The Power And Pitfall Of Passion

17. september 2014

Af: Mette Vesterager, Hein & Partnere

Passion at work

“Nothing great in the world has ever been accomplished without passion”, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

Passion is incredibly powerful in business. It fosters motivation, performance and health.

But passion also has pitfalls which can have the opposite effect and lead to burnout and disengagement.

So how should we understand passion? And how can leaders promote passion the optimal way?

A dualistic model of passion

Passion at work can be defined as “a strong inclination toward the job, which is highly liked and valued, and in which a considerable amount of time and energy is invested”.

But there is more to it. We should distinguish between two types of passion: harmonious and obsessivedepending on how the passion has been internalized.

Internalizing involves the integration of attitudes, values, standards and the opinions of others into one’s own identity or sense of self. And this internalization can happen in either a controlled fashion leading to obsessive passion or in an autonomous fashion leading to harmonious passion.

A controlled internalization results from interpersonal pressure typically because certain contingencies are attached to the activity, such as feelings of social acceptance or self-esteem.

The problem with controlled internalization is that it will lead to a high degree of conflict with other values and norms the person have. For instance an employee working late might feel upset because it takes time away from the family. Or he or she will go home to eat family dinner and be frustrated and ruminate about work.

Workaholic (1)

Harmonious passion results from autonomous internalization of the activity into the person’s identity and self. Such internalization occurs when the activities are highly valued and meaningful for the person and are freely accepted as important without any contingencies attached.

With this type of passion, the activity occupies a significant, but not overpowering space in the person’s identity and is in harmony with other aspects of the person’s life. The employee can be more fully engaged in the activity, experience flow (i.e. feeling completely immersed in the activity) and not have a feeling of missing out other stuff. She or he can go home and have dinner with the family without thinking about the missed opportunity to work more. Harmonious passion is associated with flexibility. The person is in control of the activity and can decide when to engage in the activity and when not to.

When employees who exhibit harmonious passion for work feel tired or can no longer concentrate, they are able to disengage from their work without feeling guilty or anxious, thus preventing further energy depletion. What is important is that being highly engaged is not the same as thinking about the job constantly and working overtime and holidays. In fact this kind of behavior is related to obsessive passion which leads to energy drainage and exhaustion.

The pitfall of passion


The pitfall of passion is that we are not aware of these two types and that obsessive passion can in fact be a sign of high stress and malfunction. If job demands are too high, a psychological mean to cope is simply to integrate the jobs values even further into your sense of self. A nurse may become convinced that helping people in need is in fact so important that s/he becomes willing to sacrifice her own family. A banker might become convinced that the customers’ financial situation is more important than her or his own.

The reason is that internalization can be a response to high psychological stress. The Stockholm syndrome is named after a bank robbery in Stockholm in August 1973 in which several bank employees were held hostage for several days. The psychological pressure lead some of the hostages to support their kidnappers and endorse their values. It is a paradox that when we are subjected to a harmful factor, we may start to identify with it. This psychological mechanism unfortunately also takes place at work. And it is something that leaders should be very aware of!

Leaders should support passion, but be aware of obsessive passion serving as a coping mechanism for stress, because it is a vicious cycle. While obsessive passion may look good on the outside for some, it is not related to being more engaged at work. In fact, it seems only related to negative psychological effects.

Culture and passion

Different organizational cultures are associated with the different passions. We can distinguish between clan and market culture.

group active

In a study it was found that clan culture which is based on collaboration, commitment, development and communication within an organization fosters harmonious passion. Leaders are seen as mentors and team builders. And the organization supports their workers and human values.

A market culture which endorses control and competition and put forward tangible rewards while minimizing employees’ participation was found to nurture the development of obsessive passion among their workers. Leaders who endorse such a culture are seen as hard drivers, highly competitive and focused on productivity. Such an aggressive culture and the lack of consideration of workers as individuals with psychological needs makes up an environment that drives controlled internalization.

How to support harmonious passion

  • What seems to support harmonious passion the most is offering autonomous support, that isallowing flexibility in how employees approach their work both in terms of planning (when) and in how to solve their tasks.
  • But being autonomous is not the same as working alone. Team work that allows for individual preferences  is important for harmonious passion.
  • Employees should take part in decision making that affects their work.
  • Also, leaders should arrange work tasks such that people get to do what they in fact like to do. A lot of times employees are simply given the tasks that they have traditionally done.
  • Of course employees cannot fully decide what to do. Some work simply has to get done. But a leader can dictate this in a way that does not undermine a feeling of autonomy among workers. It requires the use of non-controlling language, acknowledging workers’ feelings, and giving a rationale for the imposed rules and structures.

With these means leaders can promote harmonious passion among their employees.

Passion is powerful – but importantly: the type of passion matters!


Trépanier, S-G. et al. (2014). Linking job demands and resources to burnout and work engagement: Does passion underlie these differential relationships? Journal of Motivation and Emotion 38: 353-366
Gagne, M. (Ed.) (2014).  The Oxford Handbook of Work Engagement, Motivation and Self-Determination Theory.

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