It’s nice work if you can get it but it shouldn’t make you cry

Opinion: being passionate about work is just another example of language inflation

“Those who feel ‘harmonious passion’ towards work enjoy their jobs and experience that lovely sense of ‘flow’ when they are in the thick of it.”

“Those who feel ‘harmonious passion’ towards work enjoy their jobs and experience that lovely sense of ‘flow’ when they are in the thick of it.”

Mon, Jun 9, 2014, 01:00

The other day I gave a talk to about 80 middle-aged, mainly male tax experts. I asked them to put up their hands if they considered themselves to be passionate about their work. About half of them stuck their arms in the air at once, and the rest, seeing which way the mood was going, hastily put theirs up too.

There was nothing obviously passionate about these men; they looked wan and defeated after a morning spent watching someone go through a couple of hundred slides on the niceties of transfer pricing. But their response did not surprise me in the least.

The passion fashion, which I first wrote about nearly 20 years ago, has now got to such a point that to admit in public that you are not passionate about your work is about as shocking as admitting to fiddling your expenses. If you type “passion” into the jobs website Glassdoor the search returns 105,000 jobs that require it. But try for “conscientious” – surely a much more valuable attribute for any job – and you get a mere 2,823.

I announced to my tax fanatics that I feel no passion for my work at all. I explained that I like my job. I’m lucky to have it. It suits me. I can’t think of anything else that would suit me better. I care about it. But I’m not passionate about it.

Crucifixion

I pointed out that the word “passion” properly refers either to a strong sexual attraction or to the suffering of Jesus Christ at the time of the crucifixion, neither of which are terribly appropriate in an office setting. Then I asked for a second show of hands. This time almost all decided they weren’t so passionate about tax matters after all.

At the time I took this as evidence of what I had always assumed to be true – that the passion fashion was just another tiresome example of language inflation.

Just as companies refer to all employees as “talent”, even when they are lazy and mediocre, and just as they talk flatulently of “astounding” and “enchanting” customers, they also insist on passion as an entry ticket to any job. It is brainless and bogus, but these are just words.

The next day in the office I was reading through a list of forthcoming papers from Harvard Business School and came upon something that makes me think I’ve got it wrong. The insistence on passion at work is about more than words. And it is a lot more worrying.

A study called I’m Just Passionate! attempts to unpick our attitude towards emotional outbursts in the office. Mostly we view these as a jolly bad thing: the person who is always bursting into tears in the office is not only a terrible drag, they are also unprofessional.

However, in three different experiments the academics found that if passion was given as a reason for emotional outpouring, fellow workers viewed it quite differently. So when a worker bursts into tears but subsequently explained it was due to her passion for her job, she was seen by colleagues as a dedicated high achiever. But when she explained her weeping was due to personal reasons, she was seen as a sap.

More alarming still, the study shows that during job interviews candidates can increase their chances of getting hired by describing an emotional outburst and then citing it as evidence of their great passion for their job.

This is all really disturbing. If I ever see anyone crying at work because, say, their marriage is breaking up, then I view that as entirely understandable. But if they are crying because their presentation went badly and they felt passionate about it, then I want to tell them to get a grip.

Obsessive

The answer may lie with a distinction made by Robert Vallerand, a Canadian psychology professor. According to him, passion comes in two varieties: obsessive and harmonious.

The first is a very bad thing and not to be recommended. It is where people work in an uncontrolled, compulsive way, where everything else in their lives becomes dull and unimportant. These are the employees who presumably cry when their presentation misfires – and they are just the sort of people employers should avoid. They are as compulsive as gamblers and are almost certain to burn out.

By contrast, those who feel “harmonious passion” towards work enjoy their jobs and experience that lovely sense of “flow” when they are in the thick of it. They are in control of how much work they do and don’t let it annihilate the rest of their lives.

All workers should hope to feel this way about their jobs, and all employers should hope to hire people who do. However this isn’t passion. It is called liking – and caring – about your job. It’s nice work if you can get it. But it ought not to make you cry. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014

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