Bored, apathetic or stressed workers can bring an organisation down with the drain of low retention rates, absenteeism, lack of purpose and low achievement. You do the math. By Mandy Bathgate
Passion. It has a light and a dark side. It can be constructive or destructive. Although it can be misunderstood and misplaced, it can only rarely be ignored. Organisations and individuals with passion stand out for their dedication, vision, inspiration and achievements.
How many of us rise from our beds each morning and embrace the day, embrace the people we love and embrace our work with passion?
One of the dilemmas is that corporations like BHP or ANZ exist to create wealth for shareholders. And there comes a point at which the worker can’t relate to that.
Workaholics, while they have a really high drive and high involvement, which is similar to job passion, also have really low enjoyment.
But how many of us today feel truly passionate? How many of us rise from our beds each morning and passionately embrace the day, embrace the people we love and embrace our work? How many of us are clear about what we are doing and why, as we tremble and trample up the corporate ladder, sit through interminable meetings, read endless balance sheets, tend to anxious shareholders, satisfy clients and finally raise a warm beer to our lips at the end-of-year barbecue in “celebration”?
At the end of the day, for most organisations and individuals, does it matter whether we are passionate of not? Is business not simply about making a healthy profit? Can we forget about the rest and go back to our quiet (albeit disturbed) slumber?
No, we cannot, according to an increasing number of commentators. Although most companies still see through green-tinted glasses, an increasing number recognise that a different, but just as rewarding, kind of profit can be gained from nurturing, supporting and involving employees hearts and passions in their organisations.
The logic is simple. Fulfilled, creative and passionate workers enable an organisation to flourish, and remain dynamic and competitive. Bored, apathetic or stressed workers can bring an organisation down with the drain of low retention rates, absenteeism, lack of purpose and low achievement.
“I know, I know I learnt all this at management school. So, what’s new?” you may ask.
What is new is that it is no longer just all about balance sheets and profit margins. Managers and senior executives faced with increasing competition, market fluidity, and shifting work practices and structures are feeling besieged and are under pressure to get their act together quickly or go under. They can no longer pretend to neutrality but must examine themselves to find their own passions and to know what their own values and purpose are if they are to facilitate real and substantial change at all levels in the workplace.
You cannot be an entrepreneur without passion. It is a logical contradiction. You can be a bureaucrat and all kinds of other things without much passion. But, to be an entrepreneur, you need total commitment and a lot of passion about what you are doing. This cannot be achieved from the bottom up.
But how sincere and achievable is this shift?
James Carlopio, a senior lecturer at the Australian Graduate School of Management with more than 20 years of industry experience, is pessimistic. “In the corporate sector, I don’t see change at all. I have been working in this area, looking at the psychology of work and specifically emotions, for more than 10 years and, no, I don’t see a lot of change. An organisation is part of a social system, of which there are shareholders, institutional investors and people who are looking short term for the dollar; and they are so cut off from their emotions.”
Carlopio sees this emotional dysfunction cutting across all our institutions, including families, corporations, educational bodies and individuals. “It is a cycle that isn’t breaking, despite people’s awareness. I work with full-time executives and a significant portion see the dilemma and yet they are just so caught up in it they don’t know how to break out.”
Carlopio, who moved from Sydney to live a more tranquil existence on the New South Wales coast, after trying to cut through this maze. “Now I don’t bang my head against the wall any more. I talk to people who want to listen. If you don’t want to listen, let’s go to the beach. What am I going to do? I literally moved to get out of it because I was making myself crazy.”
But not everyone is as pessimistic as Carlopio is. Adolph Hanich, director of the Swinburne Graduate School of Management, believes that a recognition is growing in the corporate world, certainly among professionals and knowledge workers, that you will not get high levels of commitment and productivity out of people unless their values are engaged. “At the risk of being general, I think you can break organisations down into two basic categories. On the one hand, you have the greed driven organisations. And, on the other hand, you have somewhat more benign organisations that are really struggling with this idea of creating meaning in the workplace and a fair and equitable distribution of the rewards of everyone’s efforts.”
Hanich considers this the main battle. In the past it was between those who had the resources and those who wanted them. Now he believes it to be a battle between motivations. “I am hoping ultimately that the good guys will win because it seems to me that, at the end of the day, people value their own creative output more highly than money. It may not seem so at first. But, when you look at all the unhappy rich people and then you see people who are satisfied with much less material wealth that, in a sense, have made the trade that they would prefer work satisfaction rather than more and more money, then you can start to see this value system play itself out.”
Carolyn Barker, chief executive officer of AIM Queensland and Northern Territory, agrees: “In the past two to three years, with the fluidity in the market, people are changing jobs, staying for shorter periods and choosing their employers more carefully. Employees shop for employers now not the other way around and are looking for different motivations in the workplace, ones that are not solely wage motivated. We see organisations taking this much more seriously. They have to think about people issues and how they drive value to the bottom line in a different way. I think concepts like passion are well worth exploring, and understanding better.”
According to Barker, however, the term “passion” is too hazy in meaning. “I would describe it as really understanding what values are in existence and converting those values to a full and satisfying work life.” It’s the same thing only in different words, says Barker.
Interpretation aside, most agree that it all lies in bringing the heart back into the workplace, listening to our emotions and working with them.
Even Carlopio, despite his pessimism, concedes: “I think it is short sighted that people don’t try to work with the emotions. That’s where the energy lies. That’s why we call it e-motion, because there is energy that comes from motion.”
This is easier said than done. The cork in the bottle, Carlopio thinks, is our cultural numbness and aversion to true feelings. “When was the last time you heard someone say that pain was OK? That’s not a popular conversation. You have pain, so take a pill! We’re on Prozac; we’re on television; and we are so flat. When I talk to people about it, I remind them that if they want to get rid of pain, what they have to do is stop feeling. You can’t just stop feeling the pain. You have to stop feeling.”
Starting from the top
Put this theory into practice and you expose a whole workforce, indeed a culture, to a different mindset. Barker says that putting theory into practice is crucial, and managers have to be among those who start the ball rolling. “It is no use saying one thing and doing another.”
It is this “doing-ness” applying the processes practically that drives Larry Holmes and his team, Just Add Water, a unique coalition of creative professionals who are in the business of helping unleash the innate and inspirational leadership potential in people.
Holmes says this can be achieved through a more holistic, “inside-out” approach rather than in a gung-ho “all systems go” manner. Another critical element is to challenge entrenched perspectives on leadership. “We are saying, be really committed, be passionate about your work and have a balanced life at the same time.”
He believes that this can be done only if you first understand yourself and what you want from life. “I talk about a thing called conscious leadership, and a big part of that is finding one’s leadership purpose. My whole premise is that the key to being an authentic leader is to be an authentic person.
“The questions that need asking are: How much of your life do you spend at work? Is it possible for work to be something that is actually motivating, something that touches part of your passions at least? If you are going to confront some of the challenges that organisations face today, how are you going to succeed if you don’t bring commitment passion if you will motivation and inspiration to your work?
“This applies across the sector, from multinationals to the smallest operations. Whatever scale you are working at, you can be a great leader. You don’t have to be charismatic, but you can have an effect by creating a great place for people to work that is an exceptionally successful organisation for everybody, including staff, customers and shareholders. Whether we are working with CEOs and their direct reports or second or third-level executives, really it’s the same message we are bringing to the people. The challenge is ultimately to improve individual and organisational performance.”
There’s the rub
Hanich, (who has worked in the public, corporate and not-for-profit sectors) sees a paradox here. “In the corporate world, one of the real dilemmas is that, at the end of the day, corporations like BHP or ANZ it does not matter which exist to create wealth for shareholders. And there comes a point at which the worker can’t really relate to that. Especially the worker who is on the award wage as distinct from the senior executive who may have other kinds of aspirations. It is difficult for them to relate to the idea that they should be passionate about making some shareholder rich.”
David Robb is managing director of Wesfarmers Energy, a division comprising the gas and coal activities of Wesfarmers, is president of AIM Western Australia. He begs to differ. “How can that be the case when, in all companies, you will find people who have worked enthusiastically and in a committed way for 20, 30, 40 years? It’s an insult to those people. The second thing I would say is that, in our company’s case, at least, every single employee is a shareholder, and receives an interest-free loan to acquire more shares. Our people know they are not only employees in that sense but also shareholders. If the company does well, they do well also.”
According to Robb, it is the issue of creating passion that is really at the heart of everything if you are going to create shareholder value. It also means you need a clear direction.
“It is hard to be passionate about where you are going if you don’t know where the where is,” he says. “If you are trying to improve the productivity of assets and people, it is difficult to achieve this if the people don’t have a passion for what they are trying to do. Here at Wesfarmers, we talk about moving from a culture where all behavior is tightly prescribed boxed in, as it were to a culture in which we retain at the heart of what we do a clear set of required behaviors. Health, safety and environmental performance, where there can be no departure from what we define to be required, are good examples. We then surround that with a more loosely defined set of suggested behaviors. Then, over that, come the more entrepreneurial behaviors that we hope our staff will come up with of their own volition.”
Robb acknowledges the stress that excessive demands and high expectations can have on employees and agrees that a balance needs to be struck to maintain quality of life. However, despite these pressures, he openly confesses to loving his job. Now, that must be passion. Else, why, as he says, would he travel from Perth to Sydney three times in seven days?
Alison Flint, author of Job Passion: Scale Development and Relationship to Burnout agrees: “Basically, if your employer is willing to go along with you and support you in your job passion (and obviously you enjoy your job), then the organisation itself is going to be much more effective, much more successful.”
A recent graduate from the University of Queensland, Flint has produced a thesis looking at the role of passion in the workplace. The findings, in Flint’s view, are particularly relevant to organisations wanting seriously to measure worker and organisational productivity and wellbeing in the light of “job passion”.
According to Flint, research into job passion in Australia has been limited due to the lack of a reliable, valid measure. Her main findings include a definition of “job passion” as a state composed of three significant elements: affective passion, that is, job before leisure (including family) and performance focus; the development of a reliable 18-item scale that could be used to assess job passion (Flint hopes this measure will be used in future studies); and the link between job passion and burnout.
Passion, not addiction
Notably, Flint found that job passion was linked to, but quite distinct from, workaholism. “Workaholics, while they have a really high drive and high involvement, which is similar to job passion, also have really low enjoyment. People with job passion have really high affective passion; and this reduces the emotional exhaustion in their job.”
A call for balance is indeed required. As Carlopio comments: “I think that what happens is that people go from one extreme to the other rather than strike a balance. Burnout happens because people don’t understand what true passion is. Because you are not a whole, full person when you get attached to work, you become co-dependent with it, and what seems like a passionate relationship is actually a dysfunctional relationship. You just go over the top and you get too burnt out at the other end. It just doesn’t work.”
Hanich is intimately familiar with this cycle. “I tend to see it more and more as another form of addiction, of addictive behavior. The real issue behind any addiction is to ask: Why? Again, it boils down to a lack of understanding of who we are and what we are trying to do.
“Once you develop a clearer idea, then addiction tends to change or disappear and is replaced by a commitment to something that is worthwhile from the point of view of the greater good of humanity. In other words, your values rise.”
Barker warns that there is a real danger in defining people that are passionate in the workplace as workaholics. “There needs to be a clear definition in order to differentiate. Perhaps studies such as Flint’s will be a step towards achieving this.”
What is also required is for all of us in the workforce, including managers, to shake the dust off our wings, drop the bundle of fear that we carry in our arms, dig deep into our selves and discover our own true passions and values and purpose. We should then pack it all in our lunch box, bring it to work and share it with colleagues. What happens next is part of the fun.