Passion at Work Is a Good Thing—But Only If Bosses Know How to Manage It
Does showing passion mean doing whatever it takes to get the job done? Employees and managers often disagree, says research by Jon Jachimowicz. He offers four pieces of advice for leaders who yearn for more spirit and intensity at their companies.
Who wouldn’t want to work for a company that values passion? And what employer wouldn’t seek an employee who’s deeply passionate about their work?
But, here’s the rub, according to recent research from Harvard Business School: Employees and employers can have conflicting views about what passion at work actually means, which could lead to unhappy workers and frustrated managers.
“AS AN ORGANIZATION, IT’S NOT ENOUGH TO JUST HIRE PEOPLE FOR PASSION. LEADERS ALSO NEED TO LEARN HOW TO MANAGE FOR PASSION.”
An analysis of 200 million job postings makes one thing clear: Passion for passion is growing. Indeed, the appearance of the word “passion” in US job listings increased nearly tenfold from 2007 to 2019, according to the study, published in Research in Organizational Behavior by HBS assistant professor Jon M. Jachimowicz and post-doctoral fellow Hannah Weisman.
In a hot labor market, the research sounds a cautionary note to hiring managers wooing employees with the passion pitch. Once they’re on board, conflicts may arise, for example, over how much time they must devote to a specific project, how many late nights may be required, or how the worker must demonstrate their passion in the workplace.
“We argue that it can be difficult for employers to recognize that their understanding of passion can at times create challenges for employees,” says Jachimowicz, suggesting that this may require a rethinking of the manager’s role. “As an organization, it’s not enough to just hire people for passion. Leaders also need to learn how to manage for passion.”
Two perspectives on passion
The researchers crunched the numbers from more than 200 million job postings using data from Burning Glass Technologies. They found that use of the word “passion” rose from 2 percent to 16 percent between 2007 and 2019.
But, behind that increase are important differences in how managers and employees view what the word actually means in practice, the researchers write.
Employees want more meaning in their work and connection with personal values. From the employee’s point-of-view, they are following the advice of commentators from Steve Jobs to Joseph Campbell who advocate for people to marry their real-life values with their work. “The only way to do great work is to love what you do,” Jobs famously said. “Follow your bliss,” in the words of Campbell.
“LEADERS ALSO RECOGNIZE THAT EMPLOYEES WHO ARE PASSIONATE FOR THEIR WORK ARE OFTEN WILLING TO GO THE EXTRA MILE.”
“When [we interview] people who pursue their passion, they highlight all the reasons why the work they’re doing is advancing things that they care about,” Weisman says. ‘I care very deeply about this. This is the difference that I seek to make in the world.’ Employees may view passion as an end in itself, to achieve fulfillment.”
Managers are often aligned with this view, says Jachimowicz: “When I talk to organizational leaders, they’re often very well-intentioned. They want to structure organizations around a common purpose. They want to build organizations that make a meaningful difference in the world.” At the same time, however, there may exist some nuanced differences, highlights Jachimowicz, “Leaders also recognize that employees who are passionate for their work are often willing to go the extra mile. And it is this recognition that employee passion can also produce valued work outcomes that can at times create difficulties.”
Where conflicts arise
Indeed, managers in passion-forward organizations may unintentionally emphasize passion in ways that rub employees in unintended ways. “When a manager and organizational leaders say, ‘This is the kind of place where people are passionate for their work.’ What employees might hear is, ‘This is the kind of place where you have to seek additional opportunities to make a difference beyond your job requirements,’” Jachimowicz explains. “Or what they might hear is, ‘It’s going to be difficult for you to say no to added responsibilities when they’re added onto your plate.’”
Although leaders may feel that adding additional work to their employees’ plate to support the mission is helpful for everyone, “doing so is not necessarily aligned with employees’ passion,” he says.
When employees notice that these two understandings of passion diverge, they experience uncertainty in determining what to do about it. On the one hand, employees may feel a deep appreciation for being in an organization that emphasizes passion, and experience a pull to working longer and harder to show they are committed. On the other hand, what they are asked to do may not always align with their own passions, or may make it more challenging for them to focus on what they care about. This uncertainty, the authors write, “places added demands on employees that may impede their ability to perform, particularly when they are unable to find a favorable resolution.”
Another wrinkle in the fabric of the passionate organization is that employees may find it challenging to speak up about issues they encounter. In a culture of passion, after all, the expectation is that you say yes to working longer and harder. You take on tasks even if you don’t want them. You don’t say no to an opportunity that would advance organizational goals, even it isn’t necessarily aligned with your own. Blinded by their own engagement in the corporate cause, a condition referred to as “motivated reasoning,” managers may also not realize a problem exists, or fail to seek out information that may disconfirm their positive view of passion. Both prevent the conflict from rising to the level of organizational concern, Jachimowicz says.
The manager’s responsibility
Jachimowicz and Weisman offer these suggestions for leaders:
- Conduct a “passion audit.” Managers should be aware that the problem of dueling passion understandings can arise, especially for leaders blinded by the corporate mission. They should actively generate conversations about how a passionate organization can create challenges for some employees, find out how passion is experienced in their organization, and what challenges arise for their employees.
- Lead for passion. “The potential divergence in understandings of passion,“ Jachimowicz notes, “requires leaders to learn how to manage not just their own but also their employees’ passion.” This may include learning what employees themselves are more and less passionate about, and to create a psychologically safe environment where potential difficulties are welcomed conversation topics.
- Design for passion. “This may also require leaders to think more broadly about their organizational design,” Jachimowicz suggests, “What processes and structures do you have in place to ensure your organization is cultivating passion in their workforce? How do you move beyond just hiring for passion, and actually creating an environment that keeps passion alive?”
- Reflect on what “passion” means in your organization. Finally, with the increasing use of “passion” should come the recognition that it may not always be the right focus for all organizations. As Weisman notes, “Leaders would benefit from reflecting on and being honest about what they mean by ‘passion.’ For instance, if they are seeking to hire ‘passionate’ employees, to what end? To attract employees who are willing to work hard, commit to long hours, and endure a challenging, ambiguous work environment? If so, perhaps emphasizing passion is not the best way of doing so because it may not set the right expectations in the minds of prospective employees.”
With these suggestions in mind, passion need not be an obstacle. “A big tenet of my research is understanding that the pursuit of passion is more difficult and challenging than what people often expect,” Jachimowicz says. “And then asking, does it have to be this way? How could we make it better?”