A Passion for Meaningless Work?

Research tends to show that workers who are passionate about their jobs and consider their work meaningful are more productive than those who don’t. But there are limits to what leaders can do to create meaningful jobs that people can be passionate about, especially at the lower levels of organizations.

Think about how one might identify and pursue one’s passion. Some may be able to identify a passion early on. And for some, doing what they most enjoy becomes a career – professional golfers come to mind.

But these folks are rare. There are limited openings in the “passion professions” and only those with the right combination of skill, talent, connections and just plain luck are allowed to enter.

Others who make that effort and fall short typically find themselves in pretty low paying and often dead-end jobs. And, frankly, it’s a lot easier to be passionate when you have money.

For the rest of us, even if we can identify our passions (which is hard enough), pursuing those passions as a part of our career may not be so easy.

We are likely instead to find ourselves in jobs that provide limited opportunities for self-expression, much less passion. And for many that’s okay – we are willing to work in meaningless jobs in order to have enough money to pursue passions completely outside work.

Others are left searching for the quick self-discovery the self-help gurus recommend – either at work or elsewhere – and often feeling guilty because they can’t figure it out.

Many jobs simply are not all that meaningful, hardly the kind of thing to arouse passion. Maybe the leader can articulate a set of values that some will find compelling, but values stated at the top rarely permeate an organization with general enthusiasm. And indeed there’s an ethical question about whether leaders should even try to “make” followers passionate about their work – or anything else. That’s a personal choice,

If passion, meaning, or purpose lead to increases in productivity, leaders might follow one of two strategies: 1) hire for technical skill and teach the personal qualities or 2) hire for personal qualities and teach technical skills. There are some indications that an increasing number of companies are using the latter strategy.

For example, Southwest is known for its casual, relaxed, and funny flight attendants. But the company doesn’t run a “comedy school.”  Instead it hires people who already fit the image the company desires. Google’s hiring process has much the same orientation.

We are also beginning to discover that having specific achievement goals accompanied by measurable objectives is not the best way to discover one’s passion or calling. Both leaders and others would do well to consider their purpose (not their passion), better stated in terms of “big ideas,” “directions,” or “sets of values.”

This may (happily) lead to the direct opposite of the rationalized life, as in Natalie Imbruglia’s musical response to those who tell her to get some direction: “Intuition tells me, how to live my day.  Intuition tells me, when to walk away.  Could have turned left, but I turned right. But I ended up here (bang) in the middle of a real life.”

It is appropriate and in fact healthy for people to engage in serious reflection and discussion about what is most significant in their lives. Doing so is an important exercise for individuals and especially for potential leaders who want to better understand themselves in order to lead others. But requiring that this be a rational process may be quite limiting.  “Real life” is better built around emotion, intuition and beauty.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s