The Business Case For Passion

Last week we introduced the concept of igniting the passion from within management. Transformation and the will to change are the products of passion. They are the fruits of a righteous discontent with the status quo.

In a previous blog a call to transform I introduced a simple framework – my version of Maslow’s hierarchy – except that in this case it is not a hierarchy of human needs, but of human capabilities at work.

At the bottom you have obedience – employees who show up every day and follow all the prescribed rules and procedures. Obedience is important and large-scale enterprise would be impossible without it. On the next step is diligence – employees who work hard, who stay till the job is done and take personal responsibility for delivering great results. Again, this is critical. You can’t build a winning organisation with slackers. Next is intellect, or personal competence. Every business wants employees who have world-class skills, who are well trained and eager to learn more. Trouble is, obedience, diligence and competence are becoming global commodities. You can buy these human capabilities just about anywhere in the world, and in places like India and China, they can be bought for next to nothing. In other words, if obedience, diligence, and knowledge are the only things you’re getting from your employees, your company will ultimately lose.

So we have to move up the capability pyramid. Beyond expertise is initiative – employees who spring into action, whenever they see a problem or an opportunity, who don’t wait to be told, who aren’t bound by their job description and are instinctively proactive. Up another notch is creativity. Here, employees are eager to challenge conventional wisdom and are always hunting for great ideas that can be imported from other industries. Finally, at the apex, is passion – employees who see their work as a calling, as a way to make a positive difference in the world. For these ardent souls, the dividing line between vocation and avocation is indistinct at best. They pour all of themselves into their work. While other employees are merely present, they are engaged.

In today’s creative economy, it’s the capabilities at the top of this list that creates the most value. Audacity, imagination, and zeal are the ultimate wellsprings of competitive differentiation. And there’s the rub. These higher order human capabilities are gifts; they cannot be commanded. You can’t tell someone to be passionate or creative. Well, you can, of course, but it won’t do much good. Individuals choose each day whether or not to bring these gifts to work, and as we’ve seen from the data, they mostly choose not to.

Throughout history, managers have seen their primary task is ensuring that employees serve the organisation’s goals – obediently, diligently, and expertly. Now we need to turn the assumption of ‘organisation first, human beings second’ on its head. Instead of asking, how do we get employees to better serve the organisation, we need to ask, how do we build organisations that deserve the extraordinary gifts that employees could bring to work? To put it bluntly, the most important task for any manager today is to create a work environment that inspires exceptional contribution and that merits an outpouring of passion, imagination, and initiative.

Today, no leader can afford to be indifferent to the challenge of engaging employees in the work of creating the future. Engagement may have been irrelevant in the industrial economy and optional in the knowledge economy, but it’s pretty much the whole game now.

Fair enough, you might say. I’d love to create a highly engaging workplace, but the people who work for me are not creating gorgeous products at the cutting edge of technology; they’re answering phones in a call centre, cleaning hotel rooms, or bagging groceries. How can you expect people to be engaged in their work if their work isn’t engaging? A lot of jobs are kind of crappy. Isn’t that what the data is telling us?

Actually, no. 86% of the employees in the Towers Watson study said they loved or liked their job. So why not more engagement then? Julie Gebauer, who led the Global Workforce Study, points to three things that are critical to engagement:

All of these are management issues. It is managers who empower individuals and create the space for them to excel, or not. It is managers who help to articulate a compelling and socially relevant vision and then make it a rallying cry, or not. It is managers who demonstrate praise-worthy values, or not. Here, again, the survey data is disturbing.

Only 38% of employees believe that “senior management is sincerely interested in employee well-being.” Fewer than 4 in 10 agree that “senior management communicates openly and honestly.” A scant 40% believe that “senior management communicates the reasons for business decisions,” and just 44% of employees believe that “senior management tries to be visible and accessible.” Perhaps most daunting of all, less than half of those polled believed that “senior management’s decisions were consistent with our values.”

My conclusion from all of this: if we are going to improve engagement we have to start admitting that if employees aren’t as enthusiastic, impassioned, and excited as they could be it is as Gary Hamel states: “it is not because works sucks; it’s because management blows.”

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