March 24, 2019

Working With Passion

Hmmm… love… passion… Happy Valentine’s Day!

Now back to work.

Is there really such a thing as loving your work/working with passion? Yes.

What does it mean, to work with passion? I don’t have a good definition, but you know when you’ve got it. 

And it certainly isn’t what ManagementSpeak calls “engagement.”

Google “work engagement,” and you get a truly stunning number and variety of results, many of which are monotonously unoriginal and insultingly obvious, and some of which are just plain scary. Consider this article from “OSH WIKI,” sponsored by the EU version of OSHA[1]:

Work engagement is defined as positive behaviour or a positive state of mind at work that leads to positive work-related outcomes. Employees with high levels of work engagement are energetic and dedicated to their work and immersed to their work.

We’ll ignore the redundancy and wayward preposition for a moment and notice all the strong adjectives: positive, energetic, dedicated, immersed. No issues there. Wikipedia adds a few more:

Work engagement is the ‘harnessing of organization member’s selves to their work roles: in engagement, people employ and express themselves physically, cognitively, emotionally and mentally during role performances. Three aspects of work motivation are cognitive, emotional and physical engagement.’[2]

Okay, got it:  when you’re engaged at work, you’re “physically, cognitively, emotionally and mentally” all there. Hard to argue with that. But then you also need to be “harnessed” to your “work role,” with the ultimate objectives of “role performance” and “work-related outcomes.”

Um, no thanks. I’m pretty sure I’m busy that night. The robots can handle it while I’m out.

Thus far, we only have descriptions of what it’s like when you are engaged.  But how do you get there in the first place? That would seem to be where “passion” comes in. But where does that come from? Maybe we’ll find some clues in an article with a catchy title:  Is Your Colleague A Zombie Worker?

They walk among us, dead-eyed, with heavy tread. They are the colleague sagging at the coffee machine, the project manager staring out of the window. Meet the zombie workforce: an army of employees who’re failing to find inspiration at work.

There are more of these ‘working dead’ than you might imagine. According to a recent study by Aon Hewitt, less than one-quarter of the world’s employees are classified as ‘highly’ engaged in their jobs, while only 39% admit to being ‘moderately’ so.

This leaves an awful lot of the 5 million people Aon surveyed ‘unengaged’, which the more gruesome-minded of us might take to mean ‘haunting office corridors like reanimated corpses’ where once they might have been valuable staff members, full of life and great ideas.


We all know people like that. We might be that ourselves:  according to the research, look left and look right, and two of you don’t have a pulse. The working dead can’t find the “inspiration at work” they need. Hence no passion.

How do we wake the dead?

I met the world of working dead lawyers right after the Great Recession of 2007-2008. In a stroke of exquisitely bad timing, I left my law practice to start a new venture at the start of 2007. The project bombed, and I was at loose ends. I attended a bar association career change/job search meeting where we did one of those speed-dating things where you meet everybody. It was an eye-opener. Here were all these amazing people — bright, personable, articulate, with wide interests and a desire to serve — but they didn’t see themselves that way. Instead, they saw themselves as victims, helpless, hopeless.

I raced home and sketched out a workshop to help them discover who they really were. I’d never done a workshop like that before, but the ideas poured in, and I wrote them down in a white heat. A couple hours later, I fired off a proposal to the bar association. Weeks later I got an email:  “How’d you like to do your program over lunch next Tuesday? We’ll provide the pizza.” They put a blurb in a monthly newsletter, and 40 people showed up. I’ll never forget standing in front and looking into 40 pairs of empty eyes. The lights were on but nobody was home — or in some cases, the lights weren’t even on, and apparently hadn’t been for a long time.

The workshop morphed into a traveling Continuing Legal Education road show. The promoter called it “Beyond Burnout: Find Your Passion in the Law,” but then quickly added “Or Out of the Law.” Best intentions aside, most attendees wanted out. Of the hundreds of heartfelt evaluations I collected, the following was by far in the minority:

I knew I was fairly happy in my career, but I took this CLE because it sounded more interesting than the traditional practice area CLEs. In working through the exercises, I met some amazing people and realized just how truly blessed I am to be currently working in a job that I love. This workshop got me excited to build my business to an even bigger level — it reignited the passion!

“Reignited” meant the writer had the passion, and knew it. I said earlier you know it if you’ve got it. Next time, we’ll talk about what that feels like — kinda like falling in love, actually.


[1] In its defense, OSH is in the business of making sure workers are engaged at leaqst enough not tyo hurt themselves or others — a pretty low standard when it comes to passion. Here’s its mission:  “OSHwiki has been developed by EU-OSHA, to enable the sharing of occupational safety and health (OSH) knowledge, information and best practices, in order to support government, industry and employee organisations in ensuring safety and health at the workplace.”

[2] Quoting a 1990 Academy of Management Journal article.

If you like Kevin Rhodes’s posts, you might enjoy his new Iconoclast.blog, which focuses on several themes that have appeared in this blog over the years, such as how belief creates culture and culture creates behavior, and why growth and change are difficult but doable. You can also follow Iconoclast.blog on Facebook.

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