What is passion at work?

“I’m passionate about understanding customers’ credit history and demographics so that I can blah, blah, blah…”


The interview was off to an inauspicious start. The question, “What are you passionate about?” was designed to put the senior manager at ease and allow him to talk freely. He was applying for his own role in a management restructure and I thought this question would be an easy one to start with.

The question, and the questioning string which followed it, was also designed to see how people’s minds worked on a topic that brought purpose to their life. It did not matter about which topic they were passionate. It mattered that they were manifestly passionate about something.

Benefits of passion

Having passion at work affords people purpose. Without purpose, people drift through life underachieving. Often, that sense of under or non-achievement can eat at their sense of self-worth. Passion need not be about work, it can be about a hobby, a sport, a social undertaking or about family, to name a few.

Recognising passion

Passion is fairly easy to spot. People with passion about a topic may not speak about the topic often. However, when they do they will do so with certainty, a tone and pace of voice that demands attention and body language which is positive and assertive.

That may mean that in an environment where people are quiet and reserved the passionate person adopts a higher pitched faster paced voice. In an environment of noticeably excited speakers, the opposite may be true. The key observation is that on the topic about which they are passionate, they strive to be noticed.

The degree to which they strive to be noticed is usually out of synch with their usual behaviour.

Creating a passion friendly work environment

Two elements of an individual’s capacity for work must be in alignment for true passion to flower. The individual must be both willing and able.

article - passion at work - willing able matrix

Willing and Able:

Those who are both willing and able to do their job well will have found purpose in their role. Our role as leaders is to stretch them even further. Stretching may include but not be limited to:

  • Empowering them to make decisions; giving them more authority over budget, tactics, or even strategy
  • Put them on a project team where their knowledge, skills and personality can be used to influence others
  • Allow them to work in an allied area to see how the other half of an end-to-end process they know well works
  • Ask them to complete a review of the operation of an area they do not know well.

Willing but Not Able:

Those who are very willing but unable need to be coached and mentored. Dependent on the level of inability, use the following transition:

  • Start with directional coaching. Tell them what to do, when, how, why, where and with whom. Check often that they are able to follow the direction given. Do not allow them to fail through lack of direction and support as they learn.
  • Move to non-directional coaching. Give them the big picture; the key issues and the most important aspects of the outcomes to be achieved. Ask them questions about how they would proceed. Ask them “What” questions about the potential consequences of how they might proceed. Allow them to learn by trial and error in discussion verbally or by writing a paper before alllowing them to trial a method you both think may work. Use the Plan/Do/Check/Act cycle of continuous improvement to create an environment where active experimentation, reflection and implementation is the norm.
  • Move to mentoring. For example, on a project topic, ask them what their objectives are. Ask them what are the pros and cons of different approaches they have considered. Ask them what they have considered in terms of communication to stakeholders who have power about the actions they might take. Ask them what contingencies they have planned. On a personal note, ask them what they want work colleagues to remember them for. Ask them what they want to be remembered for in life. Help them reframe their wants in work and life into the present day and the next few career moves.

NOTE: Mentoring should be used with those who are willing and able too.

Able but Unwilling:

Those who are able but unwilling provide the greatest challenge to creating an environment that fosters passion; much more so than those who are unwilling and unable.

The reason is twofold. This group needs to have a change in behaviours which closely align with their personality. Personalities develop at a very early age and are notoriously difficult to change. They are also likely to be a group closely watched by others to see how we reward them.

The first task of a leader with the able but unwilling is to inspire them. This is a tough and rewarding task.

To inspire people we have to tap into some inner desire or inner value. This usually means delving into their personal life; not in an intrusive way but in a way that allows them to express, perhaps for the first time, what matters to them.

Powerful metaphors such as a retirement speech or a deathbed soliloquy can be used here: the results of which may include a change of job or career. Career and desires/values mismatches are often the cause of unwillingness.

If using these powerful metaphors which require a degree of confidence and facilitation skills is not what you think you can accomplish as a leader, then another pragmatic tool may be of use.

If you can get the individual to admit that they have the ability but not the willingness or desire to do the job well, the “five whys” technique is a good tool to use to help them discover why they are not willing.

The “five whys” technique in this context asks the first why question: “Why is it that you find yourself unwilling to execute this role to the best of your ability?” The second “why” question picks up on the object of their answer and asks; “Why is that … <object of the answer>?” Ask a “Why” question in this style until it seems that you have arrived at the root cause. Usually it takes no more than five “Why” questions.

Unwilling and Unable:

Often people who fall into this category have been counselled for poor performance or poor attitude. Some will have been traumatised by a change which was very significant to them and with which they did not cope well.

It is tempting to offer sympathy to this group. Doing so makes it very difficult to create an environment in which people with passion will thrive.

Offer empathy, not sympathy. Offer empathy couched in terms of, “What are you going to do about your problem?” Work with the individual to provide an environment where they can fix their problem. Do not create an environment where everybody else in the team sees that those who are unwilling and unable are offered succour. To do so shifts the balance of those who are wavering between passion and apathy to favour apathy.

Passion cannot be taught. It comes from within. Many of us do not discover passion until late in life, if ever. We travel a journey of trial and error until we find an emotionally uplifting topic or activity. As a leader, all you can do is to provide the environment in which those with passion thrive and those who are not passionate are given every opportunity to discover their passion.

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