Why Passion Fails (at work)

The words passion and purpose are often used somewhat interchangeably.  It might surprise you to learn, purpose and passion are two distinctly different things.  And one is significantly more effective for driving performance than the other.

Let’s start with definitions. Passion is when you feel excited about your work. Purpose is when you believe your work is contributing to others.

Here’s what a study from Berkley Professor Morten Hansen discovered. Hansen wanted to answer a seemingly simple question, why do some people perform better at work than others?  His groundbreaking five-year study of more than 5,000 employees and managers explored the distinction between passion and purpose to determine which has a greater impact on job performance.  In his book, Great At Work: How top Performers Work Less and Achieve More, he reveals the link between passion, purpose and performance.

People who are low on both passion and purpose, are in the bottom 10% of performers.  It’s hardly surprising.  When you’re not excited about your job and you don’t feel it has any meaning, you’re not likely to be an overachiever.

It’s also not surprising to learn: people with both passion and purpose, those who are excited about their job and feel it has meaning, are in the top 80th percentile of performers.

Here’s where it gets interesting, what do you think happens when you isolate the two elements?  Let’s look at passion first.  In the study, the people who were passionate – who expressed excitement about their jobs – were still poor performers, than if they lacked purpose.  The passion but no purpose employees rated in the 20th percentile of performers.

Compare that with the employees who did not feel passion, yet had a strong sense of purpose, and were much better performers.  They scored in the 64th percentile of performance.

The lesson here is clear, purpose beats passion. Here’s why.  Passion is personal, it’s about you, and what excites and pleases you.  Purpose is the impact you have on others, and it’s more likely to be shared.

Think about someone you know who is passionate about something, perhaps it’s you.  How do they describe their passion?  When most people describe their passion, they look inward they think about the impact their passion has on them.  But passions can be fleeting.  Anyone who has ever been passionate about something – be it writing a novel, remodeling a home, or even being a parent – knows passion does not always hold up in the face of setbacks.

As sense of purpose is more steadfast, it stems from a belief that your work or cause matters to others.  Purpose looks outward, you think about the impact you have on someone besides yourself.  When people are counting on you, you’re more likely to stick with it when things get tough.  Passion waxes and wanes depending on your energy level and circumstances.  The pull of a purpose is as strong on the easy days as it is on the hard days.

This is actually really great news for leaders.  If you’ve ever had the challenge of managing a low energy, low excitement salesperson you’ve probably experienced moments when you wanted to shake some passion into them.  (I can’t be the only one who has had this thought.)  It’s frustrating when people aren’t as excited as you are.

But this study illustrates, you don’t have to spark passion.  If you want your team to perform, give them a purpose.