Passion at work

Written by
Adrian Furnham

28 Jul 2016

28 Jul 2016 • by Adrian Furnham

Over a 20 year period, the psychologist Robert Vallerand and colleagues studied the psychology of passion which he defined as a “strong inclination toward an activity that people like, find important and in which they invest their time and energy”.


Over time, it is argued people discover that some activities rather than others seem to satisfy their needs for competence, autonomy and connectedness which are the key ingredients of intrinsic motivation. They become passionate about these self-defining, identity-determining activities. Passion has powerful affective outcomes and relates strongly to persistence in various activities.

Vallerand made a distinction between healthy harmonious passion (HP) and unhealthy obsessive passion (OP). The healthy harmonious type is the autonomous internalisation of an activity into a person’s identity when they freely accept the activity as important for them. It is done with volition, and not compunction. Harmonious passion for an activity is a significant but not overpowering part of identity and in harmony with other aspects of a person’s life. 

On the other hand, the drivers of obsessive passion are essentially specific factors, such as self-esteem, excitement or self-acceptance. People with OP feel compelled to engage in particular activities because of these factors, which then come to control them. It has clearly has an addictive quality about it because it is perhaps the only source of important psychological rewards. In this sense 'workaholism' is a sign of OP not HP.

The theory suggests that harmonious passion leads to more flexible task engagement which in turn leads to more engagement through the process of absorption, concentration, ‘flow’ and positive affect. Obsessive passion, on the other hand leads to more rigid and conflicted task performance, which reduces engagement. HP controls the activity, OP is controlled by it. The former promotes healthy adaptation while the latter thwarts it.

The question is how can organisations encourage HP, rather than OP, in their organisation? The answer according to the researchers is to “provide employees with a healthy, flexible, and secure working environment, one where their opinion is valued, will create conditions that facilitate the development of harmonious passion.....organisational support seems to foster an autonomous-supportive context that allows individuals to internalise the activity in their identity in an autonomous fashion “ (p193).

There seems abundant evidence that the intrinsically motivated, harmoniously passionate person at work experiences vigour, flow and well-being. The question is how to pick the right people and adopt the optimal management style and corporate culture to maximise it. The literature on intrinsic motivation, passion and flow all suggest similar ideas. 

These include:

Challenge: Goals need to be set by both worker and supervisor that involve an optimal amount of difficulty/challenge in attaining them People do best when working on meaningful goals where tasks are of intermediate difficulty. They should be stretching goals and  seen as part of a development plan. Thus let people set personally meaningful goals and targets which related to their self-esteem. Give them feedback so that they can see how they are doing.

Curiosity: Activities that stimulate an employee’s attention and interest are best. This means introducing novelty and stimulating questioning that takes them beyond their present skills and knowledge. Changes and challenges stimulate curiosity. The idea is to foster a sense of wonder. It is about job enrichment.

Control: Allowing employees to have a choice in what happens. This sense of, and actual autonomy is most important. Leadership roles, even temporary ones, create a higher sense of engagement and recognition. People at work need to understand cause-and-effect relationships. They need to know and believe that their effort and outcomes have real and powerful effects. But most importantly they must be able to freely choose what and how they learn.

Fun and Fantasy: Using imagination and games to promote learning in the workplace. The idea is to turn work into play.

Competition: Comparing the performance from one employee to another more as a source of feedback than in the spirit of trying to win a competition. This can however have negative consequences if it reduced co-operation

Co-operation: Encouraging employees to help each other to achieve goals. This means working in self-organised teams. People enjoy helping as much as being helped. Co-operation improves interpersonal skills.

Recognition: Celebrating employees’ accomplishments and successes. This means recognising  employees for a job well done and praise for doing a great job. Where possible, praise should be public; gather your team together for a moment and celebrate an accomplishment. Spend your day looking for and recognising great performance.

The problem with the above of course is that it may not be possible with many jobs. De-skilled, repetitive jobs may not always be economically viable to redesign. However what does seem to be the case is that management style and philosophy itself can go a long way to increasing passion in the work place which has benefits for all.