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We Need More Passion for the Work, Not the Organization

Kathy Sierra, one of my favorite bloggers, posted the other day about passion at work. She argues that we shouldn't be asking employees to feel passionate about the organization they work for, but the work that they do.

What does it mean for me to be passionate about my work, as opposed to passionate about my organization?

A passion for work means that:

  • I'm committed to principles of excellence and quality that are inherent to that profession, regardless of the organization for which I work.
  • There are core skills and knowledge that are fundamental to me doing my work well and I do what I can to continually update my skills and knowledge so I'm the best at what I do.
  • I feel a certain pride in the quality of the work that I do that, again, is not dependent on the organization where I'm working. Sadly, there are many organizations that do not put a premium on quality work, but for those who are passionate about what they do, it doesn't matter. Good work is its own reward.
  • I am better able to work with my organization to continually improve what we do, at least in terms of the role that I play. Because I'm exposing myself to new ideas, new skills and new knowledge to do my job well, I will bring these things into the organization and be able to use them to always get better at what we do. In addition, because I'm committed first to my profession, I will tend to be more willing to challenge the organizational status quo when it doesn't support my ability to do my work well.

By comparison, Kathy argues that people who are passionate about the organization tend to exhibit these qualities:

  • The ultimate team player who goes along with the group rather than voice dissent
  • Works late nights and weekends because "everyone needs to pitch in on this project"
  • Defends the company to anyone, anywhere that criticizes or questions its products, policies, or practices
  • Puts responsibility to employer above responsibility to customers, without question
  • Questions, but does not challenge the status quo
  • Is well-liked because they do whatever is asked, enthusiastically
  • Accepts (and uses) phrases like, "this is what corporate needs us to do."
  • Cares a lot about his career path in the company; focused on getting management recognition.

While many of these seem like great traits to have in an employee, they are not necessarily the qualities that will actually improve an organization's performance. These people tend to be the "followers" not the leaders, the individuals who will not drive an organization to get better at what they do but to maintain the status quo. Probably the most damaging factor here is that these are the people who are committed to the organization, not to the customer. And without a commitment to the customer, your organization has a major problem.

To find out if someone is passionate about what they do, Kathy suggests a four-question test:

  • When was the last time you read a trade/professional journal or book related to your work? (can substitute "attended an industry conference or took a course")
  • Name at least two of the key people in your field.
  • If you had to, would you spend your own money to buy tools or other materials that would improve the quality of your work?
  • If you did not do this for work, would you still do it (or something related to it) as a hobby?

I love this test because when I think about the staff I know who are passionate about their work, they would all score well in these four areas. I also think that from a career development perspective, these are some good questions to ask yourself because they will tell you a lot about your feelings for your work.

Passion at work is critical. It drives and motivates like nothing else. The key, though, is to look more carefully at where that passion is directed. And I think Kathy's thoughts take us into some pretty good territory for evaluating where we are putting our passions.

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