Csikszentmihalyi, Flow and Tenure Creep

Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi are two psychologists who popularised the concept of positive psychology. Martin Seligman has done lot of work on learned helplessness and learned optimism.
But today I am going to focus on work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. First, let us start with right pronunciation of his name- it is – Me High Cheeks sent me high 🙂


Mihaly did lot of work on concept of “Flow”. This concept is very popular in psychology and is also used in other fields.

On X axis you plot the skill level of a person (this can come from leadership/functional competencies) and on Y axis you plot the challenge level of job (will come from job evaluation exercise). It is only when two match that a person reaches what is called as flow zone i.e. person is fully immersed in what he is doing; he is what HR folks call “fully engaged”. Mihaly calls him autotelic person.


If a skill level is higher than challenge level, then a person will experience boredom. He needs more challenging job.

If on the other hand challenge level is higher than skill level, then a person will experience anxiety. He needs to improve his skill levels to meet the challenge level of job.

Over a period of time, person has to improve both his skill and challenge level to reach higher level of flow (zone A4). If he remains in A1 zone for long time, he will experience apathy.

While working on operational excellence project at one of my earlier organisation. McKinsey, our consultants, came up with concept of “Tenure Creep”.Tenure creep is an interesting phenomenon, when a person reaches “flow” (normally in late 30s or early 40s), he is reluctant to change, i.e. he is comfortable at lower level of flow, and refused to move to higher level. He let goes many opportunities to take more challenging assignment, as he is not ready to leave his comfort zone.

cartoon overpaid[1]

Soon tenure creeps in resulting in his skill levels becoming stagnant, but for those skills his cost to company goes up year after year due to annual increments. Person becomes a “high cost resource”; a substitute with same skill sets is available in market at lower cost. This person becomes ideal candidate for “pink slip” during recession.



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