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The Application of Team Flow Theory

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Despite the noted potential for ‘team flow’ to enhance a team’s effectiveness, productivity, performance, and capabilities, studies on the construct are scarce. Most research on flow has been conducted either at the individual level, which generally constitutes the experience of complete absorption while working on a task, or at the artistic ensemble level, which reflects a gestalt group experience. But, team flow in the work environment, where teams differ from performance groups, has not yet been studied or reported. One of the reasons for this is the difficulty applying theories of flow to the team level, because the research on flow, group flow, and team dynamics does not readily gel. In this chapter, however, we will briefly discuss the precursors and components of team flow and its consequences. We will also describe how these precursors and components work by giving some examples of team flow experiences in different environments. Our analysis provides both theoretical insights into the causes of the emergence of team flow and practical suggestions for work teams to foster team flow experiences.
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233© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016
L. Harmat et al. (eds.), Flow Experience, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-28634-1_15
Chapter 15
The Application of Team Flow Theory
Jef J. J. van den Hout , Orin C. Davis , and Bob Walrave
Abstract Despite the noted potential for ‘team fl ow’ to enhance a team’s effective-
ness, productivity, performance, and capabilities, studies on the construct are scarce.
Most research on fl ow has been conducted either at the individual level, which
generally constitutes the experience of complete absorption while working on a
task, or at the artistic ensemble level, which refl ects a gestalt group experience. But,
team fl ow in the work environment, where teams differ from performance groups,
has not yet been studied or reported. One of the reasons for this is the diffi culty
applying theories of fl ow to the team level, because the research on fl ow, group
ow, and team dynamics does not readily gel. In this chapter, however, we will
briefl y discuss the precursors and components of team fl ow and its consequences.
We will also describe how these precursors and components work by giving some
examples of team fl ow experiences in different environments. Our analysis provides
both theoretical insights into the causes of the emergence of team fl ow and practical
suggestions for work teams to foster team fl ow experiences.
15.1 Introduction
Concurrent with Csikszentmihalyi’s delineation of fl ow (for a review, see
Csikszentmihalyi 1990 ) was the idea that fl ow might also be connected with the
dynamics of a cohesive group. Researchers like Keith Sawyer ( 2003 , 2006 , 2007 )
have developed this theory into a conception of ‘ group fl ow ’ that describes how the
group, as a unit, experiences an analog of the fl ow state. Much of their work,
however, focuses on group creativity and the development of innovation. Sawyer’s
J. J. J. van den Hout (*) B. Walrave
School of Industrial Engineering , Eindhoven University of Technology ,
P.O. Box 513 , 5600 MB Eindhoven , The Netherlands
e-mail: j.j.j.v.d.hout@tue.nl; b.walrave@tue.nl
O. C. Davis
City University of New York, Baruch College , New York , NY , USA
University of Massachusetts Boston , Boston , MA , USA
e-mail: davisoc@gmail.com
234
work was developed through the study of groups engaged in the arts, especially
musicians and thespians. As noted by Snow ( 2010 ), there is little work that reviews
the dynamics of team fl ow experiences in the workplace outside the context of
creative production.
Flow is a subjective experience in which people report performing their best;
when in fl ow, the individual operates at full capacity (Nakamura and Csikszentmihalyi
2002 ). The defi ning feature of fl ow is intense experiential involvement in moment-
to- moment activity; attention is fully invested in the task at hand, and the person
functions at his or her fullest capacity. A host of studies have found a strong positive
relationship between fl ow and performance. Even more compelling are the develop-
mental implications of fl ow: as individuals master challenges in an activity, they
develop greater levels of skill, and the activity ceases to be as involving as before.
To continue experiencing fl ow, they must identify increasingly greater challenges.
Thus, over time, the balance between challenges and skills enhances competence,
and even mastery (Csikszentmihalyi et al. 2005 ).
Consistent with Kozlowski and Klein’s ( 2000 ) multilevel approach, as well as
Gully et al.’s ( 2002 ) contention that constructs experienced at the individual level
can be aggregated when they are being assessed at the team level, we maintain that
when all team members are experiencing fl ow concomitant with pursuing the
team’s common purpose, there is a collective fl ow experience which we defi ne as
team fl ow .
Here, our aim is to investigate which organizational climates foster the collective
ow experiences for collaborating team members, and which constructs are
experienced when the collective team fl ow experience occurs. We introduce an
i ntegrated theory of team fl ow, which extrapolates the construct of individual
ow to the team level. We then turn to the precursors (climates) and components
(constructs) of team fl ow, after which we propose interventions that could ignite the
team fl ow experience.
15.2 Flow Theory in a Team Context
During the individual experience of fl ow when being part of a team, a team member
perceives the original nine conditions of fl ow, which are (1) clear proximal goals
every step of the way, (2) immediate feedback to one’s actions, (3) balance between
challenges and skills, (4) no worry of failure, (5) distractions excluded from
consciousness , (6) a merging of action and awareness, (7) the disappearance of
self- consciousness, (8) distorted sense of time, (9) the activity is done for its own
sake (intrinsically rewarding [autotelic]) (Csikszentmihalyi 1996 ). For a team
environment, the nine conditions of the original fl ow theory can be distinguished
into antecedents, scaffolds, and components, but they appear in modifi ed forms at
the team level, as we will discuss.
The rst ve can be coined as antecedents (external conditions) that foster
ow and the latter four as components (internal conditions) that indicate fl ow
J.J.J. van den Hout et al.
235
(Csikszentmihalyi 1994 ; Hamilton and Hurford 2007 ). Yet, the antecedent ‘no
worry of failure’ can also be seen as a component of fl ow if thought of as ‘a sense
of control ’. The same goes for ‘distractions excluded from consciousness ’ if it is
interpreted as ‘ concentration ’ (Hamilton and Hurford 2007 ; Nakamura and
Csikszentmihalyi 2002 ). Because these two antecedents can be created by the
individual and subsequently arise as a component , we refer to them as scaffolds of
the individual fl ow experience in a team context rather than antecedents or compo-
nents. That is, they create the bridge necessary for the individual to cross into a fl ow
experience.
A key facet of this conception is that the antecedents, and to some extent the
scaffolds, are within the control of the individual, such that (s)he can directly
infl uence if or how these antecedents are created. In fact, in team contexts, individu-
als can affect the development and/or progress of these antecedents for other team
members, and thus make it possible for the components (which are outside the
control of the individual) to emerge.
15.3 The Team Flow Theory
15.3.1 The Precursors for Team Flow
We expect that team fl ow creates a group-level state in which all participating team
members are completely involved in their common activity, and are working
together intuitively and synergistically towards the common purpose (cf. Sawyer
2006 , 2007 ). Therefore, while experiencing team fl ow, individual team members
are experiencing the mental state of fl ow simultaneously by executing their personal
task for the team. The question this raises is how a team can establish a dynamic in
which this is possible, and we posit that the establishment of such a dynamic
requires a set of baseline conditions, or precursors .
We argue that the precursors follow from the collective ambition that all team
members share (Posner et al. 1985 ; Ready and Truelove 2011 ; Weggeman 2007 ),
particularly insofar as it is the starting point and raison dêtre of the team. Starting
from the existence of a collective ambition we distill six precursors. (1) Common
goal : The presence of a common goal that is shared by all team members (cf. Sawyer
2007 ). The common goal of the team should be clear and meaningful to all team
members, compatible with members’ individual goal(s), internalized by all team
members and growth-promoting. (2) Aligned personal goals : The presence of
personal goals that contribute to achieving the common goal. The personal goals
established are clearly defi ned, meaningful and specifi c, and also provide growth
and development for the individual team member (Locke and Latham 2006 ; O’leary-
kelly et al. 1994 ). The personal goals unite the individual team members and create
a ‘clear proximal goal’ for each of them. As noted, a clear proximal goal is one of
the antecedents of individual flow. (3) High skill integration : The integration
of complementary, high-level skills present within each individual team member.
15 The Application of Team Flow Theory
236
In the distribution of tasks all team members are deployed on a challenging task/role
that suits their preferences, talents, knowledge, and skills (Katzenbach and Smith
1992 ; Salas et al. 2008 ). For this to happen, everyone on the team must have roughly
comparable [high] levels of skill, along with some specifi c unique skills, which
together are representative for his/her specifi c role in the team. In this way, the indi-
vidual forces are optimally utilized and combined to create a degree of synergy
(win-win) through their collaboration. (4) Open communication : Open and trans-
parent communication ensures that all team members know exactly how each deliv-
ers his/her contribution to the team (Sawyer 2007 ). In this way each team member
has his/her perspective broadened by the other members of the team, which is also
one of the conditions of interpersonal fl ow (Snow 2010 ). To achieve this, feedback
is required on each individual’s personal task, the joint team task, and the process
of collaboration. The feedback given must be clear, constructive, and encouraging.
This kind of feedback helps team members to build on their interactions and achieve
the common goal in the most effi cient and effective way (Guzzo and Salas 1995 ).
This implies that team members listen to each other and achieve familiarity with
each other (cf. Sawyer 2007 ). A form of open communication within the team
environment gives each individual team member the requisite ‘immediate feedback’
about the joint progress that is being made. (5) Safety : A psychologically safe
environment to perform personal tasks in the interest of the team. To achieve a safe
environment, unnecessary and unacceptable risks are eliminated, but the possibility
of failure still exists for each team member. The goal is, after all, set at a challenging
level to release high skills. Therefore, failure is seen as an opportunity for growth
and team members support each other in achieving these challenging goals without
worrying about what others think (cf. Snow 2010 ). Safety within the team environ-
ment decreases each individual team member’s worries about his/her performance
on the task at hand. As Sawyer ( 2007 ) notes, this uses the potential for failure to
push the group towards the fl ow state rather than being intimidated by it. Having ‘no
worries of failure’ is defi ned as a scaffold of individual fl ow that can be partly
designed or structured in the work environment and thus can act as an antecedent.
Safety is therefore an important contributor to our proposed team fl ow component
sense of shared trust (see below). (6) Mutual commitment : The responsibility to
engage with each other to achieve the desired common goal with devotion and
dedication. Everyone is aware of how the tasks are distributed, the process of pursu-
ing the target (goal), and the current state of the project. Team members support
each other in creating the ideal team dynamics to achieve the common goal with
task- oriented behavior and accountability for fulfi lling responsibilities (Katzenbach
and Smith 1993 ). Mutual commitment within the team environment decreases the
availability of distractions for each team member (Aubé and Rousseau 2005 ), which
makes it possible for everyone to concentrate on the task at hand (Csikszentmihalyi
1996 ; Sawyer 2007 ). The degree of commitment of the individuals is often
mentioned as a potential mediating mechanism to performance (Aubé et al. 2014 ;
Landhäußer and Keller 2012 ; Nakamura and Csikszentmihalyi 2009 ). When
mutually committed, team members are intensely involved in a shared, meaningful
activity and are able to remain concentrated on this activity as long as necessary to
achieve the common goals.
J.J.J. van den Hout et al.
237
15.3.2 The Components of Team Flow
Once team ow is achieved, one shares a number of experiences at the team level,
which we term the components: (1) Shared identity : The collective ambition of the
team, constituting the reason of team existence, is the fi rst component of team fl ow,
and is about the shared sense of intrinsic motivation to operate and to perform as a
team based on shared values and recognition of complementary skills. This feeling
and recognition forms the basis for a shared identity, which is also mentioned as a
condition for interpersonal fl ow (Snow 2010 ). In addition, other components could
also be shared with each other, if the precursors are optimally derived from the col-
lective ambition. (2) A sense of unity : A shared feeling that together the team forms
a unity by expressing the collective ambition of the team. The feeling of unity is
partly the result of setting aligned personal goals that each contribute to the com-
mon goal, which in turn is derived from the collective ambition. Team members
experience a sense of unity that is also consistent with Csikszentmihalyi’s ( 1990 )
notion of a loss of self- consciousness in the sense that one is not paying attention to
one’s own needs in favor of focusing on the activity at hand. Concordantly, Snow
( 2010 ) describes this effect as not feeling self-conscious with each other, and
Sawyer ( 2007 ) views it as a true blending of egos. (3) Trust : The shared feeling of
trust to accomplish the joint task together. This feeling arises because people feel
safe to act (i.e., no worry of failure) and they know exactly how they are doing
through the open form of communication that delivers the required feedback . This
feeling of being in control is described by Sawyer ( 2007 ) as having the autonomy to
take any ideas which come out and run with them based on their merits rather than
on being granted permission. Formally, trust is mostly defi ned as: “the willingness
to be vulnerable” (Mayer et al. 1995 , 712), which refl ects the willingness to accept
a limited degree of control over the fi nal outcome and thus the readiness to depend
on the other team member(s). When there is trust, team members do not worry
about failure, and instead feel confi dent to act because of the acceptance and sup-
port they receive to do their job (see also safety). They trust that their joint actions
will have a positive outcome whatever happens next. A team fl ow experience feeds
team members’ perceptions of a safe climate in which to act, because they have
experience trusting each other’s capabilities to achieve a common task. This is in
line with the fi ndings of Salanova et al. ( 2014 ) that believe in collective effi cacy
predicts collective fl ow over time, and that they are reciprocally related. (4) Sense
of joint progress : The shared feeling of making progress together in achieving the
goals and the cooperation with each other. This feeling arises because people join
forces (high skill integration) and communicate openly with each other. Because of
the open form of communication everybody knows exactly how they are doing
and what should be the next joint action (integration of high skills) in achieving
both their common and personal goals. (5) Holistic Focus : The realization that
there is a collective consciousness among team members to promote the collective
ambition, resulting in a shared focus on their cooperation and achievement of the
goals set. This form of ‘holistic focus, which is comparable with Snow’s ( 2010 )
condition ‘having total concentration on the shared activity, arises from a mutual
15 The Application of Team Flow Theory
238
commitment to the common goal and from that the concentration on allocated tasks
(Katzenbach and Smith 1993 ). The presence of the components for team fl ow
determine whether and to what extent team fl ow occurs.
Figure 15.1 , summarizing the discussion so far, shows the six precursors
(rectangles) to achieve team fl ow and the components (ovals) that characterize the
shared experienced of team fl ow. This gure illustrates the relationships between
the precursors and the components. Taking into consideration team fl ow theory, we
expect that a team fi rst needs to determine their collective ambition , which operates
as starting point of fl ow and turns into a component (shared identity) when all
precursors are met. The precursors mutual commitment and common goal primarily
determine the presence of the shared component holistic focus , the precursors
common goal and aligned personal goals mainly determine the presence of the
shared component sense of unity with the team , the precursors high skill integration
and open communication mainly determine the presence of the shared component
sense of joint progress , and the precursors open communication and safety mainly
determine the presence of the shared component trust .
15.4 Consequences of Team Flow
Team ow provides team members with several consequences. In fl ow, one is fully
dedicated to the task(s) at hand, with an intense focus and full concentration . The
performance of the task seems to go spontaneously without any effort (effortless
Fig. 15.1 Precursors and components of team fl o w
J.J.J. van den Hout et al.
239
action) (Csikszentmihalyi 1990 , 1996 ; Nakamura and Csikszentmihalyi 2009 ). This
optimal experience in which one is intrinsically motivated to persist in their activi-
ties will logically lead to a better performance (Landhäußer and Keller 2012 ).
Experiencing fl ow also provides satisfaction (Csikszentmihalyi 1990 , 1996 , 2004 ).
If ow experiences go together (integrate) in a team environment, its members
help each other and to excel as a unit. In this respect, Aubé et al. ( 2014 ) found that
the fl ow experience is positively related to team performance and this relationship
is mediated by team goal commitment and moderated by the level of information
exchange between team members. When team members share this feeling with each
other it intensifi es the feeling (Walker 2010 ) and binds the team members together
more tightly (i.e., cohesion) (cf. Sawyer 2007 ; Widmeyer et al. 1986 ).
Perhaps most important: In fl ow, people proceed in a situation of high challenge
where they have to show high (new) skills to control the situation (Asakawa 2004 ).
In these situations their ability to learn new things is greater because they have to
develop their skillset further in order to carry out the task to control the situation. The
presence of teammates greatly enhances such development by the direct possibility
of task feedback . The team members can correct themselves at both the individual
and team levels and, as such, there is development on both levels. Experiencing fl ow
creates a desire for a new challenge (Abuhamdeh and Csikszentmihalyi 2009 ). In a
team, the desire for a new collective challenge can be even more intense because the
team ow experience is of great signifi cance (meaning) and therefore delivers more
intense satisfaction. When there are opportunities to fulfi ll these desires for new chal-
lenges, this could result in a great level of positive energy among team members.
15.5 Examples of the Team Flow Experience
Csikszentmihalyi ( 1990 ) has given several examples of fl ow experiences while being
part of a team. The following example is about the work of surgeons (Csikszentmihalyi
1990 , p. 65): “ Surgeons say that during a diffi cult operation they have the sensation
that the entire operating team is a single organism , moved by the same purpose ; they
describe it as a ballet in which the individual is subordinated to the group perfor-
mance , and all involved share in a feeling of harmony and power .”
To provide more face-validity to our model of team fl ow , and understand better
how the fl ow conditions work in team environments we conducted several in depth
interviews and conducted case studies in different areas. In this chapter we will
briefl y report some relevant citations that exemplify the team fl ow theory. (Note
that, for privacy reasons, all names have been anonymized.)
15.5.1 Interview with a Member of a Successful Orchestra
In 2011 a group of musicians appeared in the Netherlands who were sold out for all
their concerts, performed at all important festivals and won almost every prize that
could be won in the Dutch music industry. Newspapers described the band as a
15 The Application of Team Flow Theory
240
bunch of musicians who were bouncing with optimal mutual chemistry, which also
characterizes our concept of team fl ow . To nd out what happened in this group, we
conducted an in-depth interview with one of their musicians who was one of the
rappers of the band. He recognized and agreed to our defi nition of team fl ow and
confi rmed this with words as: “ As you describe it , we have certainly experienced it.
Both within the group and externally. There was a clear gradient in , because we
knew it was a temporary project ; we do it now , then quit and go on to the next proj-
ect. Afterwards , we pulled back together and we found that we are more a band than
we thought we were .” This quote also suggests that the team fl ow experience gives
most team members the desire to reconvene as a team again. The rapper confi rmed
that he experienced the band more as a team rather than a group. This is because of
the mutual accountability of a team that is not always present in a group. He said:
At such times you are creating moments where everybody feels that you must be
present and capture the moment. This feeling reaches everyone as a domino effect ,
you can go on then until fi ve oclock in the night. Whatever happens , this kind of
experiences triggers the feeling again , that these moments will happen more often ,
because everyone then realizes again what the strength of such a moment is. Living
this way is a prerequisite to make beautiful things !” About a safe environment he
continues: “ You must have trust in feedback , so that there is a connection which
you can build on .” This last statement exemplifi es the relation between open com-
munication and trust within the team fl ow model. Moreover: “ The willingness to
bring the group to a higher level should always be more important than individual
progress. Of course there are egos in the band , but they are extremely well good
positioned. The whole is more important than the individual in the group. This
allows you to grow as an individual. The band had everyone feel this way , the
different energy of all different members made sure that things were created by them
that they had never achieved before .” He also clearly mentioned that the context
where they play together is of great importance to achieve team fl ow. It is a gather-
ing of variables , it has to do with the people in the group. Openness within the
group , spontaneity of yourself and your peers and simplicity of the moment are all
very important. It requires something for people who are part of the group not to be
too anxious , and dare to have a certain surrender to the moment. That is very
important to enforce that context again and again where things happen .”
15.5.2 Interview with a CEO of a Successful Team-Based
Organization
This example is a home-care organization with small teams, consisting of (district)
nurses and nurses providing care at home. They started in 2006 and have grown to
a home care organization with more than 650 teams and 8,000 employees. The
decision to work with small, professional self-managing teams who focus on the
relationship with their client is the main reason for their success. We conducted an
interview with their business leader, and asked him how team fl ow emerges in the
J.J.J. van den Hout et al.
241
context of the self-managing teams: “ Flow in teams happens when you pursue the
same [ goal ] with each other , you do that with people who like to see each other ,
trust each other , then the energy goes to the right things , and then you do not have
to invest energy in all kind of things that do not matter. If you look at the people I
work with , these are all friendly relations , where there is a shared work experience
with each other , where we know each other well and can rely on each other , which
brings you very quickly to the essentials. We dont have to talk about policy that you
see happening in a lot of organizations. You can work very instrumentally , and we
do not want to develop policies. So what we do is : If there is a problem which must
be solved , you look for the right people and set them together to do something
meaningful and then we get started ”. The reason why they have chosen for self-
managing teams is to create an optimal work environment for their employees. “ The
most optimal environment for our employees is one without bureaucracy. We try just
to be specifi c in why we are there [i.e., raison dêtre ], so that our employees can
focus on what they encounters. The context is guiding , and we try not to distract our
employees with too much overfl owing top - down communication .” To support teams
in their work the organization has not employed team leaders but only coaches,
which can be consulted on request. They do not want to lead teams but only support
them when needed. “ We continuously try to move along with our teams. There is a
great diversity among teams and you need to connect to the process of each team.
The coach needs to listen and ask on the basis of what is wise to do for the team. By
doing this , you see that teams in our organization develop their capacity to resolve
thing themselves. What we do need is a very clear framework on vision , content , and
way of working and we try to reach a clear shared understanding on those items
with our teams .”
In the examples above, you can read that during team fl ow experiences members
are set challenging situations. Team members experience themselves as a unit with
one purpose [collective ambition] and where the individual is subordinated to the
team [aligned personal goals to the common goal] and all are contributing by deliv-
ering with their unique skillset [high skill integration]. The outcome is during a
team fl ow experience often more than their expectations of it before, together with
intense satisfaction and a desire to reconvene.
For organizations, it is important to create an context together where people feel
safe to give themselves to the moment. Where they can be open and spontaneous
with their complementary skills, and where everybody commits to the common
purpose. In the next paragraph, we will discuss how to create an environment for
team ow experiences.
15.6 The Team Flow Environment
It is diffi cult to build wellbeing at work, in large part because it is challenging to
nd meaning in work (Wrzesniewski et al.
2003 ); it is important for people to care
about what they are doing and decide for themselves the contexts in which they will
15 The Application of Team Flow Theory
242
apply their effort, attention, care and connection. As such, a key component of
productivity in knowledge work is the creation of meaning. In teams, such meaning
has the potential to develop into an internalized raison detre that can translate into
a foundation for team fl ow . Consequently, employers should invest in developing
and aligning collective, team, and personal ambitions for their organizations, and
make sure that this fi t is a constant in the workplace.
For team ow experiences, members of teams have to create an environment
where they are all committed to a collective ambition [common purpose] in a man-
ner that they all are able to experience fl ow. Then, together they defi ne the precur-
sors that fi t to their collective ambition and support one another to keep each other
on track. Teamwork is not as easy as one thinks and organizations should be aware
that they need to invest extra resources to create a good performance climate.
From this, the precursors for team fl ow help to derive guidelines and interventions
that could spark the presence of the team fl ow experience. The precursors for team
ow foster an environment (social system) for joint fl ow experiences in teams. To
foster team fl ow experiences in the workplace environment, it is useful to consider
which key precursors can be most easily facilitated by the team itself or the employer.
Therefore we extracted nine steps that teams could follow to design a team fl ow
environment where the chance for team fl ow experiences is more likely to occur.
1. Identify team members’ underlying motivations, shared values, and unifying
strengths that united them as a team and formulate a collective ambition .
2. Align from the collective ambition a concrete common goal that is achievable
and challenging and can be reached in a foreseeable period of time.
3. Set for each member of the team an aligned personal goal that also fosters mean-
ing, growth, and intrinsic motivation for each person.
4. Derive from the common and personal goals the tasks (roles) and responsibilities
into a clear process (strategy) in which each team member is able to execute his
or her personal strengths where together those strengths form a unifi ed force
( integration of high skills ).
5. Optimize mutual feedback on process and outcome so that everyone knows how
(s)he is doing, as well as the team as a whole ( open communication ).
6. Create an environment in which one feels safe to act by eliminating unacceptable
risks and supporting each other with positive and encouraging feedback (safety).
7. Hold each other accountable to accomplish the tasks successfully with dedica-
tion and vigor. Keep each other on track by coaching each other on the task (feed
forward) and take care of the presence of the precursors for team fl ow . ( mutual
commitment ).
8. Allow the team to function on its own (autonomous) and share experiences of unity,
trust, focus, progress, and identity and sometimes magic moments like team fl ow .
9. Evaluate, refl ect, and enjoy the moments of team fl ow and reconvene for new
collective ambitions and shared goals .
The above steps can help to create a team fl ow environment for business teams.
In addition, we have developed an instrument to measure the conditions and com-
ponents of team fl ow. The name of this questionnaire is the Team Flow Monitor
J.J.J. van den Hout et al.
243
(TFM) . By utilizing the TFM participants can determine which precursors are
present within their team and which are not. Together with their supervision or
support they can decide which interventions will be included in an action plan to
build a team fl ow environment. Also, these results help to decide upon which pre-
cursors a team should start to intervene. For instance, when a team scores low on the
component ‘trust’ they might consider employing interventions that support ‘safety’
and/or ‘open communication’.
15.7 Discussion and Future Research
As noted above, the individual can generate the external conditions of fl ow during
a solo activity (Csikszentmihalyi 1994 ). If we view external conditions as being
created by a participant in an activity, then an extension to the team level would
suggest that everyone participating in the activity has the ability to facilitate the
creation of the external conditions for fl ow. For example, team members can set
goals , give and receive feedback on each other’s progress, and try to remove
distractions and unacceptable risks to maintain team members’ concentration and
focus. All these activities concern team interactions that involve members directing,
aligning, coordinating, and monitoring task work to achieve collective goals (Marks
et al. 2001 ), which is consistent with prior research that defi nes teamwork as
comprising interpersonal interactions that are necessary to accomplish team goals,
such as exchanging information and coordinating actions (Bowers et al. 1997 ).
Teamwork differs from taskwork in that the latter implies an interaction with tasks,
tools, machines, and systems and teamwork interacts with other team members
(Bowers et al. 1997 ).
If the formation of a team is founded by the collective ambition of its members,
and together the team members design an environment to collaborate, team members
will instantiate the precursors for team fl ow by themselves (if not, this is readily
guided). The precursors for team fl ow can in turn help team members to express
their collective ambition in an effi cient, effective, and personally-meaningful way,
which results in a better performance. As such, we conclude that the presence of a
strongly shared ‘collective ambition’ of a team has strong positive correlations with
the presence of all precursors for team fl ow. Of course, future empirical studies
should be directed toward confi rming such a conclusion.
So far, we focused on external conditions for individual fl ow and precursors for
team ow experiences. The multilevel theory of fl ow suggests that individual fl ow
is the foundation for team fl ow and may exert a unique infl uence on it, distinct from
team processes. So, the next step is to conceptualize a mechanism that may explain
this relationship. According to our view of fl ow theory in a team context, individu-
als, as living open systems, need to perceive the external conditions to experience
ow internally. In teams, fellow team members can help each other to create this
optimal environment for fl ow experiences. The external conditions for fl ow can be
designed and structured in the work environment by the individual, team members,
15 The Application of Team Flow Theory
244
and/or management, which is consistent with Katzenbach and Smith’s ( 1993 ,
p. 112) defi nition of a team: “ a small number of people with complementary skills
who are committed to a common purpose , set of performance goals , and approach
for which they hold themselves mutually accountable ”. From this perspective, team
members are responsible for each other’s fl ow experiences, and the interdependent
team members provide the external conditions for each other. This suggests that
when individual team members engage in opportunities for action, they spark fl ow
experiences for each other by setting a social action system in which every single
team member in his/her personal task environment is surrounded by the external
conditions for fl ow. The precursors prevent each individual’s set external conditions
from confl icting with the establishment of others’ external conditions. In this way, it
is possible that everyone involved in the same activity is experiencing fl ow during
the execution of his or her personal task.
Once team ow emerges, a climate has a reality that is partly independent of
the individual actions that gave rise to it, and, as a collective property, it guides
individual and collective actions (Morgeson and Hofmann 1999 ). In the domain of
ow, a supportive climate for fl ow experiences may enhance team fl ow and thus
acts as the process linking individual fl ow and team fl ow. To summarize we propose
that the average level of individual fl ow in a team is positively related to the experi-
ence of the components of team fl ow via a supportive climate (the presence of the
precursors altogether) for team fl ow. This conclusion also provides an interesting
starting point for future research.
15.8 Conclusion
In conclusion, team fl ow is characterized by a situation in which all the team
members are completely involved in their common activities as part of a collabora-
tion toward the common purpose. Team fl ow can be considered a function of an
individual’s experience of fl ow during the execution of one’s personal task in a
team context with three core aspects: (1) it is an individual team member who expe-
riences the mental state of fl ow by executing his/her personal task; (2) the team
member derives fl ow from the team dynamic which is structured by a collective
ambition that set the precursors which are shared goals (team and personal), high
skill integration, open communication, safety, and mutual commitment; and (3) team
members share a dynamic that refl ects a state of fl ow as a whole, which is character-
ized by fi ve specifi c components: trust, holistic focus, a sense of unity, a sense of
joint progress, and a shared identity [that expresses the collective ambition]. The
occurrence of team fl ow leads to a meaningful experience and satisfaction for the
individual team members, which is probably stronger than experiencing solitary
ow. Also, a desire to reconvene as a team and an extension of the team’s capability
are further consequences of team fl ow.
To help people to experience more fl ow it is important to build the conditions
for entering fl ow in people’s work but also to teach and train them to be aware of
J.J.J. van den Hout et al.
245
conditions to let fl ow be more likely to emerge. The whole in this case is defi nitely
more than the sum of its parts. In addition, one must respect the fact that there are
personal and internal factors, over which limited control can be exercised, limiting
the emergence of the internal conditions. As such, a key point is that fl ow cannot
occur on demand – indeed, attempts to control or force it often backfi re
(Csikszentmihalyi 1997 ; Gardner et al. 2001 ), but it is possible to set an environ-
ment where team fl ow experiences are more likely to occur.
It is our hope that this theory can provide a common language for scholars and
practitioners, and shed light on unanswered questions in the literature relevant to
ow and work teams. We submit this model to the research and practitioner com-
munities in the hopes that they will partner with us to fi nd the most effective ways
to enable the highest levels of team performance.
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15 The Application of Team Flow Theory
... Research now demonstrates that groups can experience flow together (Salanova, Rodríguez-Sánchez, Schaufeli, and Cifre, 2014;van den Hout, Davis, and Weggeman, 2018). Others have also demonstrated that group flow improves group performance (Lazarovitz, 2004;MacDonald, Byrne, and Carlton 2006;van den Hout, Davis, and Walrave, 2016), and that group flow provides a more enjoyable experience for teams than individual flow (Walker, 2010). Flow research therefore demonstrates that flow can occur on both an individual and a group level. ...
... What sort of learning outcomes eschew from these group flow experiences? Group flow researchers have found that group flow causes increased team performance (Lazarovitz, 2004;MacDonald et al., 2006;van den Hout et al., 2016), but does flow only improve performance or can it influence learning outcomes? One experiment investigated flow learning outcomes using academic knowledge as the learning outcome. ...
... Flow theorists have suggested that unanimously experienced individual flow states are not a requisite for group flow . This research's primary source for the precursors of group flow disagrees (van den Hout, et al., 2016). ...
Thesis
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