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Good Business: Leadership, Flow, and the Making of Meaning by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi


Rating: (Recommended)


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White Hats

In the midst of the stories about corporate greed, deceit and corruption, there’s a great new book, titled Good Business, from Milaly Csikszentmuhalyi that presents what the author and colleagues learned from leaders who have done a good job. Explore this book to uncover what obstacles and tendencies need to be overcome. We were intrigued by the section about why we tend to choose pleasure over enjoyment. Pleasure is temporary, while enjoyment builds psychological capital. Here’s an excerpt from the end of the book on how good businesses operate (pp. 200-205):

How Good Businesses Operate

But vision alone is not enough, for it has to be translated into the operating practices of the institution. Lofty goals that are not eventually implemented lead to cynicism and hypocrisy. What did we learn from these leaders about how to "walk the walk" in managing good business?

Probably the most important principle of organizational behavior that emerged from the interviews was the importance of trust, which is brought about by respect. Any group of people working toward a common goal is held together by a combination of two motives: self-interest and common interest. The former can be bought by external incentives: pay, promotion, prestige. The latter motive, common interest, must be earned through a demonstration of respect for the value of the members of the team. Workers will not place themselves at the service of a leader's vision unless they feel that the rules of the organization are fairly applied, that their contribution is recognized, and that their integrity is respected.

To achieve this end, managers must invest a great deal of their psychic energy in monitoring and enhancing the well-being of the group. And before all else, they have to develop self-discipline based on self-knowledge, which will prevent them from acting capriciously and selfishly. Whenever a leader cuts corners, shows favoritism, is unfair or thoughtless he undermines the common interest of the group. If this happens often enough, the only motive keeping the organization coherent will be self-interest. This not only lowers morale but increases the operating costs of the organization, because a greater amount of extrinsic incentives will be needed to keep people performing their tasks. Robert Shapiro describes what it takes for a leader to establish a common basis of trust.

I don't really believe in traditional power in large organizations, because I don't think it works very well. You can't walk around and say: "Aha! I saw you say something that wasn't true. You're fired." It's just not possible. . . . You are in a position to start conversations. You are in a position to influence what people will talk about and think about. And from that point on, what effect it has is a direct function of the quality of the conversations you've initiated. It either resonates with people, appeals to something that matters to them, or it doesn't.

It either feels authentic to them and feels like something they genuinely want to engage in, or it doesn't.

And there's no way of compelling it. It's an invitation.

The "invitation" that Shapiro describes is a time-consuming, open-ended process, and one that lacks the clarity of the old commanckmd-control mode of operation. Genghis Khan, for one, would have been appalled by it. Nevertheless, it is the only way to shape a group of people held together by organic solidarity, by common purpose. Such a group will be largely self-organizing, and open to the future—an evolving organism rather than a closed system. When such a group of people works together freely on a common task, the bonds that arise can produce a tremendously satisfying feeling of community. Shapiro does not hesitate to call it love: . . . [T]here seems to be a pretty widespread longing to have work that's on a "no bullshit" basis, to have work that's real, that counts, that matters for people, and to be in a place where you care about the folks around you and know that they care about you. That really is a longing. . . . and this is something that's a real taboo to talk about—that there were many circumstances in the business world in which people genuinely loved each other. As I say, it's not discussible, but there's just no other way to describe it. . . . and it's not a coincidence that, at least as I see it, that also is the environment that is most likely to produce extraordinary achievement and extraordinary financial performance.

Beyond providing respect and a sense of common purpose, an organization that does good business is also concerned with the personal growth of its members. An evolving system is not static but tends toward complexity. The most obvious expression of this concern is providing opportunities for life-long education. As C. William Pollard points out:

The other thing that's occurring is that business will provide the primary vehicle for continuous learning. The idea that a certain part of our lives we can go to school and learn, and then other parts of our lives we can go to work and work, the difference between school and work, that line is blurring.

But it is not just technical learning that's at issue. Given the fact that adults spend the bulk of their life at their workplace, an organization that does not enable its members to grow as people—to grow in self-knowledge, in wisdom, and in the ability to relate to others—is not doing them any favors. What is needed is the kind of workplace Robert Shapiro describes: "under the right circumstances, people could integrate . . . within themselves and learn about themselves, could grow, develop, could connect within the context of a for-profit business organization." In contrast, a business that ignores the complexity of human beings—ignores their need for love as well as growth—and that only deals with employees as cogs in the process of production, ends up diminishing them.

The best way management can help modvate workers to pursue common goals and grow in the process of doing so, is by providing opportunities for flow in the workplace. Assuming that an appealing vision has been communicated, and trust established, then what remains to be done is to make certain that organizational behavior does not deprive workers of the enjoyment that comes naturally from being able to do one's best. To summarize briefly the essential conditions for flow to occur, they are: clear goals that can be adapted to meet changing conditions; immediate feedback to one's actions; and a matching of the challenges of the job with the worker's skills. A book could be written on each of these three simple requirements, which have been described more fully in Chapters 3 and 4. When the goals are clear and the challenges high but attainable the workplace can become as exciting as the final game of the World Series and as soulful as a religious revival.

Shapiro describes this feeling: [M]y predecessor in this job used to go around asking people, "What was the best experience you ever had while you were working here?" And they always talk about some kind of crisis—the flood is coming and we have to protect the plant, or a customer called and said they were going to cancel the order unless we could hit some standard we never hit before. Whatever. Some challenge that's really difficult, maybe impossible, and there's usually limited time to deal with it and it's way beyond the capabilities that people thought they had. And for a period of time they forget all the rules. Everyone tells the same story. It doesn't matter what the crisis was, the stories are always the same. It'll be, "Well, we worked really hard and we kind of forgot whose job was what. We just all did it, and the best ideas came from very unlikely places, from people who institutionally were thought to be incapable of having ideas. And we really did a terrific job.". . . And they all felt great about it.

It would be difficult to find a better description of flow than this. The "best experiences" people have, the ones they feel most positive about, involve such moments of crisis where one is stretched beyond limits, where one is challenged to be creative—and, with any luck, succeeds. These moments of deep flow are the manifestation of what I have described as "soul," that is, of a person's being transformed through his or her efforts into someone more complex than he had been before.

As we have seen in previous chapters, when the conditions of flow are present, the experience includes a focusing of attention on a limited task; a forgetting of personal problems and of the self; a sense of control; and obliviousness to time. These are the elements of the inner state of consciousness that make whatever we are doing worth doing for its own sake. If management can provide an environment in which such experiences can flourish, the organization will run efficiently, and the staff will recognize that instead of stifling them, the job supports their growth.

If flow is absent, work turns into drudgery, and the worker loses his or her creative initiative. As William Stavropoulos says: "I think that you have to do what you like, so when you get up in the morning you say: 'Hey, I'm looking forward to this! I have some tough things to do. But I'm looking forward to it, because I like it.' "

Douglas Yearley agrees with this assessment: "The first thing I say is enjoy what you're doing, because if you don't enjoy it, it's tedium and then you go off and do something else. Always maintain a sense of humor and balance outside of work, so that you don't become so engaged that you lose perspective with what's going on around you. Work hard, be ethical, but most importantly, have fun. That's kind of trite, but I really feel it."

Entrepreneurs starting a new venture, and leaders of organizations involved in complex projects usually have many opportunities to experience flow in their work—unless the challenges become overwhelming, or alternatively, they become trivial and routine. Most of the leaders we interviewed literally can't wait to get to the job each morning. Christine Comaford Lynch's enthusiasm in describing her job is typical: "It's just like, 'Wowl This is fabulous!' It's just so neat to explore ideas and then to build stuff, and to interact with fascinating people. It's really fun also to make your investors happy. That's fun. Especially the people of the first fund who took a huge risk."

While executives may find many sources of flow in their work, what of the clerical workers, salespeople, service employees? The people who clean the offices, unload the trucks, answer irate customers on the phone all day? How much flow do they experience on the job? In many organizations, management believes that question is not relevant, as it does not consider it the firm's responsibility to see to it that every employee has a job that is worth doing for its own sake, and in which one can grow in complexity. This "take it or leave it" attitude may work within the framework of a market model of human relations, but in all the ways we have discussed so far, it is simply not good business.

For many readers, Good Business, will resonate with approaches and practices that are being followed. For all readers, Good Business will leave you thinking about your organization and how it can continue to be or to become a good business.

Steve Hopkins, May 27, 2003


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The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the June 2003 issue of Executive Times

URL for this review: Business.htm


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