What is Employee Passion? (because you probably got it wrong!)

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For many (if not most), “passion” belongs to the world out side the office walls – A passion for football, art or butterflies. So why is the question relevant in a corporate post?

The answer, of course, is easily guessed: Human passion is the rocket fuel for endurance, persistent practise, improving performance and in turn: Excellence1 2. Consequently, having passionate employees is something any organisation could benefit from – if they understand how to tab into this powerful source of energy.

Understanding the Meaning of Employee Passion

But in order to do so, leaders need to understand the premises under which passion operates. Because, as opposed to ‘motivation’, passion is of an irrational breed; one that can rarely be explained by reasons better than: “I just love it!” (or indeed: “I just hate it!”).

Incomplete: Today’s passion theories are simply too narrow

In contemporary literature under the subject “passionate employees”, especially two lines of though seem dominant: “Employee work passion”3 and “Job passion”4. However unfortunate, both theories are in my view incomplete.

The first, because of two things: a) It is hardly distinguishable to basic motivational theories which makes it insignificant, and b) it is written from a utilitarian point of view, where employee passion is taken into consideration only if it has some sort of positive impact on the organisation – which is utterly wrong.

…it is written from an utilitarian point of view, where employee passion is taken into consideration only if it has some sort of positive impact on the organisation. – Own thoughts

In this regard, the second –”Job passion”– is not concerned with whether there’s an organisational outcome or not. The Job Passion Theory looks at passion in a more person focussed way: as a “job attitude comprising both affective and cognitive elements that embody the strong inclination that one has towards one’s job”4.

And although “Job passion” does better encapsulate the concept of passion in the workplace, one thing is still missing: The room for negative emotions.

Bringing us Back to the Basics

In order to understand how companies and leaders can benefit from employees’ passion towards their job (or a specific activity at work), we need to understand the concept of passion to the full extend of it. To do so, we need not to invent some fancy new theory or come up with yet another line of corporate wording. We need only to look at what philosophers have talked about since… forever.

Take (the very rational) René Descartes5. In his book “The Passions of the Soul” he describes passion as a variety of different but equally strong emotions, ranging form love to hatred, joy to sadness, and wonder to desire. To understand what passion truly entails, we need to look at all emotions – not just positive ones. The contemporary understanding of employees’ passion at work only includes half of the equation!

Behold – This is Passion

So, to answer my headline question, in short, passion at the workplace is really no different from any other passion anywhere else. It’s a profoundly irrational emotion –good or bad– that belongs to the person holding it.

And leaders who strive to make the best of passionate employees should act accordingly: Give room for irrational emotions, facilitate employees’ deep immersion into their passion, and acknowledge that employee passion is not the property of the organisation and therefore is indifferent to its organisational impact. Do this and you’re already one step closer to benefitting fully from your passionate employees – and one step closer to excellence.

If this caught your attention, read the full paper (47 pages, so grab a large coffee): GET IT HERE!


(1) Vallerand, R.J. et al., 2008. Passion and performance attainment in sport. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 9(3), pp.373–392

(2) Ericsson, K.A., Krampe, R.T. & Tesh-Römer, C., 1993. The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review, 100, pp.363–406.

(3) Zigarmi, D., Houson, D., et al., 2011. Employee Work Passion – Connecting the Dots. Employee Passion, 3.

(4) Ho, V.T., Wong, S.S. & Lee, C.H., 2011. A Tale of Passion: Linking Job Passion and Cognitive Engagement to Employee Work Performance. Journal of Management Studies, 48(1), pp.26–47.

(5) Descartes, R., 1989. The Passions of the Soul, Indianapolis, Cambrige: Hackett Publishing Company.

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