Notice that “passion” and “work” are a popular pairing these days? We are exhorted to discover, follow and nurture our passions, and if we are really on top of it, we find a work setting where our passions and the organization’s mission or vision align. Managers are coached on creating a workplace where employee passions are ignited (see “8 rules for creating a passionate work culture,” Fast Company, May 2012).
Common sense suggests that if we are working on something we’re excited about, we’re more likely to show up, work productively, produce a better outcome, and stick around for the next opportunity. And I completely agree that one of a manager’s most important responsibilities is to establish and maintain that kind of work setting…one in which individuals get a chance to do their best work.
But…something tells me, wait, not so fast.
Is passion at work a luxury?
First of all, what about those of us who are at a different place on the Maslow hierarchy? You know, the pyramid that starts with basic physiological needs, then safety needs, followed by love and belonging, then self-esteem, and finally, once all of the preceding needs are met, self-actualization. Maslow tells us finding passion at work (aka self-actualization) becomes important only when we’ve already satisfied quite a few other needs. For some of us (say, those who’ve recently lost a job or a loved one), passion at work is a luxury that we can do without for now.
In one of my previous jobs, I often hired and managed immigrants, some of whom were political refugees from Ethiopia or Somalia. Having fled horrible conditions in their home countries, often leaving family members behind, adapting to a completely foreign environment, with only a rudimentary grasp of the English language….believe me, these folks were not seeking passion in their work. In fact, what they needed was a foothold on the Maslow hierarchy, and an entry-level job in the plant often provided a foundation of safety and security on which they could re-build their lives.
OK, fair enough, you say. But suppose a person is in good shape on the Maslow front and passion at work is up next. Ready, set, go for the passion?
Healthy versus unhealthy passion
Again, not so fast. Scott Barry Kaufman offers some words of wisdom on the topic in his HBR blog, “Why your passion for work could ruin your career” (August, 2011). Kaufmann advises there are two kinds of passion…one he calls “harmonious,” and the other “obsessive.”
Those who experience harmonious passion describe it as “pleasurable” work, and report they can turn it off. In other words, they feel passionate about and enjoy their work, but when they are engaged in other life activities such as spending time with family or out on the golf course, they do not think about work. They replenish in a healthy way, and then get back to the work they enjoy.
Conversely, those who experience obsessive passion feel a compulsive need to work. When not working, they still ruminate about work. Away from work, these folks feel discomfort, anxiety or impatience, and the only way they feel better is to return to work.
Not surprisingly, those who report harmonious passion about their work tend to be more professionally successful over the long term than those who report being obsessively passionate about their work.
Feeling passionate about your work? In a harmonious way? Good for you. Feel passionate about work, but maybe in an obsessive way? Maybe this passion is not in your best interest. Not feeling passionate about your work? Check it out…maybe passion isn’t what you need right now. What would Maslow say?