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Passion and Purpose : An Attainable Intrinsic Motivator?

December 21, 2010

The topic of work satisfaction either as a construct on its own or as a predictor of performance or productivity goes all the way back to Elton Mayo’s Hawthorne Plant study at least, and must be one of the top three most researched and published topics in IO Psychology. However the existing instruments tend to stay in the 40’s and 50’s for predictive power against performance, and that seems to be where they are stuck.

For an area that takes up such a big slice of our life, it deserves better – a typical career starts at around 18 years of age, and for about 48 weeks of the year it occupies us for nine hours day (at least) for five days a week (if you are lucky). Knock off 8 hours for sleep, an hour for commuting, and all you get in change for your 24hr terrestrial rotation is six hours to be “yourself” and life outside work.
Many people socialize with people from work, take work home, and marry somebody they met at work.
Losing a job is for most people somewhat of a personal identity crisis.

Clearly work takes a huge slice of our lives, and the degree to which you find it interesting and rewarding has been shown to be critical to health and happiness if not also wealth.
From a Knowledge Management perspective the implications for Intellectual Asset Management are also immense – people who are disinterested in their work produce results that are far inferior both for them in terms of health and happiness as well as for their employers in terms of productivity and ROI.
A really good worker that is engaged in what they do and puts in effort that results in achieving organizational goals is a critical competitive advantage in the market, and it is from them that much of the growth and innovation comes.

Measuring Work Behavior

Most instruments take the approach of a quasi market, and view this work thing as a quid pro quo of “this work for that pay”, and then help the management to ask how to get more work done – and if they are also Taylorite or Theory X in approach they go further and ask how to get more work for less pay and benefits.

However, like Maslow, they are undone by the concept of passionate people, but first let’s just sketch what I am talking about here.

Going back to a blog post I did about Leadership Replacement there is a kind of matrix for what one would get out of various combinations (modified a bit here), it looks like so:




Result: You have a …





















Clearly by this matrix, if you want a person who punches a card and does the expected list of tasks each day, then passion isn’t required, just an equitable exchange of money for ability.

However, if you want a slice of discretionary effort and the chance at pulling ahead of the competition, more than disinterested exchange of labor becomes mandatory.

One measure that is frequently used to tell if staff are pulling in the same direction as the corporate mission requires, is Attachment.
This construct has been studied from a variety of angles, ranging from the similarities between work attachment and romantic love (Hazan and Shaver 1990), staff turnover and attachment (Koch and Steers 1978; Abrams, Ando et al. 1998; Maertz Jr, Griffeth et al. 2007), to studies on attachment as a basic human need that plays itself out in work settings (Hepper and Carnelley ; Baumeister and Leary 1995; Simmons, Gooty et al. 2009).
In a real sense the phrase “I love my work” is more than just a casual metaphor, and speaks to real and deep-seated needs within people for affiliation, interaction, and purpose.

Attachment speaks mostly of affiliation, but also of alignment to a shared purpose, and to a sense that what is being done and achieved is valued – people with high levels of this sort of attachment also feel a sense of deeper interest in the work itself – but there is a curious thing that happens when that interest runs deeper still.

You get a person who becomes a bit obsessed and develops more than just an interest, in fact, a passion – and this has been largely missing from the original theories of work.

Mayo, Taylor, Gilbraith, and even Maslow, not much mention of passion.


Passion gets a bit unnerving because it goes beyond mere interest and the person that comes under the spell of a passion for a subject area forms an affiliation and bond with the subject itself, sometimes to the virtual exclusion of everything else.

A person who regards their work as a calling, something they are passionate about, needs no extrinsic motivation and seems to see no need for a work/life “balance”.
It isn’t that they balance differently, it’s as though the term simply becomes meaningless because work and life become entangled to the point where the person’s work and life are virtually identical and where their work is an essential part of their identity both publicly and personally.

We could view such people as some sort of aberration, a kind of benign obsessive pathology that visits itself on the broad population to produce here a Mozart, there a Michelangelo, and on occasion a Kasparov.
An alternative view is to regard these people as simply having more of something on a scale and whose skills and interests set each other on fire – the hint seems to be that passion is something that can be grown and increased in people that lie just under the combustion point.
Be that as it may though, we certainly want to know who in our organizations are either already passionate, or have the propensity to become passionate, and to be so about something that is aligned with the corporate mission.

So ala Seth Godin and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and others, I want to measure to what degree a person is passionate about what they do as an occupation and also see how close that aligns with both the role they occupy and the organization they are in. Does the corporate image and mission fit like a surgical glove over their passion, and if not, how far from it is it?

In the 2nd release candidate of a Knowledge Management & Organizational Learning Climate survey, I added two items to measure respondent’s self-perception of their degree of passion for their job and their area of specialization where I had previously just asked about their passion for the company’s mission.
The initial results show an interesting split between respondent’s feelings of passion for their company’s mission and their subject domain on the one hand, and that for their job on the other.
While it is far too early to claim a tendency, it is fascinating to wonder what it would mean in terms of potential job enhancement.

However, this instrument was not designed to delve into passion as such and we should perhaps recap on the current thinking on what constructs comprise job satisfaction and performance.

Constructs ahoy

My initial construct ideas gleaned from various authors and many TED talks are:

  • Passion/Purpose
  • Autonomy/LoC
  • Feedback/Reward
  • Expertise/Excellence

I have several questions to solve before an instrument can be built – for starters, are “passion” and a “sense of purpose” part of the same construct, and can I measure them both at the same time?
Secondly, since various authors have also posed
Locus of Control (LoC) as a component of job satisfaction (Brett 2001) it makes sense to measure this, but I suspect that LoC and “Autonomy” are the same thing or closely related (Aubé, Rousseau et al. 2007). There is even a hint that a combination of passion and internal LoC is critical to entrepreneurship (Carsrud and Brännback 2009)
Thirdly, I wonder if “Feedback” and “Reward” are also at least stable-mates and that measuring for a cluster that includes both would also be significant

The biggest question is whether passion is ever entirely internally fueled, or whether autonomy/LoC is mediating the degree of feedback/reward and level of expertise/excellence that is needed to turn an interest into a passion. Once passion is fired up, is it the case that as long as LoC remains internal, that feedback and perception of excellence are mostly internal, or would an organization need to “pump” a bit?

… and of course, how exactly does one manage a passionate person?- Does one just leave them alone and provide infrastructural support, and what does one do if their passion is diverging from the organizational goal?

Next Steps

My plan is to build up a model of passion as it applies to the work environment and construct an instrument to measure it in that context.
The general idea is to have a tool with a Knowledge Management perspective on passion vs performance, and at the same time to benchmark and see what external factors can prime and steer passion.

Stay tuned!



Matthew Loxton is a Knowledge Management expert and holds a Master’s degree in Knowledge Management from the University of Canberra. Mr. Loxton has extensive international experience and is currently available as a Knowledge Management consultant or as a permanent employee at an organization that wishes to put knowledge assets to work.



Abrams, D., K. Ando, et al. (1998). “Psychological attachment to the group: Cross-cultural differences in organizational identification and subjective norms as predictors of workers’ turnover intentions.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin
24(10): 1027-39.

Aubé, C., V. Rousseau, et al. (2007). “Perceived organizational support and organizational commitment: The moderating effect of< IT> locus</IT> of control and work autonomy.” Journal of managerial Psychology
22(5): 479-495.

Baumeister, R. F. and M. R. Leary (1995). “The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation.” Psychological bulletin
117: 497-497.

Brett, J. M. (2001). “The Psychology of Work: Theoretically Based Empirical Research (Organization & Management Series).”

Carsrud, A. L. and M. Brännback (2009). Understanding the entrepreneurial mind: opening the black box, Springer Verlag.

Hazan, C. and P. R. Shaver (1990). “Love and work: An attachment-theoretical perspective.” Journal of personality and social psychology
59(2): 270-280.

Hepper, E. G. and K. B. Carnelley “Adult attachment and feedback seeking patterns in relationships and work.” European Journal of Social Psychology
40(3): 448-464.

Koch, J. L. and R. M. Steers (1978). “Job attachment, satisfaction, and turnover among public sector employees* 1.” Journal of Vocational Behavior
12(1): 119-128.

Maertz Jr, C. P., R. W. Griffeth, et al. (2007). “The effects of perceived organizational support and perceived supervisor support on employee turnover.” Journal of Organizational Behavior
28(8): 1059-1075.

Simmons, B. L., J. Gooty, et al. (2009). “Secure attachment: Implications for hope, trust, burnout, and performance.” Journal of Organizational Behavior
30(2): 233-247.


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