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How a Focus on Passion in the Workplace Can Push Employees Toward Burnout

 How a Focus on Passion in the Workplace Can Push Employees Toward Burnout

How you measure employee engagement can have profound consequences for well-being, according to new research.

Employees want their work to be meaningful, but can you have too much of a good thing?

Employees are two to six times more likely to stay with their organization long-term when they say their work is more than “just a job,” according to Great Place To Work® research. Meaningful work increases the likelihood that employees will have well-being.

Meaning, however, shouldn’t be mistaken for obsession with your work. Research has shown the importance of finding some distance from your work during non-work hours — what researchers call “psychological detachment.”

When employees don’t disconnect from their work, they are more likely to experience long-term fatigue symptoms. And when passion for work becomes an obsession with work, the less likely an employee is to detach and recharge.

Identifying passion in your employees

Ask any employer whether they want their workers to be passionate about their job, and the answer won’t shock anyone: Yes, they prefer passionate employees.

How they determine if someone is passionate, however, is often an impenetrable tangle of personal bias and bad science.

Heather Vough, associate professor of management at George Mason University, has new research into how a focus on passion in creative professions poses risks for employees. Through 116 interviews with 55 employees at two U.S.-based architecture firms between 2006 and 2020, Vough and her co-author Angela Ianniello discovered that managers often rely on instinct rather than science to identify passion in an employee.

“I don’t think they’re measuring anything in any sort of systematic or scientific way,” she says. In one interview, a senior manager described to her his evaluation method: “When I’m in an interview with a new employee, I could just tell if they’re passionate, I can just feel it."

“It’s facial expressions and gestures,” Vough says, “which people are reading as early as your hiring interview to assess: Are you passionate about this?”

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In her view, these imprecise evaluations beg a question: “Are people just conflating extroversion with passion?”

When not trying to assess body language, some managers can resort to other markers that encourage damaging behavior.

Vough gives examples: “I’m willing to work really long hours. I’m willing to not necessarily get paid. I’m willing to make these sacrifices.”

Some managers even claim to be able to detect passion in an employee’s work product by looking at “a building or plan that somebody draws up and tell whether they’re passionate or not.”

The road to burnout

An overemphasis on passion can open employees to exploitation, with management expecting workers to demonstrate their commitment with long-hours and tolerating poor working conditions.

It can also incentivize the performance of passion rather than its authentic presence.

“I can do all the things that make it look like I’m passionate without really being passionate,” Vough explains. Working long hours or coming in on the weekend isn’t a guarantee of improved work product; it’s a recipe for burnout.

Vough hypothesizes that these dynamics are especially acute in creative professions where it’s hard to assess creative performance.

“Instead of necessarily being able to assess an output, I think people rely maybe a little bit more on the behaviors that got to that output and that they associate those behaviors with passion,” she says.

The solution? Reward performance — not vibes.

Vough gives the example of a hiring manager who reported that he ignored accomplishments on a résumé or past work in a portfolio.

“All he wants to know is that they’re passionate,” Vough says. That’s a problem when passion is being assessed with so little objectivity.

Cultivating healthy passion

What can companies do to ensure employees have a healthy amount of passion for their work?

Vough cites the work of Robert Vallerand, who divides passion at work into two types: harmonious and obsessive. 

Obsessive passion, among other characteristics, is defined as an inability to step away from work and a rigidness in how work is pursued. Harmonious passion allows for more flexibility, where inspired employees can pursue areas of interest while maintaining other relationships and entertaining competing priorities.

Employers might value the passion of an employee, but the moment they demand it or incentivize it, they open the door to negative consequences.

Instead, employers should focus on creating high-trust workplaces where they harness workers’ harmonious passion, but refrain from putting pressure on workers to demonstrate their passion at every turn. Otherwise, you risk pushing talented, committed employees out of the organization — or even the industry.

“I had one architect in the first firm that I studied, who looked around at everybody and said, ‘They’re so passionate. I just wish I had that. I don’t have that.’” Vough shares. “And he was thinking about leaving architecture despite finishing school and everything because he just didn’t feel like he had the passion everybody did.”

In Vough’s opinion, those kinds of stories represent a loss for employers.

“That’s a pity to lose a very competent person because they look around and everybody’s doing this performance of passion,” she says.

Her advice: “Have more objective criteria.” Passion is a great thing for a workplace — but it’s not the only thing.

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Ted Kitterman