Passion – the Missing Piece in Employee Engagement?

When people talk about employee engagement they typically describe employees who are passionate about their work and their organisation. But the questions used in employee engagement surveys often don’t directly measure this passion. Instead the questions focus on job satisfaction, whether you have the resources you need, how long you want to work there and whether you’d recommend the organisation to others – all important, but not directly measuring passion. There’s also an assumption that all engagement is good engagement, when research suggests there can be a dark side to some types of employee engagement and passion for the work. This may help to explain why ‘engagement’ and ‘performance’ don’t always line up – there’s a missing element in the equation.

Robert Vallerand is a Canadian psychologist who has directed most of his research towards understanding motivation. More recently, his focus has shifted towards the concept of ‘passion’, which he defines as “a strong inclination toward a self-defining activity (or object) that one likes (or even loves), finds important and meaningful, and in which one invests time and energy” (see reference at the end of this blog). The key difference between this and most definitions of motivation and engagement is the ‘self-defining’ element. Vallerand provides an example highlighting that “a passionate tennis player does not simply play tennis, he or she is a tennis player” – their passion defines who they are and how they think about themselves. You can see this passion in response to the simple question we so often ask when we meet people for the first time - “what do you do?”. Some people will start with “I work for Company XYZ” while others will start with “I’m an engineer” or “I’m a father of two kids”. The way the person identifies themselves provides an insight into what they’re passionate about – their organisation, their profession, their family etc. Passion is what most people think of when they picture employee engagement in action.

So the answer to improving employee engagement and producing better results seems simple – recruit people who are passionate about your organisation and the work you perform, be clear about their role and its contribution, give them the tools they need, add a dash of positive feedback, and away you go. Unfortunately it’s not quite that simple, as Vallerand has identified two types of passion – one ‘good’ (harmonious) and one ‘bad’ (obsessive).

Obsessive passion comes to control an individual as they cannot help but undertake the activity that they’re passionate about. It’s easy to identify the passionate poker player as someone who could easily ruin their lives by becoming obsessive in their passion for playing poker and gambling more than they can afford. But perhaps you can also identify people with an obsessive passion for their work – those who ultimately run themselves into the ground pursuing their passion by working long hours, neglecting other ‘competing’ elements in their life like their friends and family, not looking after their health, failing to connect with others. They’re the ones at the barbeque on the weekend avoiding their friends and children in preference for their iPhone or Blackberry.

In contrast, harmonious passion is integrated with the rest of the individual’s life. People with a harmonious passion don’t feel the same uncontrollable urge to undertake the activity. Rather, they freely choose the activity because they enjoy it, not because they feel they must do it. The consequences of harmonious passion are positive for the individual – not just when they’re involved in the activity, but before and after as well. Obsessive passion doesn’t have these positive consequences. Instead it leads to a range of negative consequences such as anxiety and depression, as well as negatively impacting on relationships with others.

It’s easy to mistake obsessive passion for engagement – the person who puts in long hours, is committed to the task and motivated (well, compelled) to keep going long after others have taken a break. Ultimately this type of engagement negatively impacts performance, relationships and the individual.

If this topic is of interest, I recommend making the effort to track down Vallerand’s article through your library (Vallerand, R. J. (2012) From Motivation to Passion: In Search of the Motivational Processes Involved in a Meaningful Life. Canadian Psychology, 53, 1, 42-52.). It's a great summary of 30 years research into what motivates people.