Is passion a good thing for employees to have?

Recently I’ve been helping a friend with some cover letters, and of course this always involves saying what one is “passionate” about. Employers place great emphasis on this, and it’s probably very difficult to get a job with a company unless you are passionate about what they do or can convince them that you are.

The Latin root of the word “passion” is pati, to suffer, but we’ll get back to that later. For now, let’s just use the more contemporary meaning of “strong and barely controllable emotion.” What is so great about being motivated by strong and barely controllable emotions?

From an employer’s perspective, this is actually quite desirable. Passion emerged as a criterion for employment at a time when there were only two recognized domains of the human mind: thought and emotion. (Juxtaposed as “Thinking” and “Feeling” in the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.)

When people are motivated by thought, it is called “self-interest.” When people are motivated by emotion, it is called “passion.” Between the two, an employer would much prefer the latter. Workers motivated by self-interest may let up when the going gets tough or when their pay gets cut. Workers motivated by passion will persist regardless.

But passion (in the general sense of strong emotions) is evoked when the world is not behaving as one would like it to behave. One either wants something to happen that isn’t happening (what the Buddhists call “desire”) or one wants something that is happening to stop (what the Buddhists call “aversion”). So in either case passion implies an emotional resistance to the way the world is right now, which can easily slide into disillusionment, cynicism, or resignation if the world persists in being the way it is despite one’s best efforts. So the Latin root pati, to suffer, actually makes a lot of sense.

Passion also creates conflict and shuts down collaboration as individual people and organizations advance their missions. For example, for every person who is passionate about reducing carbon emissions, there is another person who is passionate about using fossil fuels to power people’s lives. So while passion fuels an individual organization’s efforts, it also fuels the conflicts among organizations seeking mutually opposed ends.

Fortunately, there may now be enough recognition of a third domain of human consciousness that can help us get out of this trap. I call it “intuition” and it refers to a deep awareness of what is, in its entirety and free from interpretation and illusion. It is a direct perception of the world that does not pass through thought (e.g., how it got that way) or emotion (e.g., how it should be). (In groups, this direct perception can be prompted by organization development techniques like Marv Weisbord’s “Future Search.”)

Acting from this place does not require motivation. One takes a particular action because one cannot not take that action. One is serving not passion but purpose. You may in fact remember a time when you took some action and you couldn’t really explain why; you just did what you knew you had to do.

I might suggest that employers would be well served to find employees who can work from this place. They could stop looking for employees that mirror their own emotional attachments (that is, that share their “passion”), and instead find employees who can perceive what is actually going on in an ever-changing world and then take the action that is appropriate. These employees may be surprisingly dispassionate about the work itself—that is, they are “in the world but not of it.” For this reason they may be incredibly resilient and adaptive (rather than persistent) when the going gets tough.

A step in the right direction might be to find employees who are “mindful.” Mindfulness is a movement that has taken off in recent years. And isn’t mindfulness all about recognizing when you are being driven by strong and barely controllable emotions (that is, your passions) and then letting those emotions go?