In my industry, “Passionate” is one of the most overused words in job adverts. Recruitment blogs are overflowing with advice on how to find these precious employees. It seems every company wants to hire people who are not just enthusiastic, but passionate about their work. The assumption is that people who describe themselves this way will produce better quality work and go the extra mile to get things done. A person’s passion can often be infectious, boosting morale for the team. In my experience these differences in attitude are real and I can see why they’re attractive to an employer, but they’re not the whole story.
There’s already some debate about whether it’s reasonable or healthy to expect passion from employees or if it is simply a way to demand more work for less remuneration. Maybe “we’re looking for passionate people” is code for “unpaid overtime is expected”. Could the idea of passion for a job be counter to achieving a healthy work-life-balance? I’m sure most modern companies would say that people can and should be passionate about their work and have a fulfilling home life. Hence well worn phrases like “work hard, play hard”.
Let’s assume employees can be “harmoniously passionate“, have a healthy lifestyle and devote a good portion of their time to friends and family. Would you necessarily want to employ them?
Passionate employees care more about what they do. They care about how it’s done. They may even care about the overall mission of the company. Often companies encourage people to get involved and to care deeply about these things. Not everyone takes this to heart, of course. For some this kind of talk is like water off a duck’s back. They roll their eyes as the CEO stands in front of PowerPoint slides depicting the moon landing or how they’re going to use quantum computing to cure cancer.
But some people do feel passionate about their company’s mission or technical vision. They will understandably have stronger feelings about how things are done or whether they are done at all. It’s unlikely that they’ll always agree with leadership on the direction the company takes or decisions that are made in their behalf. Sometimes the inspiring promises that the company makes don’t pan out.
“Sorry, but the quantum computing solution turned out to be too expensive, so we’ll be using 1970s mainframes instead.”
Any employee who is professional and responsible would say, “we’re doing this wrong, this is what we should do instead”. If management decide to ignore their advice many would shrug their shoulders and get on with the next task. A truly passionate employee will campaign for change, research the best options in their own time and make the case for improvement as forcefully as they can.
“It looks like we won’t be directly curing cancer, but gathering statistics on the cancer drugs prescribed over the last ten years.”
Whether it is the leaders or the employee who has the better argument, the difference of opinion can become a serious impediment to progress and morale. The employee may become disgruntled and start looking for a new job or, if they’re making a lot of noise about it, be forced leave the company.
This is unlikely to happen with less passionate employees. Those who work to live rather than living to work. Plenty of my valued colleagues over the years are not at all passionate about their work and I don’t think they should feel guilty about that. I would say they are professional. They want to do a good job, because doing a good job is more satisfying than doing a shoddy one. Being liked by your colleagues means being helpful and responsible. However, they’re not so wedded to the company mission that they’ll feel any great loss if the decisions of senior management put the project or even the company at risk.
The professional rather than passionate person may move on, of course, but it will likely be for more practical reasons – salary, benefits, location or career development. Those things are probably easier to measure and manage than factors like how realistic the company mission is or how inspiring the technical challenges.
“I know you guys are master carpenters hired to carve unique furniture, but we urgently need you to assemble flat pack wardrobes.”
To be clear, I’m happy to work with anyone who is responsible and ethical at work, whether they’re passionate or not. I think it takes all sorts to make a good team. What I dislike is the obsession with passion at the expense of the merely professional.
Passion may be a great motivator, but it is hard to manage properly and can become a destructive force when it is not.