Flow and The Autonomy Paradox - Jose J Ruiz

Flow and The Autonomy Paradox

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April 3, 2023

The Autonomy Paradox by Jose Ruiz, Anker Bioss.

We all deal with an underlying internal conflict from the day we are born until we die. It is the conflict between seeking the comfort of certainty and sacrificing certainty for the autonomy we need to challenge ourselves and grow. That is the autonomy paradox.

The ultimate challenge of a leader is to provide the ideal balance in the Autonomy Paradox: Enough certainty to support physiological, safety and belonging while providing enough uncertainty to drive esteem and self-actualization.”

Esteemed psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, recognized and defined the psychological concept of “flow,” known as the optimal state of consciousness, a state where you feel and perform your best (Csikszentmihalyi, 2008). In the 1970s, he executed one of the most extensive psychological surveys ever, traveling worldwide to ask people to describe the moments in which they experienced peak performance. Among his endless list of global interviewees, there were chess players, doctors, elderly Korean women, farmers, and gang members. What he uncovered at the conclusion of his study was uniformly fascinating; regardless of culture, class, gender, age, or level of modernization, each surveyed person felt as if they performed their best when they were in the state Csikszentmihalyi deemed “flow.”

The autonomy paradox starts with the safety the arms of our parents can provide versus the desire to explore the world that surrounds us as we begin to crawl and walk. From there on, we usually seek environmental certainty until we’re bored and then begin to step into uncertainty. If the new spaces we enter are certain enough and allow us to feel safe and up to a challenge but uncertain enough where we can be creative, use our imagination, explore new things, feel confident, and take manageable risks, our excitement and enjoyment peaks. At that point, we are in flow. However, if uncertainty increases to levels that challenge our confidence and risk tolerance, the excitement becomes stress, and anxiety begins to appear. That is the borderline where uncertainty changes from being a challenge to being a threat, and our emotions turn to fear.

Renowned global management consulting firm, McKinsey, carried out a 10-year study which found that top executives reported being 5 times more productive in flow. Not 5 percent, not 25 percent, but 5 times more. According to their findings, if you were to spend the entirety of Monday in flow, you would get the equal amount of work done as your peers do if they were working at their usual pace for an entire week. Furthermore, McKinsey believes that if we could increase the time we spend in flow to 15-20%, that workplace productivity would almost double.

In its physical makeup, flow state is neurobiological and emerges from a drastic change in normal brain function. Neuroscientist Arne Dietrich explains, “It’s an efficiency exchange.” As specific attention rises, the slower extrinsic system of conscious processing is exchanged for the intrinsic system for much faster and more efficient processing. The energy that is used for higher cognitive functions is traded for elevated attention and awareness. This process has a more technical term known as “transient hypofrontality.” The breakdown of the word itself is telling– “hypo,” meaning slow, and “frontal,” referring to the prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain that holds all of our cognitive functions. This process is why the flow state feels so, well, flowy; any brain structure that would inhibit acutely heightened attention and decision-making is shut off. In short, in flow, you become a machine of brain efficiency.

While engaging in flow may sound exhausting, requiring a lot of focused individual and physical effort, that’s not necessarily the case. You actually enjoy yourself immensely and naturally, because you are engaging in tasks that feed you. A team of neuroscientists at Bonn University in Germany discovered that endorphins play a massive role in flow. Other researchers have determined that norepinephrine, dopamine, anandamide, and serotonin are also involved, each being pleasure-inducing and performance-enhancing neurochemicals. Not only do they increase attention, muscle reaction, pattern recognition, and lateral thinking, they up the ante on all capabilities related to problem-solving. Each of these five chemicals singularly provides the greatest reward the brain can ever produce, and all of them work together simultaneously when in flow. Unlike the perceived happiness of lying on a beach, flow is not a transient and serene feeling; it’s euphoria, making flow one of the most pleasurable, meaningful, and addictive experiences in human existence.

Flow in the workplace happens in that space of autonomy provided by mutual trust. It can exist in environments that allow people to face challenges, incorporate their skill sets, and get lost in the work at hand. However, the flow state is also highly dependent on something else; the balance of environmental certainty and uncertainty, or, in simpler terms, safety. This balance is both biological and external. As humans, we not only pursue happiness, but we also intuitively avoid misery and suffering. We seek environments that make us feel safe and—for the most part—avoid situations that could make us uncomfortable.

Survival is one of the most powerful instincts we share with the rest of the animal kingdom. Something threatening our survival triggers one of two reactions: fight or flight. That primitive adrenaline rush helps us react to physical threats to survive, but it also burns a tremendous amount of physical and emotional energy. We are wired to survive and protect ourselves and those close to us. Our survival instinct leads us to seek situations and environments that provide us safety and protection: environments that enable us to lower our guard and help us feel certain about our survival. Our ancestors sought settings that allowed them to find food while providing adequate protection from natural risks. That same primitive fight-or-flight response remains deeply ingrained in all of us.

Unlike basic survival, self-actualization is a uniquely human concept because it arises from the complex cognitive and emotional capacities that distinguish humans from other species. It is a continuous process of personal growth and self-improvement, driven by the desire to realize one’s potential and create a meaningful and fulfilling life.

Self-actualization is a psychological concept that pertains to the ongoing process of an individual realizing and fulfilling their potential, striving to become the best version of themselves. This journey of personal growth and self-improvement aims to achieve harmony, contentment, and inner peace. Introduced by psychologist Abraham Maslow in the 1950s, self-actualization is situated at the peak of his hierarchy of needs theory. Survival and safety are at the bottom.

The ultimate challenge of a leader is to provide the ideal balance in the Autonomy Paradox: Enough certainty to support physiological, safety and belonging while providing enough uncertainty to drive esteem and self-actualization.

The neuroscience behind the fight-or-flight response is deeply rooted in the autonomic nervous system, which regulates involuntary bodily functions. This system is divided into the sympathetic nervous system, responsible for the fight-or-flight response, and the parasympathetic nervous system, responsible for relaxation and recovery.

When a person perceives a threat or experiences stress, the brain’s amygdala evaluates the potential danger. If it considers the situation to be hazardous, it sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus. Acting as a command center for the autonomic nervous system, the hypothalamus activates the sympathetic nervous system, which in turn triggers various physiological changes in the body to prepare for rapid action.

Among these changes is the release of adrenaline and noradrenaline hormones by the adrenal glands. These hormones act as chemical messengers, inducing numerous physiological modifications, such as increased heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration rate. Blood flow is redirected from less critical areas to vital organs and muscles, and glucose and fatty acids are released into the bloodstream as a quick energy source.

Adrenaline and noradrenaline also affect the brain, heightening alertness and sharpening the senses. For example, the pupils dilate to allow more light into the eyes, improving vision. At the same time, the stress hormone cortisol is released to help maintain these physiological changes for an extended period.

Finally, once the threat has passed, the parasympathetic nervous system takes over, returning the body to a state of relaxation and homeostasis through a process known as the “rest and digest” response.

In essence, the fight-or-flight response is a sophisticated neurochemical process that prepares the body to react quickly to threats or stressors. By activating the sympathetic nervous system and releasing stress hormones, the body can enhance an individual’s chances of survival in dangerous situations.

The uniqueness of self-actualization as a human endeavor stems from the complex cognitive and emotional abilities that differentiate humans from other species. Unlike animals, which have basic needs such as food, water, and shelter, humans possess higher-order needs that are more abstract, involving self-reflection and the pursuit of purpose and meaning.

One key aspect that makes self-actualization exclusively human is self-awareness. Humans have a deep sense of self-awareness, which allows them to recognize their potential and areas for growth. This introspective ability is critical for engaging in the process of self-actualization.

Additionally, humans’ cognitive abilities enable them to set long-term goals and plan for the future, which is crucial for envisioning a better version of themselves and working towards it. This capacity is central to the concept of self-actualization.

Moreover, humans’ creativity and problem-solving skills allow them to overcome obstacles and make continuous progress towards self-actualization. Emotional intelligence, which involves understanding, expressing, and regulating emotions, as well as empathizing with others, is another human trait that contributes to the process.

The pursuit of meaning and purpose is another human characteristic that underlies self-actualization. This pursuit involves finding one’s unique path, aligning values, passions, and talents to create a fulfilling life. The capacity to develop a moral and ethical framework further supports the self-actualization journey by fostering personal growth and cultivating virtues like integrity, empathy, and compassion.

In essence, self-actualization is uniquely human because it emerges from the intricate cognitive and emotional capacities that set humans apart from other species. This ongoing process of personal growth and self-improvement is fueled by the desire to realize one’s potential and build a purposeful, meaningful life.

In 2008, neuroscientist Charles Limb examined the brains of jazz musicians in flow using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). He discovered that when in flow, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for self-monitoring, inhibition, and regulating fear, was able to relax and shut down entirely. This means that our usual inner voice of self-doubt, hyper-vigilance, insecurity, and criticism—all of which are tied to feelings of uneasiness and lack of safety—can not exist within flow. Second guessing only serves to prohibit a fluid state, where decision-making and performance are meant to be automatic. When the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is able to deactivate, we are able to act without hesitation, experience liberation, and enter the flow state. This can only happen if our intrinsic need to self-monitor is removed due to our environment, and we feel safe enough to let go and engage in the tasks at hand. In order to create a flow-state workplace, we must acknowledge certainty and uncertainty and its integral role as part of the human experience.

In conclusion, the autonomy paradox is a fundamental concept that every human being experiences throughout their life. It is the conflict between seeking certainty and sacrificing it for the autonomy necessary to challenge oneself and grow. Self-actualization is the ongoing process of fulfilling one’s potential and striving to become the best version of oneself, and it is uniquely human because it requires complex cognitive and emotional capacities that differentiate us from other species. The flow state, a state of optimal consciousness, is the ultimate goal of self-actualization, and it is achievable when there is a balance between environmental certainty and uncertainty. Understanding the autonomy paradox and the neuroscience behind the fight-or-flight response is crucial in creating a flow-state workplace where individuals can achieve their full potential and experience personal growth and fulfillment.

Jose J. Ruiz
Jose J. Ruiz
Jose Ruiz serves as Alder Koten’s Chief Executive Officer providing vision, strategic direction and the roadmap for the firm’s future. He is a recruiter involved in executive search work focused on board members, CEOs and senior-level executives; and consulting engagements related to leadership and organizational effectiveness helping clients create thriving cultures. An important part of his time is spent on research work focused on organizational effectiveness centered on leadership and culture. Prior to joining Alder Koten, Jose was a Principal with Heidrick & Struggles’ Global Industrial Practice based in Houston, TX and Monterrey, Mexico. His professional experience also includes leadership positions in engineering and operations management for manufacturing organizations in the US and Mexico. This experience includes serving as vice president and general manager at Holley Performance Products. Jose holds a master’s degree in organizational leadership from Gonzaga University and a bachelor’s degree in mechanical and electrical engineering from the Instituto Technologico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey. He is fluent in English and Spanish.
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