Myself and John Molineux from Deakin University set out to understand what helps HR professionals get into FLOW (a high performance state where an individual is completely lost and engaged in what they are doing, driven by intrinsic motivation and experiencing positive emotion) or stress (feeling of overwhelmed, lack of clarity, low level of productivity and negative emotion). We studied 821 HR professionals varying in seniority and years of experience. Our interaction with them ranged from detailed interviews, diary recordings, to filling out surveys.
What did we find?
Below is the highly valid model that represents our findings from the study. Yeah I know it looks complex so let me break it down for you.
How you perceive pressure
The big finding that really stood out was that increased work pressure (deadlines and expectations) lead to a greater amount of FLOW. Yes you heard right, high levels of work pressure helped HR professional get into this high performance state. However there is a caveat around this. Work pressure did not result in greater FLOW when the individual perceived that this pressure was a bad thing and this attitude lead to an increase in their stress levels.
Associated with this we also found that positive social support at work and a supportive leader, also helped people to get into FLOW.
What we take from this is that if we want our HR professionals to be at their best we need to give them work that stretches them and puts pressure on them to evolve. However the individuals attitude plays the most important role in this. We found that an individuals attitude towards pressure determined if they got into FLOW or Stress. In other words do they see pressure as an opportunity to dig in and deliver or do they see pressure as something that pushes them into stress? In addition to help facilitate this we need to surround them with a supportive leader and a supportive team.
Don’t Interrupt me
Another finding was that interruptions in the work day dramatically drove up work stress and drove down psychological FLOW. We found that the level of interruptions was so bad most HR professionals said they did not get a chance to think strategically or deeply at all in the work place setting. The result was that most of them felt that they never had time to think and simply spent their day putting out fires. Also many of them felt that they did not drive their day, rather the interruptions and urgent requests controlled their time. The only time they really got to think and focus was when they removed themselves from the work place, such as worked in a meeting room, worked at home, or went somewhere offsite (cafe, hotel foyer). Also there was a personality effect here too. We found that the more introverted they were the greater the level of stress experienced from an interruption. In contrast more social extroverts were not as distressed by interruptions.
Work Life Balance
The third finding was that greater levels of work life balance lead to more time in FLOW at work. Work life balance was measured as - feeling as thought you are meeting expectations in each aspect of your life. the more in control they felt in both parts of their life the better they performed in the work place.
What to do next?
As a leader in HR what do you do with this information?
- Understand that work pressure is critical for peoples performance and growth. You must stretch your team and give them work that pushes them to evolve. A common trap I see leaders fall into is that they have the ‘go to person in their team’, you know the one that always gets things done and delivers on time. What do they get? The interesting projects, the important work that pushes them. However the rest of the team gets business as usual projects, that doesn’t push them and help them grow. Then they complain about the capability gap in your team, that they are perpetuating by the way. Look at each member of the team are you giving them development projects or simply business as usual?
- How the individuals in your team perceive pressure will determine if this pressure propels them into a high performance state or deep into stress. Therefore training the team around shifting mindsets and giving them tools to evolve their perception of pressure is essential.
- Set up the environment in the team and your leadership so that they feel safe is a critical step. When HR professionals felt that they had support from their team and their leader this feeling of safety helped them get into FLOW.
Realise that interruptions drive up peoples stress levels. If you want them to grow, do good work and be ‘strategic’ you have to loosen up on the way you let them work. Let them work from home, let them leave the office to nail a project. Also as an internal culture can you ensure that you respect peoples mental space, do you have to interrupt them right now? Can it wait, can you save up a number of interruptions so you just interrupt them once?
Finally take an interest in how happy they are outside of work. When your team members feel like they are meeting expectations at home they get more FLOW at work. This new research supports our previous research around the Third Space.