Business Journal

A Passion for Work

by Kenneth A. Tucker

Why your employees need it -- and how you can instill it

At the end of the movie Serendipity, one of the main characters makes this statement: "The Greeks did not write obituaries. They simply asked, 'Did he have passion?'"

This quote is inspiring because it suggests that passion is central to the quality of human life. It suggests that we should live with gusto -- with excitement and wonder -- so that when we pass away, we will rest contented, having employed fully the unique talents with which we were blessed.

This quote is more than simply inspirational. It is a clarion call to those who spend their lives working in jobs they dislike or hate. Every day, too many people spend more than half of their waking hours doing work for which they feel no passion. This statement challenges those people to avoid a work life of doom and gloom. It implicitly admonishes them: "Get out! Don't waste your life!"

"Few people discover the work they love," writes Lance Secretan in his book, Inspirational Leadership. For many people, finding the work they love is a long-surrendered high-school ideal. Instead, each morning they pry themselves out of bed, slip into semi-consciousness, and cruise through the day until the last 45 minutes, when they wait with bated breath for the moment they can leave. Work is what they must do, not what they love to do.

Their disengagement has profound implications for companies. Simply put, passion, or its absence, isn't just a philosophical or psychological matter -- it's a business problem, too. Far too many companies lack employees who are passionate about their work, and they flounder, or just get by.

But some companies instill passion and thrive as a result. Ask Herb Kelleher, founder and chairman of Southwest Airlines, and he will tell you that passion means money in the bank for his company. Fly on one of Southwest's flights, and you soon come to know why their slogan, "the airline that love built," articulates the passion of their employees. "At far too many companies, when you come into the office you put on a mask," writes Kelleher in Leader to Leader. "We try not to hire people who are humorless, self-centered, or complacent, so when they come to work, we want them, not their corporate clones. They are what makes us different, and in most enterprises, different is better."

Passion helps to engage an organization. When people discover the work that they love, work becomes more than a job -- it becomes a unique calling, a life's mission. People with passion for their work engage each other and their customers. No wonder in a time when many airlines are filing for bankruptcy, or at least lobbying for federal assistance, Southwest Airlines has had another profitable year. Southwest hires and develops people with a passion for their work, and customers see and feel this in almost every interaction.

This became very clear to me in a conversation I recently had with a woman named Monica. "I was traveling on Southwest Airlines when I had an experience that I will never forget," she told me. "In fact, this experience helped me to make a very important life decision."

Monica related that as she was waiting to board a flight, she saw a little girl crying. As the flight attendant comforted her, Monica gathered that she was traveling alone and was worried about leaving her mother. Later, from her seat across the aisle, Monica saw that the girl remained distressed.

Then the flight attendant did something "absolutely amazing," Monica recalled. "She pulled out her credit card and helped the girl make a telephone call to her grandparents. As I eavesdropped, I surmised that her grandparents assured her they would be waiting for her when the plane landed."

But that wasn't all, Monica said: "That little girl's world was positively changed because of that attendant. So was mine. That was the moment I decided to accept the job Southwest had offered me."

Companies like Southwest know that passion in the workplace drives a relentless desire to help and please, an audacious goal that motivates, a hunger for excellence that's insatiable, a thirst for success that's unquenchable, and a devotion to an organization that's unfailing. Passion drives the entrepreneur, motivates the athlete, calls the missionary, and births the leader. "It's been two and a half years since that day," Monica said, "and Southwest continues to be a great place for me to work."

Can we get some passion over here?
The problem is, such passion is all too rare in the workplace because organizations don't know how to cultivate it. For instance, how can you know if your recent hire will have passion for her new job? How do you stoke an existing employee's passion for his current task? How do you help the 30-year veteran maintain passion for her role?

Can you inject passion? Manufacture or clone it? No, no, and no, on all counts. Passion is innate. It exists in every person, but not everyone brings it to his or her present role at work.

Two recent discoveries by The Gallup Organization offer insights into why passion is rare in U.S. workplaces:

  • 55% of the U.S. working population is not engaged at work.
  • 16% of the U.S. working population is actively disengaged.

These statistics tell the sad story of an unmotivated workforce and may foreshadow the end of many organizations. These organizations will quickly earn the reputation of doing slipshod work, or at least, of doing the bare minimum, and they will atrophy.

The best organizations, however, hire and develop employees who are passionate about what they do, and those employees do whatever it takes to engage customers. For example, the guest relations-specialist who works at one of our offices told me that her job is to meet and greet guests, but she has a needle and thread ready, "just in case, because you never know when one of our guests will lose a button." This is an engaged employee -- a person who is 100% psychologically and emotionally committed to her work.

A mere 29% of the U.S. working population is engaged. And yet they are the ones we all remember. They are people, like the Southwest flight attendant, who have a passion for their jobs, and they keep us coming back: Once we interact with employees who are passionate about their work, we compare everyone else to them. Our logic goes something like this: "This employee loves her job and is good at it, and she gets immense satisfaction from helping me. I like this arrangement. I like flying with this airline. In fact, I'd rather fly with them than almost anyone else." Interacting with someone who obviously loves her job translates not only into kudos for the employee, but into increased customer engagement with the employee's organization.

So how can managers foster passion in the workplace? Gallup has discovered that great workplaces:

  • identify the strengths of all employees so employees get the opportunity to do what they do best
  • hire people into the right jobs, so they can use their talents more often and more effectively
  • hire great managers who are engaged and passionate about helping others discover their talents
  • create an environment that encourages employees to become more engaged and passionate about their roles

Managers who want to instill more passion and commitment can start by:

  • creating an environment where people come to know and understand their unique strengths
  • giving employees the opportunity to use their unique strengths more often
  • placing employees in roles that stretch their talents and strengths
  • outrageously rewarding employees whose passions drive their talents to world-class performance

Everybody has passion. Few people have jobs that activate their passion. Everybody has talent. Few people have jobs that demand full use of their talents and strengths. Organizations ought to make passion and strengths-based management a requirement. World-class organizations already do. They look beyond a person's resume, work experience, or education. Instead, they use sound selection instruments to discover: "Does this person have passion for excellence? Does she have strong feelings that help her to never give up? Does she love challenges? Is she easily motivated?" In sum, "What are her talents, strengths, and passions, and how can we leverage them?"

But before you go and try to instill this level of commitment in your work force, let me first put the question directly to you: In your job, do you have passion?

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