Friday 25 January 2013

Do you really want passionate employees?

One of the most common themes in job postings is that companies are looking for passionate people. The trend, at least among newer companies in North America is to have an ubiquitous corporate culture where employees' strongest desires is to be at work. The idea is to get employees to take ownership of their work because someone who is personally invested in the project will often spend more hours working unpaid overtime, do a better job, and produce higher quality output, theoretically for similar or even less pay than a non-passionate employee in a non-passionate environment. What company wouldn't want that?

The most obvious sector that requires passionate employees is non-profit.  With fewer resources to pay their employees, no stock options and sometimes no benefits, non-profit organizations rely on the employees and volunteers being passionate about the cause and their work.  
The demand for passionate employees is not limited to non-profits.  The for-profit marketplace, especially in North America, has become hungrier for passionate employees.  Google has become iconic in this regard.  They make a point to hire and retain the most passionate people by fostering a fun corporate culture offering employees 20% time to work on their own side projects, games and gyms on-site, free meals, and subsidized day care. This type of culture has had the effect of employees voluntarily working longer hours, having more of their life centered around the company, and creating many innovative projects.  Attracting and fostering passionate employees has worked very well for Google and has inspired many companies to follow suit, especially internet startups in Silicon Valley.

The Downsides

It isn't all wine and roses; there are a few trade-offs to having a set of passionate employees, and depending on what your company or organization is about, you may want to consider hiring dispassionate employees.

1. Who owns the project?

Although we use the word 'Passion' to mean devotion, the word used to mean suffering.  People are passionate because they are willing to suffer for their work. The passionate employee takes ownership of a project because they are emotionally invested in it.  This is fine, and some projects require this.  However if the passionate employee feels he owns the project, they will resist if management attempts to make changes. If they lose control of their project they could become resentful or disheartened.  This may be true in any organization, but the more passionate the employee, the more strongly they will feel they own the project.

A manager of a project headed by passionate employees must realize the project is largely theirs, and in addition to making strategic decisions, must also be careful to include the employees and help them to feel that they are the ones coming up with the solutions.  

Example: Research has shown that the project should be scaled down because a few aspects are not profitable.
Authoritarian approach: "Team, we're scaling down the project because it's not profitable"  Team stops working on the aspects scaled down and feels like their work is valueless.
Better approach: "Team, the research has shown a few aspects of the project aren't going to be profitable. We're thinking we might have to scale down the project, but wanted to hear from you, because maybe there's a solution we haven't thought of".  Team looks at project, identifies what are the best parts to scale down, may still feel a sense of loss, but not disenfranchisement.

2. Burnout

People are on a constant quest for meaning in their lives.  Passionate employees find meaning in their work more than dispassionate ones.  They love what they do, and can do it all day.  They will work long hours, overtime, weekends, and come up with amazing results because their life's meaning is there.  Organizations reap a lot of benefit from this type of employee and will try to get the most out of them, challenging them with increasingly difficult goals to accomplish greater and greater tasks.  

The danger here, of course is burning the employees out.  It is hard for people to know their limits, especially  if they are passionate about their work.  If your people are spending 7 days a week working, that is time not spent with family.  It's time not spent on hobbies.  It's time not spent recuperating from a hard day at work, and over the long term, the employee's health and family can suffer, and ultimately the quality of their work will degrade.

Start-ups are especially susceptible to burning employees out because so much needs to be done to get the company off the ground. Once the company is rolling, the intense schedule has been established as the norm, and it's difficult to change.

3. Culture Clash

Imagine a passionate young project manager comes in on his first day, hired because of his passion, eager to make a ding in the universe.  He starts at the office, sits down, and is eager to get rolling.  He gets called to a meeting where he is assigned a small project to whet his whistle.  He sits down with his team and comes up with amazing features and improvements that will make the project amazing, and cool and save millions of dollars.  What's not to love?  Then he goes to get started and his boss says "hold on.  These changes need approval from a committee".  He submits the changes and doesn't hear back for a few days.  Finally he gets the response.  None of the changes are approved, no explanation.  He calls up one of the committee members, and goes straight to voicemail.  He leaves a message and doesn't get a call back.  Over lunch one day he pours out his frustration to a co-worker saying "but... I thought this was a passionate, dynamic workplace where we could do amazing things!"  The co-worker chuckles and responds "This place?  Dynamic?  No way."

If you have a structure with a lot of hierarchy and bureaucracy where people have to play politics to get things done, you may not want to hire passionate people just because it worked for Google. For established companies, it's important to be honest about what your company culture is like. Hiring passionate employees into a dispassionate culture will frustrate them.  They may leave, or they may become disillusioned, but either way, it's counter-productive.  


Passionate employees can offer a lot of benefit to a company or organization, but they require a lot of tact to manage.  They thrive in flat structures and creative environments.  They needed to be included in decisions, and reminded to take vacations and balance their lives.  Management needs to look out for their best interests, because even more than dispassionate employees, they will be giving the company their best.  Before making the decision to attract the most passionate talent out there, a manager needs to assess what their culture is really like, and whether passionate employees would be a good fit with their organizational culture.


Anonymous said...

Great article Thanks for writhing it

Anonymous said...

As a passionate employee, I too now see the pros/cons of being so passionate. So I challenge myself to become more well-balanced. Great perspective and supporting evidence! A well-written, easy read!

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