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“Passion” May Be Part of the Employee Engagement Issue

Nearly three years ago, I wrote a longform piece at LinkedIn, posing the question: “What if the advice to ‘do what you love’ has created a well of dissatisfaction among American workers?”

What prompted my introspection was a Gallup study of workforce engagement which suggested that less than one-third of the U.S. workforce reported being “engaged” at work. A similar Gallup study focusing on the German laborforce found a similarly alarming lack of engagement among the workforce, but that study offered some clues as to the reason for the engagement conundrum, and perhaps to the fix, as well:

“The analysis revealed that three engagement elements are vital to reducing or repairing workplace burnout among workers: receiving regular praise and recognition for good work, having the materials and equipment to deliver quality work, and feeling that their opinions count at work,” Gallup said. “Workers who gave low ratings to these three items — 8% of all workers in Germany, or an estimated 2.7 million employees — were more likely than workers who gave high ratings to all three to say they felt burned out because of stress in the last 30 days.”

In my analysis of the Gallup data, I pondered if there were any generational issues at play – remember that in 2015, news stories were rife with stories about Millennials and the challenges they presented to corporate America – and suggested that perhaps there was a linkage between what Gallup learned about German workers lack of engagement, and the growing number of Millennials in American companies.

…and while folks in the Millennial demo didn’t take too kindly to the implications that they are “anti-work” far removed from the dutiful mold of their forebears, there is ample reason and evidence to believe that the more idealistic nature of this generation isn’t just something older coworkers and employers have dreamed up. As a fellow-barely-30something writer put it recently, this generation of worker “doesn’t want to be another cog in the wheel.”

“Tell us why we should care. Why does your company exist? How does each team member’s role contribute to that purpose?” tech start-up CEO Ryan Gillenwater opined at “Clearly articulate this and refer back to it in daily behavior and decisions.”

That sounds like the sentiments expressed by the unengaged U.S. workers Gallup surveyed in June, and their burnt-out German counterparts.

Fast-forward nearly three years, and the concepts discussed in that LinkedIn piece are still relevant, particularly as worker engagement hasn’t improved much, if at all. The reason for that, I propose, is that we have spent a generation or more telling high school and college students entering the workforce to “do what you love,” or to “find your passion.”

That is a well-intended bit of advice that creates a problem: If your central barometer for workplace happiness is the passion you feel for your job, I would suggest that you have set yourself up for almost-guaranteed disappointment.

Very, very few careers, let alone individual jobs, are going to engender this type of wild-eyed joy that the “do what you love” concept implies. I have a great job, a fantastic boss, and I enjoy my coworkers and clients. Would I rather be spending my time doing something else, like reading good books or playing with my daughter? Youbetcha. Work is work – you hope that your job and career are meaningful and fulfilling, but at the end of the day, we work to live, not the other way around.

When we set work up as this idealized outlet for our life’s passions, we set ourselves up to burn out quickly and be disappointed with our day’s toil… and I think that’s a good part of the reason we saw so many articles in 2015 pointing out the disconnects between the millennial generation and their baby boomer employers – Millennials have only ever known this concept of “do what you love,” so when they get to a typical job, particularly in those early years after college, they find out that it’s not exactly the rose garden they envisioned when they signed on.

I was reminded of this piece, and my conclusions, when a colleague pointed me toward a bit of research from Stanford University on this very topic. In a summary of the research, Stanford noted that former postdoctoral fellow Paul O’Keefe and Stanford psychologists Carol Dweck and Gregory Walton examined beliefs that may lead people to succeed or fail at developing their interests.

Mantras like “find your passion” carry hidden implications, the researchers say. They imply that once an interest resonates, pursuing it will be easy. But, the research found that when people encounter inevitable challenges, that mindset makes it more likely people will surrender their newfound interest.

And the idea that passions are found fully formed implies that the number of interests a person has is limited. That can cause people to narrow their focus and neglect other areas.

Thinking to my own role, I remember the first year or two I was in this position. Everything was new and exciting! And then, as I settled in, the work became more difficult. Clients’ expectations evolved, people I had developed relationships with moved into different positions, the economic forces at play shifted how my clients spent their advertising budgets, and so on.

In other words, the novelty had worn off, and the work began. It was difficult, and I was often frustrated.

While the Stanford research didn’t speak specifically about work, the findings have some relevance to the workplace. Instead of “finding” your passion, the authors suggest developing a passion.

“If you look at something and think, ‘that seems interesting, that could be an area I could make a contribution in,’ you then invest yourself in it,” said Walton. “You take some time to do it, you encounter challenges, over time you build that commitment.”

Dweck, the Lewis and Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology, noted: “My undergraduates, at first, get all starry-eyed about the idea of finding their passion, but over time they get far more excited about developing their passion and seeing it through. They come to understand that that’s how they and their futures will be shaped and how they will ultimately make their contributions.”

…and there’s nothing that says that passion has to be at the job site. Perhaps decoupling the advice about “passion” from our daily toil, and instead remembering that we can develop passions from our hobbies, our Faith, and our families, could help us all find more contentment and engagement.

Even at work.

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