Forget Engagement; Focus on Passion

Engagement may be a popular buzz word, but it is a bit bland, isn’t it? Safe, middle of the road. Boring. Sure, it is better to be have employees who are engaged than not, otherwise you have cubicles with people staring slack-jawed at replays of Olympic skeet shooting.

But does engagement build bridges, move mountains, fly to the moon? Is it engagement that sent Henry V’s “Band of Brothers” into battle against the French on St. Crispin’s Day?  Or is it something more? Something that causes one to jump out of bed in the morning, skip the coffee and speed to work. I submit to you that it is, and the word for it is passion.

Recently, I attended an academic conference on “Positive Psychology” – the science of what make life worth living –  at the University of Toronto. The opening keynote was by Dr. Robert Valleyrand, a famed research psychologist from Montreal who is the head of the International Positive Psychology Association. In a powerful address (dare I say, passionate?), Dr. Valleyrand made the case for how passion – a “strong inclination toward a self-defining activity that you like or love” – has many positive outcomes in life and work. Specifically, he referenced research findings showing that passion:

  • increases the chances of finding flow, commonly referred to as “being in the zone.”
  • increases positive emotions while keeping negative emotions at bay.
  • assists in a healthful aging process.
  • improves working relationships and team performance.

Yes, when a team is united and passionate about something, it performs at a level far beyond those just going through the motions. The wise leader will pay attention. It is his or her job not to just increase engagement (usually by trying some dumb, off-the-shelf thing a consultant is pushing) but to create true passion.

Henry Schimberg is possibly the greatest CEO I ever knew. He recently passed away, and will be missed by all of us who had the privilege of working with him as he turned around Coca-Cola Enterprises, the giant Coke bottler, in the 1990s. Henry constantly talked about passion. Without the benefit of Valleyrand’s research, he knew the only thing that would turn around our bloated, failing IPO was instilling a sense of passion in every member of the workforce. In our case, it was a passion to defeat the (evil, at least in our eyes) Pepsi empire. Shelf by shelf, store by store, town by town. It worked, and sales and profits soared during those years. We didn’t have team-building meetings and we didn’t mess with surveys. We were too busy in our joyous pursuit of a common goal.

When talking about passion, however, it is important to understand passion isn’t always good. Valleyrand warns of the dangers of obsessive passion (no, he is not referring to the amount of money I spend on football tickets. I think.)

Distrust of passion is not new. For example, the ancient Greek philosophers were quite distrustful of passion. Plato, for example, cautioned against passion as a loss of reason. Even the word itself, at least in its roots, describes suffering. A “passion play” refers to a depiction of the crucifixion of Christ, in all its gory detail.

Over the years, the definition of the word passion has changed and broadened. In a blog from earlier this year for Psychology Today, Chris Peterson noted “ (s)omewhat more recently in etymological history, passion was used more narrowly to describe strong sexual desire, a still common use, although nowadays we also see passion referring to any and all strong emotions: love or joy or hatred or anger.”

How do you know if you are passionate about something? It is when it defines you. What does this mean? Valleyrand uses an example of shooting baskets, or strumming a guitar. It is when we start to think of ourselves as “basketball players” or “guitarists” instead of just messing around that we know we have found a passion.

So, how do you instill passion in your work force? Here are a few thoughts:

  • Simplify. Use the KISS principle (“keep it simple, stupid”). Find one single thing the group can focus on (turnover, recruiting, whatever) and make it the focus of everything you do for a specific period of time.
  • Define a clear goal. It doesn’t matter so much what the goal is, it is that the byproduct of having a team working in unison for the same thing is increased performance across the board.
  • Find an enemy. This was Henry’s trick. Pick something that you can credibly define as the “Devil Has Come to Earth” (wasting copy paper, showing up late for happy hour – I don’t know, you can find something). Create something your team can rally against – and bring themselves together in the process.

And see if the words of Shakespeare ring true. “Passion,”  he wrote in Julius Caesar, “is catching.”

Reference: Vallerand, R. J. (2008). On the psychology of passion: In search of what makes people’s lives most worth living. Canadian Psychology, 49, 1-13.