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Fostering Team Flow (Sharon Richmond) Transcript

Neuroscience of Coaching – Episode 11

Fostering Team Flow (Sharon Richmond)

Sharon Richmond: And that second part is that respect piece, which to me is at the core of psychological safety, that we treat each person as an interesting, smart individual with unique views to contribute, and we approach them with a curiosity so that information can come from them into the organization.

Dr. Irena O’Brien: Hi, I’m Dr. Irena O’Brien, and you’re listening to Neuroscience of Coaching. I’m a cognitive neuroscientist with almost 30 years of study and practice in psychology and neuroscience. And as the founder of the Neuroscience School, I teach coaches and other wellness professionals practical, evidence based strategies to use in their own practices. In each episode, I invite a seasoned coach to discuss a topic that clients struggle with, and together we provide you with science based tools to help your clients reach their goals by working with their brains to create results that last.

Today, we’re going to talk about team flow, which is a topic that I cover in depth in my masterclass. I know that some of you are leadership, executive, and team coaches, so this is especially relevant for you. But there will be a number of important takeaways in this episode for any coach who may find themselves needing to manage a team, because the truth is, you may need to do so sooner than you expect. Business is changing and becoming more dynamic. We’re in the midst of the knowledge era, and expertise and creativity are becoming the basis of commerce.

This is causing jobs and tasks to become increasingly complex and forcing people to specialize. This increased complexity also means that many tasks require multiple specialists to complete them, which requires the formation of a team. That is why it is so important to know how to maximize team performance.

Flow is a state people experience when they are completely absorbed in and energetically focused on an activity that they are highly motivated to perform. In moments of flow, our thoughts, desires and emotions are in harmony. We usually perform better. Time speeds up or slows down, and we may even feel joyful. Flow is also a bit mysterious for most people. We generally don’t sit down and say, okay, now I’m going to experience flow. It’s usually a consequence of what we’re doing that we recognize in hindsight.

However, it is possible to create the conditions that allow flow to emerge, and that’s what this episode is all about. Since flow normally occurs spontaneously, it’s difficult to measure brain activity when in flow. But we do know that there is a decrease in frontal beta waves and an increase in frontal alpha waves. Beta waves are the fast waves seen when we are awake and conscious. This is the dominant brain wave when we’re working. Alpha waves are slow waves seen when we’re relaxed and also when we’re highly focused. This pattern of brain activity is called transient hypofrontality. There’s also increased activation of the inferior frontal gyrus, part of the central executive network, and decreased activation of a number of nodes of the default mode network.

Team flow is a shared experience of flow. Each team member is experiencing flow simultaneously and collectively while they work to advance the team’s purpose. They feel a sense of unity, joint progress, mutual trust and holistic focus. If you can create the right conditions for everyone on a team to act on their strengths in a state of flow together, at the same time, you allow people, teams and organizations to achieve their maximum potential. For example, according to the father of Flow, Mehay Csikszenmihal, surgeons say that during a difficult 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 subabsorbed to the group performance and all involved share in a feeling of harmony and power.

In a work environment that is organized to optimize flow, employees feel increased enjoyment, satisfaction, personal development and shared performance. People perform better together, and their experience with team flow will likely encourage them to tackle new and even greater shared challenges. So the million dollar question is, how do we create the environment that allows for team flow? Because it is a kind of allowing process. You can’t force flow, but you can create the environment that lets it occur.

At minimum, there needs to be a challenge that matches the team members skills. There needs to be a clearly defined and achievable goal, and that goal must be aligned with the team members personal goals. The tasks themselves must require considerable skills and encourage concentration, creativity and satisfaction. Also, there must be open communication, psychological safety and mutual commitment.

There is a lot more to say about team flow, and fortunately, my guest knows more about this state than just about anyone. For more than 30 years, executive coach Sharon Richmond has partnered with c-level executives from fast growing companies who want to uplevel their leadership and build companies they are proud of. Her purpose as an executive coach is to help leaders ten x their impact as they build organizations that are forces for good, both economically and socially. Sharon has taught leadership at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, where she now helps leaders increase influence, manage conflict, and prepare to build high performing teams. And you may also know her as the host of To Lead is Human, another show on the Mirasee FM network.

So thank you so much for being with us today, Sharon.

Sharon: Thanks, Irena. I’m so happy to be here and such an important topic for coaches to understand. So, yeah, let’s dive in.

Dr. Irena: Okay, so before we start talking about team flow, will you tell us a little bit more about your work and how you came to be doing it?

Sharon: It’s always tough to know where to start, but I think I’ll give the backdrop first. So, as a young adult, I was fascinated by psychology and case studies about how individuals grow and change. And even when I was a teenager, I used to head off to the college stacks in the library and read these case studies. Such a nerd of a different kind, I guess. So when I did move on to college, I studied developmental psychology, which is the study of how an individual grows and matures and develops. And then when I left university and went out into the world, I managed a large retail organization and had, at age 24, I think I had 120 people reporting to me.

Dr. Irena: Wow.

Sharon: But they were all like frontline employees in a college bookstore, cashiers and stalkers and customer service folks. And they were almost all college students. So it was a tricky situation to be managing people just barely younger than I. And I was very lucky to find a mentor who helped me understand some things about the first level of supervisory behavior, which is be warm and close, but not friends with all those people that report to you.

So that was a fascinating experience. And I wouldn’t say there was a ton of flow in that environment. But moving on, as I continued in my journey, I ended up going to business school. And I went to the same place that I have helped to teach leadership, which is the Stanford Graduate School of Business. One of the things that that school is particularly known for is focusing on interpersonal dynamics and recognizing the impact of interpersonal relationships on leadership. So it was a really great environment for me to absorb both the businessy side and further the individual development piece.

And then as I left business school, I went to work for one of the big consulting firms and did what we like to think of as straight MBA consulting for a while, where we look at the economics and the business strategy and the implementation of and the changes needed. And all of this work led me to recognize over a period of a few years that the best lever for helping organizations change would be to work with the leaders. And that’s when I began to focus specifically on coaching. First, more junior managers as I was young and had little experience. And then as I gained my experience and they all grew in their roles, I ended up coaching more and more senior folks.

Until maybe 20 ish years ago, I started coaching primarily executives and senior leaders of organizations and I do live in the heart of Silicon Valley, so it’s natural that I would work with a lot of fast growing younger companies, and I do. So they’re not all tech companies, education, healthcare, financial services, sometimes manufacturing and distribution of industrial goods, which seems like it wouldn’t be the same. But as it turns out, at least in my experience, executive leadership is quite similar across these industries.

And so that’s more or less how I ended up where I am. And I would say for the last ten to 15 years, I’ve been primarily focused on one on one coaching, and then a little bit of supporting those clients as they build their organizations and leadership teams to be more effective and I guess to be more in flow.

Dr. Irena: So when you say coaching leaders, are you coaching them primarily in, like, people type skills?

Sharon: I focus mainly on leadership and I would say the core emotional intelligence capabilities. They provide the backdrop. And for folks that may not, right off the bat, know what those are, we think of emotional intelligence at the simplest level as comprising four skills. The ability to identify and know oneself on a deeper, more personal level, to recognize one’s own motivations, one’s own emotional habits, one’s own choices. So that’s the first area is self awareness, then self management, which is when you’ve got these things going on, how do you choose what behaviors will help further your objectives in those situations? How do you think about managing your own feelings?

The third skill is that empathetic awareness of others. So the ability to observe, recognize, and most importantly, interpret another person’s emotions as you see them. And there are lots of skills related to how to make sure you’re right and not making assumptions. And then that last bucket is that interpersonal relationship effectiveness, those interpersonal skills where these are the place that all of the previous skills come together and enable leaders to mobilize, motivate, encourage, direct their teams in effective ways.

We don’t only focus on people issues, we look at business issues, we look at challenges. We talk a fair amount about organizational priorities, both market priorities, economic priorities, and culture building priorities, as I see them very much going hand in hand.

Dr. Irena: Thank you, Sharon. So what came up for you as you listen to what I said about team flow?

Sharon: I guess the first thing I was thinking about is one of the things that I do talk with my clients about is your job as a leader isn’t to do the work. It isn’t even to make the decisions or know the best answer. Your job is to create an environment where other leaders can flourish and grow. And by doing so, we’re able as organizations to accomplish a lot more. And by leader, I don’t mean they have to manage a bunch of other people. They need to have that sensation in themselves that they can make appropriate decisions, take appropriate action. They aren’t waiting for someone to tell them what to do or approve their plans all the time.

So that’s what I started thinking about is, what does it take? You were talking about it as flow, and I was thinking about it as cultivating a culture of growth and leadership so that there are plenty of leaders around to help further the organization’s goals.

Dr. Irena: If you look at the requirements for team flow, what you’re describing meets all those requirements.

Sharon: Yes. And in fact, it’s so interesting when you listed out the conditions. It’s really not so different from this leadership model that I talk with clients about, where I’m a big fan of, really understand how deeply complicated something is and complex, and then simplify it to the most appropriate level. And the simple leadership framework that I work with folks on is you really have three obligations as a leader.

The first is to set direction, which is all about clearly defined shared goals, as you mentioned. And the second is to engage and motivate people to want to go to that destination. And that, to me, seems a lot about how you communicate the direction, how you build the kind of psychological safety where people feel able and willing to perhaps challenge or question things that come up in the organization that they may observe. And then the third thing, of course, is to enable delivery of whatever that product is, execution of the work. And so, really, two out of the three buckets that I talk with folks about, really are about the conditions for flow, setting direction and engaging and mobilizing people to want to go to that place, to take the organization there.

Dr. Irena: So I mentioned seven prerequisites to flow. And so, again, in a nutshell, these are a collective ambition, a common goal, aligned personal goals, high skill integration, open communication, psychological safety, and mutual commitment. So, obviously, we can’t go into depth about all of them. But is there one or two in particular that you’d like to explore deeper?

Sharon: I think one that I would want to talk about is that the goal itself is a challenge and feels meaningful, feels meaningful the organization and feels meaningful personally. I think one of the things that is maybe counterintuitive to a lot of leaders is that when you ask someone to do something to deliver, let’s say, a project that is a big stretch for them, it actually motivates and mobilizes their work. When you tell them you believe that they can do this.

And I think this is one of the things that, again, I think some people find it counterintuitive, but it’s those stretch goals that actually leave most employees afterwards feeling like, that was a great experience. I was trusted, I was supported. I was pushed a little bit. Somebody saw in me something greater than I saw in myself at that moment. And that constellation, I think, really does pull a team forward.

Dr. Irena: Yeah. One of the conditions of personal flow, that there has to be a balance between challenge and skill, right? And so the challenge should push you somewhat. Right. But only somewhat, because if it’s too far, you won’t get into flow. And then having someone believe in you that you can do it, that psychological safety.

So something that we didn’t touch on today was about emotional contagion, where you can catch emotions from someone else. So if a leader is in flow, their team is more likely to catch that emotion of flow. Do you find that your leaders are often in flow?

Sharon: So one of the things that’s difficult about the kind of executive coaching that I do is I’m with them one on one outside of their regular context. So I don’t really get to see them very often in the work environment. But what I do get is their report for what it was like. And the way that, for those who don’t know, the way coaching, I think, works best is at the end of every session, there’s some kind of challenge or practice that a client will take on, and so they’ll often come back and report. How did that experiment go? And did they notice people, for example, being more aligned or being more critical or withholding their ideas more, or being more yielding and generous with their ideas?

And all of this, I believe, as the leader starts to read their environment helps them understand what are they doing that’s promoting that sense of flow? And what are they doing that might be, let’s say, just bleeding the edges off of it a little bit, taking some of the power out of it? And I think some of those things tend to be the kinds of challenges that a lot of executives struggle with. And I’ll name two that maybe we can talk about, and maybe you’ve got some neuroscience suggestions for those leaders actually.

One of those two things is clearly prioritizing, because often in companies that are scaling quickly, there are many parallel priorities, and there’s a temptation to say, we can’t pick one over the other. We have to do all three or five at the same time. But sadly, what happens is the organization’s energy can be divided and fractured. And that, I think, interferes with that ability to build that kind of flow. So that would be one thing, is that clarifying priorities on an iterative basis so that when we’re saying clearly, divine the goals and communicate, we’re updating it regularly because things change. That would be thing one.

The second thing that I find a lot of executives, struggle is too strong a word, but are challenged by is that fine line between coaching someone for development on a skill and micromanaging them, getting a little too far into telling them what to do as opposed to helping them think through what to do. So I don’t know, Irena, if you have some thoughts on those two things, but I think if I’m thinking about what gets in the way of creating team flow, from the leader’s point of view, I would say these two things can be distractors.

Dr. Irena: I have thoughts on the first one where there’s just too much to do and they’re having some challenges prioritizing. Having too much to do is a killer of flow, and so they do need to prioritize. Like, you cannot keep everything in mind at the same time. You can’t completely fill your to do list all day long because you’re just not going to have time to get into that flow. Right. So flow is a more, I was going to say more relaxed space, but it depends on how you define relaxed. Right. You’re not forcing anything. When you’re in flow, you might be doing a heck of a lot of work, but you’re not forcing it.

Sharon: It’s flowing through you.

Dr. Irena: Yeah, yeah, exactly. And one of the killers is just being a slave to a to do list all the time. Right. You have to have that time to reflect and make sure that what you’re working on is really meaningful at that moment. Because if that particular piece of work is not meaningful, you’re not going to be in flow, and you can’t be in flow all the time, and you wouldn’t want to be. But when there’s a meaningful piece of work that’s challenging, that’s going to take a couple of hours, that’s the perfect time to try and get into flow.

Sharon: What is it about the brain chemistry that makes that happen? Why is it that too much on your plate does that?

Dr. Irena: Because it activates too much of the beta waves. The frontal waves and beta waves are the waves that are primarily active when we’re working. But when we fall into flow, then we’re activating the alpha waves, and the alpha waves are slower, and they’re the waves that are dominant when we’re at rest, but they’re also the waves that are dominant when we’re highly focused. So beta waves are a little more frantic than alpha waves. And that’s why I said it seems like flow is almost like a relaxed state because you’re in your alpha wave.

Sharon: So if I’m a leader and I’m feeling really overwhelmed and really stressed, and I know I’ve got too much on my plate, but we’ve also got something we need to focus in on, and I really want to get my team into flow and myself into flow, how can I do that? What might I do?

Dr. Irena: One thing you could do is breathing technique. Slow down your breath. The research shows the ideal number of breaths is six breaths per second. Another hallmark of being in flow is high heart rate variability. So I’m going to explain what that is. So when we’re breathing in, our heart rate speeds up, and when we’re breathing out, our heart rate has slowed down.

And the thing is, when we’re breathing in, we’re activating the stress response, and when we’re breathing out, we’re activating the relaxation response. And so when you’re breathing in a slower, regular pace, you’re creating, like, a wave of faster in, breath, slower out breath, faster in breath, slower out breath. So you’re balancing the stress response with the rest response.

Sharon: And often I’ll find if a client is really agitated in a session, that I’ll even say, let’s take a minute and let’s take some breaths. And I usually, for myself, count, like, four in and eight out, and that’s how I manage it for myself. So I think I must do the same when we do this in a client session, and it does really help settle the nervous system somehow.

Dr. Irena: It really does. It’s not a woo woo technique. There is science behind that technique. And so a flow is also characterized by high heart rate variability. And what that means is it’s the difference between the heart rate on the in breath and the heart rate on the outbreath. And so you want to maximize that difference.

Sharon: My oura ring tells me every day about my heart rate variability. So now I have a new way to interpret it. That’s good to know. And then the second point that I raised Irena was this challenge of wanting to develop others, but also wanting to accelerate their development. And so getting into kind of micromanaging. And often people think micromanaging comes just from control freaks. I think that sometimes is true, but I think sometimes it’s a sense of urgency on the part of the leader who wants to move things faster and move the growth faster.

And in that case, what I try to remind them is you can’t speed the growth of a plant by pulling on it. It will come right out of the earth. So I try to remind them that coaching for development is a little slower and more patient activity that requires them to ask more questions than make statements, be more curious about the other person’s thinking. And so that’s, I think, where they get stuck. And I wonder maybe what might you see in the world of potential micromanagement that the rest of us might not know about because of the brain science?

Dr. Irena: I often say in my program that you have to meet clients where they are. And so I think that’s good for managers to remember, too, is that they need to meet their people where they are. And so if their people can’t move that fast, as fast as they want them to, all they’re doing is they’re creating stress. They’re not going to get into flow for sure if there’s too much stress. You do need to have a bit of stress in the sense that challenge and skill have to be balanced. So there has to be some challenge to what you’re doing, that kind of stress. And they probably feel watched, too. The employee might feel watched, and you know how uncomfortable that is to feel watched.

Sharon: Yeah. They can sometimes feel judged. They can sometimes feel pushed or pressured. A lot of times I think they feel mistrusted. And that, I think might be, that’s what I try anyway, with clients to help them understand, is that your inclination to get into the details might be coming from a good place. You may want to be assuring that things go well, but you’re actually creating exactly what you don’t want by putting those kind of psychological pressures, if you will, on your team members.

And when I’m talking about teams, I’m thinking about executive teams. So they’re not only just doing two or three hour tasks, they might be developing a new tech product that’s going to take three to four months or six months. And so I think when we’re looking at that kind of level of operating, we really do want to be thoughtful about how to keep people, let’s say, in that resonant environment emotionally, where they’re building on the positives of opportunity, innovation, creativity, acceptance, support and challenge.

Dr. Irena: Yeah. And if you want to have a team in flow, right. One of the conditions is that there has to be a shared goal. Right. So once you have created that shared goal, then you leave them to it, because otherwise they are going to fall out of flow. So I have a personal story about this micromanaging and the negative effects that it has. During the pandemic. My daughter moved in with me for six months, and she would do some cooking. But because I’ve been cooking for such a long time, I know all these tricks to make things go faster and easier that she didn’t know.

We made a joke out of it in the end, but she told me that it made her nervous. It felt like I didn’t trust her. She felt that she was being watched all the time. When she started cooking, I would just leave the kitchen, and if I started to micromanage, she’d go, mom, I’d go, okay, I get it, I get it. And I’d leave. And so it can damage relationships, too, when you micromanage.

Sharon: I’m glad you raised a personal story, because I think that we forget that just because at work we might be the executive, we also go home, and we’re members of families and communities. And I know some executives can have a hard time shifting from work gear into home gear. And that, I think, is something I’ve actually heard clients tell me that if they don’t do it, their kids end up telling them, hey, you’re not the boss of me, even though obviously parents.

But what they’re saying is, don’t treat me like I work for you, which I think is, again, just a really fascinating reflection for a lot of leaders. And much of the work we do about how to be a better executive translates into how to be a better family member, how to be a better parent, a better child, a better sibling, whatever.

Dr. Irena: Yeah, you can have a family in flow. Imagine how pleasant that would be where your family is in flow. And the other thing, too, is to let people be. Everyone has their idiosyncrasies. You just let people be who they are. That’s another thing. Back to why flow in organizations is important. The research shows that companies in flow, it affects, it’s good for the bottom line when their people are in flow. It’s good for employee retention when teams are in flow. It’s good for customer retention when teams are in flow. So what do you think about that?

Sharon: Well, I mean, obviously the first thing it makes me think is, where’s that research so we can share it with folks? Because I do think that people tend to disbelieve the statement without some evidence. I know you do. So maybe we can throw some of those in the show notes, just so people can check. But I think if we remember what you said earlier, which is, obviously, we can’t be in flow all the time, then I think what we have to do as executives is we have to think about what, what are the goals of our organization? What’s the timeframe over which we need to achieve these goals? Who’s available and who’s got complementary skills to do this.

And then we can start thinking about how do we create these specific conditions? A stretch goal, clearly defined and shared among the people working on it, with a really clear why we didn’t say that earlier, but that why really does matter. And then the open communication and the mutual trust that comes with psychological safety, these are the conditions that we want our executives to think about fostering. Again, can’t be 100% of the time so picking and choosing, where are we doing the tactical parts of our jobs, and where do we need to get into flow.

And if people want to have the opportunity to get into flow, they need a chunk of time. And so what I tend to recommend for folks is that they block large three, four hour blocks on their calendar when there’s something they need to get really deep into and then develop their own process for sinking into it.

Dr. Irena: That’s a good idea. Then they have time to get into flow, and they just might get into flow.

Sharon: And they just might.

Dr. Irena: Yeah. And so just as you were talking, I was thinking about, first of all, Csikszentmihalyi has a book about flow in business, and he says that the purpose of a leader is to enable his people. And the other thing he talks about is creating an autotelic life. So, autotelic life, a-u-t-o-t-el-i-c, where your whole life is in flow. And I can see how you could even have an autotelic organization in the sense that they have this shared goal that they’re working toward that goal. There’s unharmony. They have that psychological safety. They’re sharing information. They’re not fighting with each other. It’s just going along smoothly. That would be a team and flow, and that would also be, I think, like an autotelic. It’s the same thing.

Sharon: It’s such an interesting thing, because when you’re talking, Irena, what I’m hearing is what I describe to clients as cultivating a culture of accountability and respect. Accountability is around being somebody that my peers can trust to deliver, can trust to be truthful, can trust whatever it is, that piece of accountability, and that it’s me being accountable for my own actions, not you having to hold me accountable. And then that second part is that respect piece, which to me is at the core of psychological safety, that we treat each person as an interesting, smart individual with unique views to contribute, and we approach them with a curiosity so that information can come from them into the organization.

Dr. Irena: And unique skills.

Sharon: Yes, and unique skills.

Dr. Irena: Yeah. It’s more likely for people to achieve flow if they have some autonomy over the work that they do. So this goes back to micromanaging, because when you’re micromanaging, you’re not giving them the autonomy to work on whatever part of the project they want to work on at that moment. Right. Even though it’s a shared goal. So they know they have to get something accomplished within a certain amount of time. But within that, you have to give them autonomy so they can plan their time around their work.

Sharon: I don’t know anyone who doesn’t value having some control over how they spend their time, whether at work or elsewhere. I think it is a privilege in our society, unfortunately, because a lot of frontline jobs haven’t yet. People haven’t yet figured out how to offer more autonomy in those jobs, although I do think that’s underway. But it reminds me of Dan Pink’s work, that knowledge workers, what they care about is autonomy, mastery, and purpose. And that’s what we’re talking about, autonomy. Can I set my own workflow mastery? Do I have these unique skills? And I know I’m really good at them. Purpose. It’s meaningful to me and it’s meaningful to my organization.

Dr. Irena: There you go. The components of flow. Right. And so when they have that, they’re more likely to get into flow. And when you get into flow, you can accomplish a tremendous amount of work in a short period of time. And who wouldn’t want that and be joyous about it?

Sharon: Even better. Yeah.

Dr. Irena: So what’s the best way for listeners to find out more about you and your work?

Sharon: Oh, that’s a great question. Thank you, Irena. I have, obviously, my website, which is, l-e-a-d-i-n-g large dot com, and I’m pretty active on LinkedIn. And I love people to connect and ask questions and start dialogues. If anything in our conversation today has sparked some ideas, by all means, reach out on LinkedIn and let’s have a chat.

Dr. Irena: So thank you so much, Sharon. This has been a really great conversation.

Sharon: Thank you, Irena. I’m so happy to be here today, and I’m really excited about your podcast.

Dr. Irena: Thank you. So thank you all for listening. And remember that even though the state of flow can be mysterious, its prerequisites can be cultivated. When your teams reach a flow state, they’ll experience a sense of unity and synergy. They’ll trust each other, and their deep focus and concentration will create some very measurable results. Again, this is a topic I cover in my masterclass, so reach out if you want to learn more about my courses.

I’m Dr. Irena O’Brien, and you’ve been listening to Neuroscience of Coaching. You can find out more about me at A big thank you to Sharon for this fascinating conversation. The Neuroscience of Coaching is a part of the Mirasee FM podcast Network, which also includes such shows as Just Between Coaches and Sharon’s show, To Lead is Human.

This episode was produced by Cynthia Lamb, Danny Iny is our executive producer and post production was by Marvin Del Rosario. To make sure you don’t miss great episodes. Coming up on Neuroscience of Coaching, please follow us on Mirasee FM’s YouTube channel or your favorite podcast player. If you enjoyed the show, please leave us a comment or starred review. It’s the best way to help us get these ideas out there to more people. Thanks, and we’ll see you next time.