the individual flow, it can be good to sometimes strive for a group flow. One American study found that the flow experience is best when experienced together.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper and Row.
Liu, W., van der Linden, D., & Bakker, A. B. (2021). Strengths use and work-related flow: an experience sampling study on implications for risk taking and attentional behaviors. Journal of Managerial Psychology, vol.37, 1, 47-60.
MacDonald, R., Byrne, C., & Carlton, L. (2006). Creativity and flow in musical composition: An empirical investigation. Psychology of Music, 34(3), 292-306.
van den Hout, J. J., Davis, O. C., & Weggeman, M. C. (2018). The conceptualization of team flow. The Journal of psychology, 152(6), 388-423.
van den Hout, J. J., Gevers, J. M., Davis, O. C., & Weggeman, M. C. (2019). Developing and testing the team flow monitor (TFM). Cogent Psychology, 6(1), 1643962.
Walker, C. J. (2010). Experiencing flow: Is doing it together better than doing it alone?. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 5(1), 3-11.