Employee Passion: An Issue Employers Ignore at Their Peril

For the last two years, the Deloitte Center for the Edge has published an annual Shift Index, a survey and analysis of the big factors and drivers of our economy and strategic landscape.

In the most recent edition, the editorial team pointed out an interesting finding, that the need to ignite and tap into employee passion is an issue too many companies are ignoring because they are fixated on short-term cost issues. Write the authors:

We continue to focus on worker passion as a key dimension of the Shift Index because it represents a pre-requisite for effectively responding to the mounting performance pressure so graphically quantified by the Shift Index. Passion is essential for performance and companies are losing the battle to stimulate passion among their workers. In fact, there are indications that, as the economic recovery gains force, companies may find it harder to retain workers drawn by the lure of the opportunity to more effectively pursue their passions as self-employed contractors. Why is passion so important in driving sustained extreme performance improvement? The passionate worker possesses dispositions that are going to be increasingly valuable in the world of the Big Shift. Two dispositions, in particular, explain why passionate workers are so vital to a firm’s performance.

1. Passionate workers have a “questing” disposition. When asked how they react to unexpected challenges, the passionate most often responded that they are inspired (seeing an opportunity to learn something new) or energized (seeing an opportunity for problem solving) rather than being indifferent or negative. In fact, the passionate are twice as likely (38 percent vs. 19 percent) as disengaged workers to display this questing disposition. The questing disposition drives improvement as passionate workers seek out challenges that stimulate them to discover new ways of achieving higher levels of performance.

2. Passionate workers have a “connecting” disposition. Passionate workers demonstrate a strong desire to connect with others who are relevant to their work and to their continuing efforts to seek out and overcome performance challenges. Looking at a broad range of connection indicators like participation in conferences and social media, passionate workers are twice as likely to participate in knowledge flows as workers who lack passion.

The So-What for business is that the Deloitte research shows a continuing low-level of engagement among employees. Only 23% in the 2010 survey described themselves as “passionate” about their work. Why the low scores? The authors summarize their observations:

Passion, as opposed to job satisfaction or happiness, is not driven by job security and work-life balance. In fact, passionate workers may be “unhappy” at work precisely because they see the potential for them-selves and their companies but feel blocked in achieving it. Institutional barriers and management practices, as well as technical and cultural barriers, can frustrate passionate workers by making it difficult to connect with others and engage in and overcome performance challenges.

Interestingly, passionate people are more likely found among the self-employed (47% versus 21% among firm-employed) and in small companies compared to large ones.

“Free Agency Beckons” concludes the authors, who emphasize that

This is the secondary story behind our focus on passionate workers.  Not only do firms need them to survive, but as workers become more interested in integrating their passions into their professions, those that do not find that opportunity in their current work will look for situations that they believe will better support their development. For many workers that means independent work, as contractors or consultants or in other forms of self-employment.

The implications for the future performance of firms given these issues is quite clear. But for organizations to embrace and tap into the drive of these types of people requires in many cases radical re-thinking of the barriers that makes it hard for employees to participate in knowledge flows within and outside their firms. Employees cannot continue to find it easier to connect and collaborate with others when they are on their home computers than when they are at work and handcuffed by rigid systems. Organizational structures and the need to keep insecure bosses “in the loop” or to continually require permission to cross functional or departmental boundaries in order to collaborate merely serve to frustrate the very people who could drive performance improvement and innovation.

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