More Than Money
Issue #36

Money and Work

Table of Contents

“Books: Good Business Leadership, Flow, and the Making of Meaning By Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi”

Reviewed by Kathleen Caldwell *

When Masaru Ibuka started Sony in 1945, as the first item under his Purposes of Incorporation he wrote: "To establish a place of work where engineers can feel the joy of technological innovation, be aware of their mission to society, and work to their hearts' content."

This spirit captures Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's concept of "flow" in the workplace. Having introduced his now well-recognized theory in 1990 ( Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience , Harper & Row, 1990) and then expanded upon the concept in a series of publications over the past decade, Csikszentmihalyi now brings flow to the corporate world. In concert with his colleagues from the Good Work Project, William Damon and Howard Gardner and their staffs, he identified and interviewed 39 visionary business leaders who "combine high achievement with strong moral commitment," to find out what factors create "good business" ( Good Work: When Excellence and Ethics Meet , Basic Books, 2001). In this follow- up work Csikszentmihalyi synthesizes their comments within his "flow" framework. Flow, he writes, will breed "good business."

The result is a surprisingly simple set of conclusions about how business leaders could create happier workplaces and enhance our well-being: Make workplaces aesthetically attractive. Give workers jobs with meaning and value. Promote and reward individuals who find satisfaction in their work. Clarify and communicate goals; make goals the workers' own. Provide immediate and specific feedback. Match workers' skills and interests to their job duties. Challenge workers, enough so that they're not bored but also not in too far over their heads. Allow flexible schedules. Value workers' contributions. If your employees need transportation, provide busing. Allow people to move and act with freedom, to have control over their tasks, to have input in decisions affecting their work. When you communicate with people, you show respect for them. "It's a community; we're speaking of community." Allow people to learn by doing. "Cheerleading isn't big stuff, it's just a lot of little stuff every day." Provide an atmosphere free of interruptions, giving employees the opportunity to concentrate. "People want to work for a cause, not just for a living." Trust and respect your employees, bosses, and co-workers. Provide opportunities for lifelong education.

Csikszentmihalyi acknowledges that most of his interviewees view these principles as "obvious and natural." That they deserve study and reiteration by a highly respected scholar-and promotion by a major publisher-could be a discouraging sign. Can the mainstream of our business sector be unaware of this all-Ireally- need-to-know-I-learned-in-kindergarten list of "good business" essentials?

The book itself does not make for an inspiring, "flowfilled" reading experience, but if you can hang in there, Csikszentmihalyi delivers some more compelling messages in the closing chapters. He comes full circle to conclude that only businesses with "soul"-a creative vision, a cosmic purpose -will realize a state of flow and happiness, the true measure of success. And, in closing, he finally addresses the destructive nature of profit as king and the escalating greed of many top executives. He also discusses, briefly, the increasingly likely prospect of adding into the cost of making a product its negative side-effects. (Should we factor in the costs of disposing of nuclear waste and, if so, will we conclude that the cost of producing nuclear power is too high?) Finally, he notes the choices we all have, as workers, as consumers, as investors, as parents, to contribute to-or impede- our evolution toward better business and, in turn, a happier society.

Perhaps the best advice Csikszentmihalyi uncovers from the many hundreds of interview hours is from Patagonia's founder Yvon Chouinard, whose company headquarters in Ventura, California, sports an entrance hall lined with surfboards. They stand as a visual reminder of the company's policy "Let My People Go Surfing." When the surf 's up, you're free to go. Or Anita Roddick's address to her Body Shop financial investors: "Well, I think we're not going to grow next year. We just want to have more fun." Among the 39 interviewed, these two leaders (see Hope magazine 37, May/June 2003, and Hope 38, July/August 2003), along with Christine Comaford Lynch (Artemis Ventures), stand out. Their approach is not frivolous. Quite the contrary; they understand that to create flow, you've got to achieve balance, and constantly ask yourself the question: When I die someday, or today or tomorrow, what decisions will have mattered the most? According to Csikszentmihalyi, the business leaders who cultivate this daily habit will outpace the field.

-Kathleen Caldwell is an attorney who lives in Brooksville, Maine.

* Reprinted with permission from Kathleen Caldwell and Hope magazine. Originally published in Hope , Number 39, September/October 2003.

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