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How to foster workplace passion

If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.
— Martin Luther King Jr.

The staff that I inherited as head of school included a wonderfully talented office administrator, who we’ll call Laurie. Laurie served as my personal secretary and was the glue that held the front office together. Here and there, this woman also handled student registration and performed some admissions-related functions that were not officially part of her job description. Laurie did all of her tasks well and with good cheer.

As time moved on, I felt that we were wasting much of Laurie’s talents. Many of the secretarial functions could be reassigned, leaving her with more time to focus on the more sophisticated and engaging tasks that our school needed and that she craved. So I promoted her to a newly created post of admissions director, while also making Laurie the lead person in the areas of PR and multimedia.

It became a huge win-win. Laurie received a promotion and a slight salary increase to do a job that she was passionate about and genuinely enjoyed. The school received increased passion (including a willingness to work longer hours) and a real boost in areas where we had been long deficient. Even now, years later, I get occasional notes from Laurie, thanking me for believing in her abilities and giving her the chance to shine (and have more fun at work).

It is well-documented that many folks are not passionate about their work. According to this white paper by Deloitte University Press, up to 87.7% of America’s workforce do not contribute to their full potential because they don’t have passion for their work.

At the beginning of "StrengthsFinder 2.0 "(p. ii-iii), author Tom Rath presents some equally disheartening data. He relates that Gallup had surveyed in excess of 10 million people worldwide on the topic of employee engagement. In that survey, only 1/3 strong agreed with the following statement: “At work, I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day.”

In a related poll of 1,000 participants, all of whom responded that they disagree or strongly disagree with the above statement (“At work…”), not a single one said that they were emotionally engaged at work.

It is important to note that the terms “passion” and “engagement” are often used interchangeably when referring to employee work attitude and effort. However, many experts point out that passion is really the goal because it expresses a long-term, intrinsic motivation to work at a high level.

Engagement, on the other hand, can be shorter-term in nature and often speaks to extrinsic motivators (such as praise, competition, incentives and the like) that push folks who normally assume a passive (or worse) posture to “get into it” for a period of time.

In today’s rapidly changing business environment, companies need passionate workers because such people can drive extreme and sustained performance improvement -- more than the one-time performance “bump” that follows a bonus or the implementation of an engagement initiative. Passionate workers also possess personal resilience and an orientation toward learning. This can be particularly helpful for companies that need to withstand continuous market challenges and disruptions.

What does a passionate employee look like? According to Deloitte, such workers (amongst other things)…

  • Bring noticeable energy to their work;
  • Search for new, better, solutions to challenging problems;
  • Takes meaningful risks to improve performance;
  • Cut across silos to deliver results;
  • Are happier to go to work each day, which translates to less sick time off;
  • Are more loyal to their employers;
  • Work as needed to get the job done; and, perhaps most important,
  • Perform at a higher level with each passing year.

In addition to the above, passionate teams…

  • Inspire others around them because passion begets passion.
  • More willingly create a team-oriented atmosphere.

Since we know that such passion does not grow on trees, it’s important for employers and team leaders to give serious consideration to the question of how can we increase employee engagement. The following strategies can be helpful for leaders who want to instill more passion into their workplace:

  1. Make it a priority. Look for passion at every step, particularly at the beginning. Include questions about passion in the interview process and be willing to prioritize it over experience and credentials in order to find people who share your passions and interests. Ask such questions as: What do you love about your chosen career? What inspires you? What kind of work or subjects do you dread? How to you feel about working with others and taking risks? You want to get a sense of what the potential employee feels and believes.

    (This is not to say that experience and credentials are not important. But with the many high-quality CVs at their disposal, employers can afford to use passion as the driving / determining element in their decision on who to hire.)

  2. Connect to their emotions. Passion is an emotion, a state of mind. While many leaders may think task-first and seek to leave their emotions out of things, this can be damaging to worker passion. People need to know that their work matters and see how it all comes together. Encourage them to engage with customers and other ecosystem partners. The more that they feel that they’re innovating and making a difference the better they will typically perform.

  3. Break down barriers. Sometimes the biggest obstacles to passion are barriers that prevent people from “making it happen.” Silos, real or imagined, exist in almost every workplace, particularly larger entities. By encouraging people to work cross-functionally, you tap into their connecting disposition and keep them from feeling confined, which can drain their passion and sense of possibility.

  4. Craft the job around their interests. The sign of a good coach is that s/he develops a system and game plan around the players. Teams that have certain type of personnel do best when they take full advantage of the talent and abilities on the roster. Similarly, team leaders ought to be willing to identify their keepers and then adjust such things as job descriptions and requirements around them. Be flexible where possible to ensure that folks feel that you really have their best interests in mind. Also, encourage your people to work on projects they are interested in instead of (or as well as) those they are assigned to.

  5. Build their capacity and efficacy. Offer training and educational opportunities to help your people grow and become more confident in their work. Nothing drives passion like a deep sense of ability and aptitude. Also, encourage your people to connect with others in their industry. This will offer many benefits, including new insights, stronger connections and leads -- and, perhaps most important, an outlet for folks when they need advice or someone to talk with.

  6. Put passion all around them. Hire great managers and team members who are engaged and passionate about helping others discover their talents. Passion breeds passion.

We’re all passionate about certain things. For too many, this passion does not extend to the workplace. As leaders, it is our job to find ways to bring that passion out and make it part of how your people think and operate. Make passion and strengths-based management a requirement. Look beyond people’s knowledge, talents and experiences to see what makes them tick and what kind of work will really get them going. The more work that is done to develop and trigger workplace passion, the more leaders can expect the kind of productivity and climate that sets companies apart.

This post first appeared in SmartBrief on Leadership.

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