Once upon a time, passion for work was limited to artists and fire-brand politicians. But in today’s workplace, it seems to be all the rage. LinkedIn is full of people who are passionate about everything from customer service to quantity surveying and even embroidery. And employers seem to want people who are passionate about a type of work, a product or brand or a cause. But what does it actually mean and is it really so valuable?
Passion suggests extremely intense feelings about something: “I am so interested in/committed to/excited by this that I feel compelled to do it”. Who wouldn’t want work like that? And what organisation would turn down someone with that level of fervour? Well here are five reasons I think passion is over-hyped and unhelpful:
1. It’s self-absorbed
Before passion made its way into the workplace, we used to make do with enthusiasm. People got enthusiastic about specific things but could also be generally enthusiastic people who brought that enthusiasm to bear on whatever they happened to be doing.
These days it’s different. You are encouraged to ‘find your passion’. To identify that thing, that one special thing, which lights your fire and then do that whole-heartedly, single-mindedly, joyously. It’s part of our quest for meaning and, particularly, for meaning through the expression of our individuality. “This is me, doing what I do, being who I am and the result is this great work”.
But if it’s that fundamental to you, what happens if you are thwarted? Or if you come up against someone else’s passion and the two clash? Just how much more personal does criticism feel if your work is you and you are your work? We could be creating a workforce full of people who ‘just have to do what they have to do’ because this is who they are, regardless of how well it works for anyone else or the organisation as a whole.
2. It’s elitist
Wouldn’t it be lovely if we could all ‘find our passion’ and everyone ended up doing something they just love doing? But for society to function, we’d have to believe that someone’s passion is gutting fish or collecting rubbish or cleaning hotel rooms. And it isn’t, is it? Someone has to do the jobs most of us don’t want to do.
Anyone can try to find satisfaction in a job well done, even it’s ‘look how clean this toilet is’. Many people enjoy the camaraderie and social interaction they get from their work, even if the work is tedious. But passion is something different and it doesn’t seem to be available to everyone. People whose work is their passion may easily come to believe that their job is incredibly important because it means so much to them. I suspect society as a whole would notice much more rapidly if cleaners, train drivers and shelf stackers stopped working than if branding consultants, interior designers and, yes, business psychologists called it a day. It’s not that this work doesn’t have value, of course it does, but let’s not be quite so precious about it.
3. It creates unrealistic expectations
If you’re one of the lucky ones who has found your passion, then your working life will be just peachy, won’t it? “Find something you love to do and you’ll never have to work a day in your life” runs a particularly glib motivational quote that pops up frequently on social media. Your passion will burn bright, you will be motivated and happy all the time. Utter tosh.
I’m one of the lucky ones. I find my job incredibly fulfilling. But am I H-A-P-P-Y every working minute of the day? Of course not. Do I leap out of bed on a cold, wet winter morning, knowing I have an hour or so of the M4 ahead of me before I meet I client? No. Some parts of my job are necessary but tedious and mundane. Luckily not many, but some. Life is like that. I think really everyone knows that but all this talk about passion makes it unacceptable to admit to boredom or frustration. Even as a psychologist, who should know better, I can find myself thinking I should feel something different from what I’m actually feeling when faced with people describing their passion. Which brings me to my next objection………
4. It creates emotional work
The sociologist Arlie Russel Hochschild coined the term ‘emotional labour’ to describe the work involved in portraying an emotion you’re not actually feeling. Much of the research focused on airline cabin crew, so you can imagine the type of work I mean – smiling sweetly non-stop from Heathrow to JFK regardless of how obnoxious the passengers are. This type of work is generally reserved for public-facing roles.
But what if you join a ‘passionate’ company? The mission statement might say “We are passionate about…..” So there you go. Be passionate, it’s your job. Regardless of how you actually feel, you know what emotion you’re meant to display.
Of course, passion also has an emotional downside – tempestuous relationships, artists ripping a canvas apart when a painting goes wrong, that kind of thing. Is this really the sort of behaviour we want in offices up and down the country? People sweeping everything off their desks and rushing out screaming because their spreadsheets won’t reconcile or PowerPoint is playing up. I think not.
5. It leads to poor recruitment
I recently saw a trailer for the film Marguerite, about a rich woman whose passion for opera leads her to put on – and star in – her own productions. The only problem is that no one is brave enough to tell her that she can’t sing. Being passionate about something doesn’t guarantee you’ll be any good at it. I’ve assessed plenty of people whose capability doesn’t match their enthusiasm. Organisations are often blinded by a passionate candidate, something which tends to give extroverts an advantage over quieter, but no less capable, introverts.
It’s great if people enjoy their work and are happy. But just how happy do they have to be and is it compulsory? Surely it should be enough for someone to come to work and diligently do a good job without them having to sing it from the rooftops.
I once bought a stain removal product, which, according to the box, works because they “care about cleaning”. Call me an old cynic but I want it to work because they understand chemistry. It’s the same recruiting people – great if they’re enthusiastic, even better if they know what they’re doing. If you need help distinguishing the two in any senior appointments you’re making, do let me know: email@example.com.
Where is your passion?