Sunday, October 12, 2008

Is “Passion” a Reasonable Performance Expectation?

I love what I do. I’m totally jazzed about leadership, leadership development, my department, and my company. I’m a rah rah, a cheerleader, and try hard never to be cynical or critical.

In other words, I’m PASSIONATE about my work.

Not every day, 100% of the time. I have my moments. But most of the time.

It’s not my nature to be this way. I have to work at it. I consider it an important part of my job as a leader. I’ve also found I’m more successful and satisfied when I feel this way about my job and company.

Here’s the dilemma, though. As a leader, is it a fair and reasonable expectation to expect our employees to be passionate about their work? What if an employee’s doing an adequate job, but just don’t give a @#%*?

I think I know what the HR answer would be: probably not. I’ve never seen “passion” in a job description or a performance appraisal. Somehow I don’t firing someone for a lack of passion holding up in court.

But as a leader, I don’t just want someone that’s just good at what they do; I want them to be good and love it. To me, it’s that enthusiasm for the job that separates most “A” players from the rest of the pack. Those kinds of employees raise the spirit and performance of those around them.

While I realize all organizations have a bell performance distribution curve, I’m greedy – I want ALL “A” players on my team. Shouldn’t every leader? Isn’t that the kind or leader, and organization, you’d rather work for?

But what about “mundane” jobs – how can you possibly get passionate about, say, delivering mail for the US postal service? Fred can. How about a Walmart greeter? Marty did.

Am I out of line here? Passion, commitment and enthusiasm about our work is a personal choice. Can we as leaders, expect it from our employees? Or do we just hope for it and appreciate it when we get it?


Unknown said...

Interesting concept this, and an interesting word.

I looked it up after I'd seen Mel Gibson's film about the Passion of Christ. 'Passion' didn't sit well with the awful torture onscreen.

I found that it derived from

...Late Latin, physical suffering, martyrdom, sinful desire, from Latin, an undergoing, from passus, past participle of pat, to suffer;

Only relatively recently has it taken on the meanings we hear now:

A powerful emotion, such as love, joy, hatred, or anger...Boundless enthusiasm. etc.

There's a downside to passion regardless of what the derivation though, isn't there? It can lead to burnout and/or cynicism for example.

Do we want people to suffer for their work? And do we want 'powerful emotions' in the workplace? I don't know what the answer is Dan, but I suppose that nowadays I'd be happy with more or less consistent enthusiasm in an employee.

Anonymous said...


This is a reasonable question in a world of hype. And there's enough hype in the Leadership Development community to take care of the rest of the world's population.

Your post caused me to sit back and think about how we've somehow reached a "need for 'passion'" in order to be seen as competent and successful. So I thought back over the years to what was happening in the world of work at the time. If no one guessed my age by this point, they will now:-) :

1969. As a Drill Sergeant in the Army, the operative word was "motivation" or "motivated" people. That phrase--along with "productivity"-- made it through my years in Higher Ed. during the '70s as well.

1977-mid '80s. As a manager in a Fortune 50, followed by the incorporation of my consulting group, I watched as "commitment" emerged as the "must have"; Tom Peters and Bob Waterman bumped up the game with the notion of "Excellence." This led to everyone's mission statement including a "Commitment to Excellence."

1990s: I'm not sure, but I believe it was the Gallup folks who brought us the importance of "engaged employees".

2000+: Passion. I guess being motivated, productive, committed, excellent, and engaged just wasn't enough to satisfy the need for doing business really well. Now, one has to somehow be perceived as "passionate" in order to be considered a current--or future--"high performer."

I would challenge any two people to evaluate a person's 'performance + demeanor while performing' and come out with the same take on that person's "passion." It's an internal feeling and experienced differently by different people. And while it sells a lot of books and stirs up the possibility of "passionate workplaces," it clearly hasn't done a thing in and of itself to improve business operations as a performance indicator or hiring tool.

Workers from entry-level up to the top want to know what success looks like, how it will be measured, and whether or not they will get rewarded or zapped for doing the right things. If they don't seem "passionate" but still get the job done exceedingly well, who cares?

If they aren't enthusiastic about their role, it will show in their performance. In that case, they need to be confronted with options that will either match their talents within the company or given a mandate to find a place that's a better fit.

Passion sure is a terrific thing for each of us to possess. And it's exponentially more satisfying during those moments when we're in a work group that shares our enthusiasm for what's being done.

Punch line: I believe that "Passion" is not a reasonable performance expectation. I wouldn't want to be the manager or HR rep who was trying to explain a performance review or termination based on "passion factor." (I would, however, like to be the employee's attorney:-)

I hope more folks weigh in. This is an unbelievably meaningful topic because of the extensive use and mis-use of the term.

Keep writing. . .

Dan McCarthy said...

Deb –
Thanks’ for an insightful look at passion to the extreme. Sure, I’ll take consistent enthusiasm too.

Steve –
Wow! You have a way of saying, “yes, you’re out of line, and let me tell you why” in a way that made me listen, think, laugh, and alter my perspective (a bit).
Passionate, engaged, committed, motivated…. I guess it’s all the same. But the question remains the same – is it enough to just be good at a job? Or can a leader expect you to really like it too?

Unknown said...

Steve - your potted history of whatever 'it' is was very good and it made me think too.

I guess I was saying that passion is actually about suffering in essence. Who wants employees who are suffering? Completely unsustainable.

You make very strong points about increasing hyperbole and superlatives. We have a new age in which we just have to stop this spin and boosterism. We've living through the crash of such boosterism right now. There are many financiers etc feeling very - uh - passionate right now...

I wonder why we can't just have 'does a competent job, gets on well with colleagues and customers, punctual, rarely misses a deadline, rarely off sick, and comes up with some very good ideas that have helped to improve daily workflow..' etc.?

Anonymous said...

Great post Dan! I too want a team full of "A" players!

I chose your post as part of my Rainmaker 'Fab Five' blog picks of the week as found here:

Be well Dan and keep the good stuff coming!

Chris Young

Dan McCarthy said...

thanks, Chris!

Mary Jo Asmus, President, Aspire Collaborative Services LLC said...

Hi Dan,

Thought-provoking post and comments!

A theme went through my head as I read this one. It has to do with responsibility, ala servant leadership-style.

Could it be that a leader, rather than "expecting" that an employee have passion (and leave him or her to their own devices to find it), is responsible for making the conditions right for an employee to get in touch with their passion at work?

I'll bet most leaders want impassioned employees. The question here is what is the leader's responsibility for that?

Anonymous said...


Gee, I got so passionate about my mini-rant that I forgot to answer your straightforward questions:

"Is it enough to just be good at a job? Or can a leader expect you to really like it too?"

As a long time employer:

a. I want a person who is good at the job.

b. Liking the job rests, in part, on me as the employer. If I hire a genuinely competent person who then appears disgruntled, that means it's time for a serious discussion. Often there is something that has to do (in my business) with scheduling, travel, client interaction, or me. Those things can be changed. I also ask a serious question: "How do you express your enthusiasm?" That's important. There are plenty of people who don't emote much but are seriously wrapped up in their work. Their expression is more internal.

If the alleged issues are addressed and a person really isn't pumped to be part of what we're doing, then it's time to part ways.

This all comes back to bosses being involved with their people. If you don't know what makes them tick, then you can't actually tell if they're ticking!

Anonymous said...

I think a lot hinges on what you mean by "expect." If you intend to reward based on "passionate," it would be a good idea to have some way to measure it that allows for different styles.

Two of the subjects in my great supervisor study illustrate the point. They were both excellent supervisors. Their teams were high producers. Morale was high. Their peers, bosses, and team members all rate them as excellent.

But they were diametrically opposed in personal style. Bill was loud and obviously enthusiastic. Dennis was quiet and calm. I interviewed them and spent time with them. Both were passionate about their work and great producers, but I doubt that many people would call Dennis, "enthusiastic."

The problem compounds when you add different cultural backgrounds to the mix. "Passionate" is like pornography, difficult to define, but easy to spot when it's in front of us.

Dan McCarthy said...

Deb, Mary Jo, Steve, Wally -
Thanks for weighing in. Nice job.
I collectively think we've got an answer!

Unknown said...

Go Team!!

Anonymous said...


This is a good example of the use of the medium. It really is all about the conversation when you get one going.

Nice job.

john castledine said...


Excellent thought provoking post - thank you.

I feel Mary Jo has hit the nail on the head ... we should focus on the people-manager's role and be asking questions of them if they drain (rather than fuel) the passion of their employees.