Passion in need of a champion

The best workers will find their own way, but if you want your organization to thrive, supporting them has to be a priority


Posted by John Hagel III on November 13, 2014

“I never ask for permission. I just do it.”

“I get restless often.”

“I want my work to make an impact on something important to society.”

“I have a series of mini-failures every day.”

“I like to know that what I’m doing matters to the company.”

“I don’t want to do anything that I can’t learn from.”

For an HR executive, these statements pose a challenge. How does your organization treat people who might make these statements or operate with these beliefs? Does your performance management system recognize or penalize them? Does management encourage this type of employee or view them with suspicion or perhaps, unwittingly—as is often the case—do the daily processes and policies of the organization subtly discourage these behaviors, wearing the employee down bit by bit or sending a message that they belong elsewhere?

These words, and the sentiments behind them, came directly from high-performing individuals—people that I and my colleagues at the Center for the Edge identified from our personal networks as being passionate workers. We interviewed them for our recent report, Passion at Work: Cultivating worker passion as a cornerstone of talent development.

Workers who have what we call the “passion of the Explorer” have an orientation toward learning that can drive extreme and sustained performance improve­ment—just what organizations need during a time when rapid technological and public policy changes are causing mounting performance pressures and continuous market challenges. So who are these valuable employees and what do HR professionals need to do to find and develop them?

Every year we survey over 3000 US workers to assess the prevalence of such behaviors as embracing challenges, seeking learning experiences, connecting with others to solve tricky problems, and trying to make an impact. This year, working with Deloitte Analytics, we dug deeper into the data, testing common preconceptions and looking for predictive insights that could help leaders and managers better identify what aspects of the work environment attract and support passionate workers. What we found (as described further in the following videos), is that although passion is rare (only 12.7% of the US workforce has it), it isn’t restricted to a select group of people: passionate workers can be found in every age group, education level, job level, at firms large and small, and in all geographies.

Based on the broad potential for passion, cultivating, and supporting passionate behaviors in your organization’s existing workforce—rather than looking externally—may be the most effective way to bring more passion into the organization. First, recognize that passionate workers outperform their peers because of their internal drive for sustained learning and performance improvement. Take risks to cultivate these dispositions, and passionate workers will take risks for you in return. Next, evaluate your organization’s work environment–including policies, management systems, and practices–to understand where they encourage passion—and where they discourage it.

What can an HR leader do to improve passion?

What gets measured gets managed, right? So how can you assess the passion levels in your organization and determine if you’re on the right trajectory? While it might be tempting to add “passion” as another capability or core value on employees’ performance assessment, “requiring” passion would almost certainly miss the point and wouldn’t be the most effective way to address the dispassionate. Why? First, the performance review system of most large companies tends to focus on whether workers performed their assigned tasks in a reliable way and how well they “get along” and play by the rules. This system tends to reward workers for doing the job exactly as defined and often discourages workers who experiment with new ideas and ways of working or who pursue ongoing relationships focused on learning and solution-finding. Second, many dispassionate workers have long ago figured out how to “game” the system—doing just the minimum expected to keep their job or get the next raise or promotion. If anything, most performance reviews are implicitly designed to squelch, if not penalize, passion and send a clear message that the system will reward workers who tightly-specify their job description and then perform those tasks without deviation.

Could performance reviews be redesigned to recognize and reward the behaviors characteristic of the worker passion? Maybe—new review categories could focus more attention on eagerness to seek out new challenges, willingness to take risks and the effort made to reach out and connect with others to improve performance. But managers must recognize that passionate workers are typically not driven by external ratings or compensation increases—extrinsic rewards are not significant motivators–although the structures designed to parse out extrinsic rewards can be demotivating.

Passionate workers are often their own harshest critics — they pursue learning in order to reach that next level of performance because they want to make more of an impact and fulfill more of their own potential.

A key to drawing out and amplifying the passion of employees, then, is not in the performance review but in redesigning the work environment to actively support accelerated learning by: (1) helping workers focus on the performance challenges that are most important to the performance of the company; (2) helping them connect more effectively with others who they can learn from to address these performance challenges; and (3) providing them with infrastructure and tools that can amplify the impact of their efforts.

The challenge is that no one executive has overall accountability for work environments and their impact on learning and performance improvement. Elements of the work environment are controlled by facilities management, the IT department, human resources and general managers. There is a big white space that could be targeted by creative HR executives and Chief Learning Officers. However, it would require these executives to champion learning as the only viable strategy and challenge the broader system that is deeply ambivalent about, if not hostile to, worker passion. Until they are able to unleash the passion of all employees, the company will likely be at an increasing disadvantage relative to companies that figure it out first.

us_JohnHagel_56x56 John Hagel III has nearly 35 years of experience as a management consultant, author, speaker and entrepreneur, and has helped companies improve their performance by effectively applying new generations of technology to reshape business strategies. John currently serves as co-chairman of the Silicon Valley-based Deloitte Center for the Edge.

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