What Are the Keys to a Passionate Workplace?

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Employees with a spring in their step and an unforced smile on their face is the ideal I think of when picturing a “passionate workplace.” There are too many days I drag myself to work and am slow to smile. Part of it is an overwhelming workload that requires tremendous continuous energy to stay on top of, and part of it is not always feeling my values are aligned with those of my colleagues.

Harvard Business Review recently published a piece on “How to Create a Workplace that Actually Inspires Passion” by John Hagel III and John Seely Brown from the Deloitte Center for the Edge. While I think of passion as arising from conditions outside of myself, the authors cite research on the internal attributes of passionate people:

“At the Deloitte Center for the Edge, we have identified three attributes of people who have a particular form of passion—the passion of the explorer—which is associated with performance improvement. They have:

  • A long-term commitment to increasing one’s impact in a particular domain—for example, banking, medicine, gardening, or visual art.
  • A questing disposition that seeks out new challenges and views them as exciting opportunities to learn.
  • A connecting disposition that actively seeks connections with others who could help address these challenges.”

This is disheartening news to me because I don’t have any of those attributes. I don’t have an affinity for challenges. I try my best to avoid them, and I don’t have a desire to connect with others in collaborative projects. Yet I think I am a passionate person, nonetheless—when the external conditions connect with a synergy to my interests and values.

For example, I have been inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, and have looked for ways to cover the movement in the health trade publication I lead. I have always found stimulation and great interest in connecting current events to the coverage of topics in the trade publications where I have worked. I have a colleague, however, who feels differently. He crafted a new policy that forbids the mention of any organization he deems “political” and “divisive.” That means we can no longer easily cover our readers’ involvement in community activism, and their response to the most important happenings of our times. My colleague’s logic is that we don’t want to alienate any of our readers, and that, as a business publication, we want to keep our focus on business. Yet, businesses don’t exist in a vacuum; they are part of the interconnected network of their community, and are impacted by current events like the protests for racial justice and the Black Lives Matter movement. This colleague has greater power than I, so I am compelled to follow his directive. When directives employees don’t believe in are handed down, employee passion and engagement are killed. How do you prevent this demoralizing situation from arising?

One idea is to emphasize a culture that stands strong against policies that narrow or restrict the scope of an employee’s work. Instead of broad directives against coverage of any “political, divisive” organization, maybe the better approach would be to approach it on a case-by-case basis. Is this just a one-line mention in a larger story? Is this a hate-speech organization? Could there be a hidden bias or prejudice informing the limiting directive? Asking those questions on a case-by-case basis, rather than imposing an overly broad rule, can be frightening because it forces questioning and thought that might reveal differences in values and unsavory motives that the person who has expressed opposition may not even be aware of himself. However, creating nuanced policies and rules that treat each case individually avoids deadening employee passion. It avoids the employee throwing up her hands and shutting down.

Policies that reduce an employee’s ability to explore, ponder, and make new connections are damaging. Hagel and Brown in their Harvard Business Review article speak in terms of creating systems for experimentation, meaning work processes that encourage experimentation. I think of it as first doing nothing to inhibit an employee’s ability to explore and research, and encouraging a broadening of the scope of work. Rather than fearing a backlash from customers, an emphasis should be placed on all there is to gain from customers who might be receptive to the new avenue the employee is exploring. While some customers may be alienated, even more may be excited about what the employee is doing. The only way to know is to let the employee proceed in her work, and if there is a negative response, weigh the volume of the negative response before making a decision on whether to allow the work to continue.

If broad-based policies that lack nuance (and may be the result of prejudice and fear rather than logic) are one threat to workplace passion, another is conformity. A silly episode comes to mind. Years ago, I was informed by a very serious man that my foam frog on a wire, Alfred Alfredo, which I had stuck to the top of my cubicle as a beacon, would have to be taken down. The reason? None other than a need for conformity. I was told that inside my cubicle I was free to do whatever I liked, but since Alfred jutted up over my cubicle, he was forbidden. Do you have policies in your workplace like this that enforce conformity for little, or no, reason? A uniform, polished-looking office is wonderful, but not at the expense of employee self-expression and a lessening of employee engagement and passion.

The rules, regulations, and directives a company imposes should serve to make employees feel safe and secure enough to explore and let their passions guide their work. Be sure you are not creating barriers to employee engagement and growth—and a better product for customers—due to the fear and hidden biases of decision-makers.

How do you inspire passion in your workplace? How do you avoid hampering employees so that they are not able to do the work that is most meaningful to them?