Passion or Productivity


Which is better, passion or productivity?

Recently, a senior executive told me about a new technique his company was using to motivate employees. The idea was to cultivate passionate employees who believe in what they are doing with an almost religious zeal. Passionate employees, he claimed, are more likely to do a good job.

Given my performance management background, I wasn’t convinced passion necessarily leads to better results. Passionate employees are usually motivated to work harder which can improve activity metrics. However, if the passion is misdirected, employees might be working on the wrong activities and the organization becomes less productive. In the language of the logic model, passionate activities increase outputs but don’t necessarily lead to the right outcome.

Passion or productivity? Apparently I’m not the only one to wonder about this trade-off.  David Armano writes:

There are actually few organizations that can support passionate employees—even if they say they want them. That’s because the original industrial revolution was designed to support productivity […] Managers want passionate employees, but don’t always know how to manage them. Passionate employees question things, probe and push. Who’s got the time to deal with that? Productive employees get things done. No questions asked.

I can’t say I agree with the sentiment but it’s certainly a provocative idea.

As a manager, you likely say you want people to think outside the box, to have an entrepreneurial mindset, and a relentless search for the better way.  But deep down, you might just want employees to do what you say.

To me, passion for the organizational mission is not optional. But the key is directed passion. That way, the passion is productive.

What do you think?

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19 Responses to Passion or Productivity

  1. carole May 27, 2012 at 2:01 pm #


    At the core of the passionate work model do we find creative ways ?
    If so, an optimization turn of the outcome so as to coin a benefit for the firm may come to question the management approach ability to develop own creative schemes of staff supervision, such as the
    self-management model – what we call in French l’autogestion.. there may be found a refreshment of the business model scene when it comes to staff managerial worth.

    Seemingly, progress relies on synergy from all actors of the play – not the least is to let the talent speed up the pace 😉

    Have a nice end of evening


  2. kevinjenscox May 27, 2012 at 2:20 pm #


    I say, for the most part, passion should be left to the individual as it is connected to their personal feelings. I cultivate my own passions for reasons other than the company that I work for.

    As a gen x’er, I’ll give you this piece of synical perspective; if a company were to take too active of a role stimulating my passions, I would think that company “manipulative”.

    It’s kind of like talking about one’s career. It really isn’t up the company to manage your career; this is something that belongs to “you” the individual to manage. The company is certainly on the hook though to make general provisions if they want to retain “you” the individual.

    So if you were looking for a compromise, maybe this is the point. A company can provide some outlets for the passions of individuals, i.e. day of service, sustainability initiatives, campus clubs and organizations, but not get into too active in the role of stimulating those passions simply because they want to make more money. Because if money is the motivator, we already get paid salaries and bonuses for this. You’re just getting redundant and complicated dinking around too much with people’s passions.

    There’s the point about emotions creating “blinders” to effective decision-making (a.k.a. heat of the moment), but you already covered this one.

    Hopefully, this is another interesting perspective.

    Kind regards,
    Kevin Cox

  3. Timo Elliott (@timoelliott) May 27, 2012 at 2:39 pm #

    I’m by nature a passionate-about-work person, and this is a question I’ve asked myself many times.

    I think the answer lies in the delicate difference between efficiency and effectiveness. I think passionate employees would tend to show low “task efficiency” but higher general effectiveness.

    I know that I sometimes spend “too long” on a particular task (such as writing this comment!) because I’m passionate about having a level of understanding about what I’m working on that is deeper than “necessary”.

    But that extra knowledge — I believe — makes me much more effective at choosing what tasks to do next. Just don’t ask me to prove it. 🙂

    In general, I think the mega-trends are on my side. I believe most organizations have largely tackled the problem of efficiency, but have barely scratched the surface of effectiveness.

    And technologies like social media have helped increase the “return on passion,” making it much easier for people with drive and expertise to make a difference in their organization without having to climb the corporate pyramid.

    The aim of any good manager in the new world must be to ensure that passionate employees have roles that are aligned with that passion, and that the organization is making the best use of it.

  4. Mike May 27, 2012 at 2:42 pm #

    Passion is different than overt enthusiasm and talking a good game. Some of the most passionate sales professionals are quiet producers who make it to “club” every year. If a sales professional is truly passionate about their craft, identifying ways to be more productive is typically part if that passion. I always just try to keep a filter on when dealing with overtly passionate people to make sure they also are knowledgable technically about the things they are so passionate about. So I guess I’m saying that passion is not a trade off with productivity, its the passion vs real product knowledge tradeoff that executives should e concerned with when deploying this strategy.

  5. Matt May 27, 2012 at 6:39 pm #

    Hi Jonathan,

    I believe that passionate people are the most productive –provided their passion lines up with their career objectives. In turn, so long as their career objectives support the overall organization’s objectives, this passion can produce far beyond the typical employee.

    I agree with Kevin that this is a personal journey and one that a person has to be self-motivated to begin and cultivate. So rather than a company concocting contrived motivational approaches, I think it’s best to first, make sure your managers and leaders are passionate about leading and growing their employees and to ensure that they have the empathetic mindset and listening skills to understand what kindles their employees inner fire and how to channel that energy(passion) into productive outcomes that are satisfying to the employee and deliver real value for the organization.

    So no, having someone who’s passion is running won’t help her produce more as a project manager unless she learns to approach the project like one preparing for and running a marathon. This takes guidance and support. If the manager doesn’t take the time and effort to understand what motivates her, frustration is waiting in every spare moment. If however, the connection is made, that small investment on the part of the manager can help create momentum that is unstoppable.

    Of course the best option is hiring someone who is passionate about what your organization is trying to do, but the second best (and what most of us are faced with), is taking existing employees and tying their passion to their role. Listening and real understanding is necessary for this and, while not easy, amps up the production from such employees.

    Once you have that, the pressure is on the organization to have reward and recognition support in place to avoid resentment and make sure the fire can continue to be fed.

    This is where larger or more hierarchical companies are likely to fail. Fifedoms and org chart rigor in stoic companies eventually lead to suppression of a passionate employee’s ideas and/or ability to contribute in a satisfactory manner. Those employees with higher entreprenurial spirit leave while those who are more risk-averse lose their fire and begin to punch the clock, with sporadic flashes of their previous passion.

    So while the easy road might be, “give me the employee that will keep his head down and deliver day in and day out,” the higher, better, and I would argue more productive road is to support flexibility and adaptivity, such that passionate employees can blaze the paths and help the company achieve greater heights.

    Cheers, Matt

  6. Alexandre Lacerda May 28, 2012 at 4:09 am #

    Hi Jonathan

    It’s really a good topic to be discussed, far beyond the easy motivational speeches. I think a good company, the one that runs a sustainable business in all perspectives, business, social, environmental, … should open room for different approaches, all of them leading to the expected results. First, alike customers, employees are motivated by the brand also, and brand has much to do with passion. So, to the more passionate the company should be carefully building its image and the adequate channels to engage employees to its aspirations and projects. On the other hand, there is the “rational” group, more interested in tangible and preferably immediate benefits. They are always comparing employers and are more adaptative to the behaviors that bring better results to them, with the minimum conflict. This group may be more productive, but they tend not to last in the company. So, in my perspective, there should be a proper combination of the two categories, passionate and rational, to balance short and long term results, and the company should have enough channels to accomodate them all.

  7. Anita Gibbings May 29, 2012 at 8:35 am #

    Passion can be a good thing if it aligned under one vision and therefore the activities that people take entrepreneurially are aligned. Otherwise it’s a bit like a like being in a boat where everyone is trying to steer their own direction. If I think of some of the examples where passion has really worked, people were aligned behind a common value. But in all cases that passion was carefully guided and managed to make sure activities were aligned at all levels. Isn’t that always the hardest part? There is often a great vision at the top but it never reaches the low level employees. There are many levels of passion but I think without at least a moderate amount towards your work you are just ‘putting in your time’ and never get to greatness (I doubt Apple achieved their results without some passionate employees).

  8. Margaret Molloy (@MargaretMolloy) May 29, 2012 at 9:42 am #

    Hi Jonathan: Important topic. Great comments. Employees are a flexible lot,I submit that firms can influence the outcomes. I’ll contribute 3 drivers to this robust discussion:

    1.Culture: Firms need to be clear on core values to attract and retain employees with the values they desire. Passion is a double-edged sword.
    2. Incentives: Reward systems need to motivate the desired behavior (not just monetary reward). Quick test: do the “heros’ in the firm behave?
    3.Time: There is a powerful tension between Passion vs. Productivity over time. Test: what’s our priority this year vs 10 years out?


  9. Mark Yolton (@MarkYolton) May 30, 2012 at 7:51 am #

    I want to cheat and vote for “directed passion,” in order to have my cake and eat it too … meaning: passion with productivity since the passion is directed toward topics and outcomes that matter to the organization. In order to accomplish this, the right person needs to reside within the right team and must be directed about something they can be passionate about — but that’s what good managers and leaders do: put the winning team on the field, in the positions best suited to them, the game strategy, and matched against the competition, along with coaching to round the edges and redirect as needed. The converse would be awful for me: doing a job I’m not passionate about would be painful drudgery, so I couldn’t work the hours I do, or with the depth of commitment I have, if I didn’t have passion for the job, team, mission.

  10. Bob Leeds (@SAPBobLeeds) May 31, 2012 at 9:34 am #

    I believe the penultimate sentence says it all and it seems to me that the other comments reflect as much. Effective employees will develop a sense of that balance between passion and getting things done and like most good skills, the only thing you can do is coach to it, you cannot outright teach it, the employee either has it and is willing to develop it, or not … the mistake, for a company, is when it stifles one (passion or effectiveness) for the sake of the other.

  11. Mukesh Gupta June 1, 2012 at 6:15 am #

    Reblogged this on Mukesh Gupta and commented:
    In my opinion, passion and productivity go hand-in-hand. You can take any employee who is good at what he does, its highly likely that he is a passionate person.
    Now, the question is the following: Is he passionate about the work that he does or does his passion lie elsewhere? And does it matter at all..
    I think that as long as a person is passionate about something in life, there is a good chance that he will do a good job of whatever he chooses to do.
    Think of a person who is not passionate about anything in life. He is just living life as it comes to him. It is highly likely that he is complaining about life. It is highly likely that he is average at whatever he does in life.
    However, this is just my opinion.
    Jonathan has initiated a great discussion on a topic which could elicit some passionate responses. It is also highly likely that passionate people will respond to the question posed by him.
    What do you think about my opinion? Do you agree that as long as someone is passionate about something in their life, they will do a good job at work?
    Looking forward to hearing from you all..

  12. Vijay June 2, 2012 at 4:39 pm #

    Most managers cannot deal with out of the box thinkers . This is the prime reason I think people quit organizations and start their own business . What is even more funny is that most out if the biz thinkers cannot stand other out of the box thinkers working for them.

  13. Robert E June 8, 2012 at 11:54 am #

    The devil here is in the details of the definition of ‘productive employees’. If it’s only order-followers, you’ll get people who meet a goal, but won’t exceed it.
    I very much agree that the passionate employee has to be aligned for his or her ‘heat’ driving and excelling. I believe that a good manager can help direct that energy productively.
    Managers also need feedback, to correct their own course, when they loss sight of goals. If the passionate employee is aligned with the overarching objectives, they can be a bellweather.
    Passion MUST be productive and as others have responded, passionate doesn’t necessarily mean flashy.

  14. Patricia McGovern April 14, 2013 at 7:05 am #

    Jonathan, thank you for this post – I agree with your questioning and an idea I’ve recently questioned myself – there is such a clash in values here – on one hand, employees are employed to do ‘a job’ , but then there is pressure on them to be passionate/ entrepreneurial – if they not included in overarching decisions or involved in sharing the losses or gaining the rewards, how can this be? better for organisations to have a strong mission statement and help their employees find meaning from their contributions to this – it’s meaning and connection that motivates employees not pressure to be something that companies as they stand are not ready for anyway.

    • Jonathan April 14, 2013 at 10:00 am #

      Patricia, thanks for the thoughtful comment. I understand your point but I wonder if ‘clash’ is too hostile a word to describe the situation. Some companies have successfully incubated a culture of intrapreneurship. Others have moved to describing ‘what’ needs to be accomplished while allowing the employee to determine the ‘how’.

      Perhaps a natural tension between passion and productivity is to be expected.

  15. Patricia McGovern April 14, 2013 at 2:07 pm #

    Thanks Jonathan for taking the time to respond to my comment, I agree under the right conditions such as those arranged under intrapreneurship (thank you for sharing this link) that ‘clash’ is perhaps too harsh of work to use and meant it more for when high expectations are put on staff when there are no rewards or incentives in place to support their extra efforts.

    In relation to your last point, guess if people follow their passion they will always be productive – the question is for who?

  16. moving companies Boston MA April 17, 2013 at 3:05 am #

    I think that everything published was actually very reasonable.
    However, consider this, what if you were to write a killer post title?
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