Professionalism is more important than passion

Too much passion can be counterproductive, says Paul Glen

I often hear consultants, writers and managers offering advice about how to elicit passion in the workplace. They talk of strategies to help people find their passion, while they endorse weeding out people lacking the inner drive they claim is essential to success.

To be blunt, much of this type of talk seems silly at best, self-aggrandising and delusional at worst. Usually, when I hear a manager talk about the passion of "my people", it seems a transparent and cringe-worthy attempt to prove what a great leader they are.

Few ever seem to take a moment to think carefully about the nature of passion and what role it should play in the workplace. They simply assume that passion is a good thing and the more of it workers have, the better they will perform. I'm not so sure.

Passion is often an ephemeral and inconstant thing. People in the throes of intense emotions can achieve remarkable things. But their passions can also turn destructive. Most often this sort of emotional intensity cannot be sustained, with deep commitment being followed by periods of disillusionment or disengagement and accompanied by low productivity.

Also, we need to be honest about the nature of our work. Most projects are relatively routine and mundane. They are interesting but not necessarily inspiring, lacking the import or grandeur required for genuine passion. Rolling out new routers does not induce emotional ecstasy. Composing PowerPoint presentations does not resemble writing and refining the "I Have a Dream" speech. Re-engineering accounts payable processing does not inspire great poetry.

Of course, there are teams that are truly passionate about a project, some technology or the benefits of their work. If you work for Unicef feeding children that is something to get passionate about, even if the technology isn't exciting.

And there are moments when passion is appropriate for technical projects. Some parts of projects do require intensity, like finishing a difficult development. And the rare project devoted to creating something genuinely innovative, requires a passionate commitment to the object being created or the benefit being sought.

But in most situations, I prefer to see not a passionate group but a professional one. Professionals are always engaged with their projects and enjoy their work and colleagues – or at least tolerate them with equanimity. Professionalism is the work equivalent of impeccable manners. It is reliable and steady, and does not depend on the compelling nature of a project or the charisma of a leader. Professionals always get a job done. The passionate may or may not.

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