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The dark side of showing passion at work

Dina Gerdeman
The face of Apple co-founder and former CEO Steve Jobs is created with adhesive notes on the window of an Apple Store in Munich

When Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997 after a 12-year absence, the company he co-founded was dispirited, rudderless, and near bankruptcy. In a staff meeting, Jobs shared his plan for revitalizing the struggling brand, touching on one necessary ingredient: passion. “People with passion can change the world for the better,” he said.

Jobs’ passion and his ability to communicate it saved the company.

Business leaders like Jobs who express passion in the workplace can reap big benefits, earning enough admiration and support from colleagues to execute their ideas successfully. Yet passion also has a dark side, and if employees aren’t careful about how and when they express it, it can turn off colleagues or even make them feel threatened, according to new research.

“You can’t just express passion and expect it will be jolly good. It isn’t always the way to get people on board with you. There’s a time and a place for it,” says Harvard Business School Assistant Professor Jon M. Jachimowicz. “It can even be dangerous if you’re not careful about when, how, and to whom you express passion.”

Passion can be intoxicating

When an employee expresses passion for an idea at the right time and in the right context, this intense positive energy can act like a gravitational pull that sucks in other workers to invest their time and support, ultimately contributing toward the success of the idea. “Passion, like a smile, is contagious,” Virgin Group Founder Richard Branson once observed. “It rubs off on everyone around you and attracts enthusiastic people into your orbit.”

But when does passion work, and when does it not?

Jachimowicz and his team designed a series of six studies to better understand passion in the workplace. The resulting paper, “The Gravitational Pull of Expressing Passion: When and How Expressing Passion Elicits Status Conferral and Support from Others,” was published in July 2019 in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.

 “Passion, like a smile, is contagious.” 

In the first study, which tested the effectiveness of passion in a real-life setting, the team collected data from the Canadian television show Dragons’ Den, where 177 entrepreneurs pitched their business ideas and products to a panel of five investors, called dragons, to solicit support. Would high-passion presentations entice more investors?

The research team found that entrepreneurs who came across as passionate about their projects received more offers. In fact, just a slight increase (one standard deviation) in how much passion the entrepreneur expressed created a 40% boost in the likelihood that funding was granted.

“When we see someone who is passionate, we often take it as a sign of competence and future success. As a result, we offer that person support,” says Jachimowicz, who co-authored the article with Christopher To of Northwestern University, Adam D. Galinsky of Columbia Business School, as well as Shira Agasi and Stéphane Côté, both of the University of Toronto.

Sometimes passion isn’t appropriate

At the same time, the team found that passion doesn’t always work. In a second study, participants watched videos of Dragons’ Den and rated how passionate entrepreneurs sounded. Investors were most inclined to open their wallets to entrepreneurs who expressed passion in authentic ways, including one who introduced a personal connection to the pitch.

However, entrepreneurs seen as expressing passion with a false note did not earn as much support from investors. For example, one entrepreneur interrupted the dragons when they were asking clarifying questions, and another made the judges feel uncomfortable by directing a passionate pitch toward just one dragon while ignoring the other four.

“Employees should ask themselves: Is this a situation where expressing passion is appropriate, and if so, how can I express passion in a way that’s valued?” Jachimowicz says.

Doesn’t work for some jobs

Passion can also backfire in certain positions more than others. A third study compared people with two different jobs who expressed passion for their work—accountants and consultants. The 64 participants said it was appropriate for consultants to express passion, but not accountants. One participant claimed, “accountants should remain stoic and emotionless.”

“It might have to do with a sense of objectivity that people expect from certain jobs,” Jachimowicz says. “We want our teachers to be passionate and instill a thirst for learning, but we want our accountants to work diligently. We want passionate lawyers, but we don’t want passionate judges.”

 “If I’m a leader in a company or team, just expressing passion won’t necessarily make people agree with me and help me succeed.” 

Jachimowicz, a native of Germany, learned first-hand just how much a particular job setting matters to whether passion is considered acceptable. The German word for passion, “leidenschaft,” literally translates to “one’s ability to endure hardship,” so German workers may be more likely to express passion quietly by putting their heads down, working hard, and being persistent, he says.

But that behavior worked against Jachimowicz when he moved to the United States, where his quiet determination prompted American colleagues to question whether he had enough passion for the work. “That made me realize that the context matters, and passion is only beneficial if others can see it.”

Co-workers need to believe

There is another caveat to consider, according to the researchers. People will only support passionate colleagues if they agree with their cause.

When participants in a fourth study read about workers who were passionate about environmental issues, only participants sympathetic with those views showed admiration. The others turned their backs.

So Jachimowicz advises: “If I’m a leader in a company or team, just expressing passion won’t necessarily make people agree with me and help me succeed. Maybe I should work on getting everyone on board with the goal first.”

Passion backfires in competitive settings

Even worse, passion can be toxic in competitive situations. “Passion can be a glue that binds others together, but it can also serve as a gasoline that inflames competitive feelings,” the paper says.

In a fifth study, where participants imagined they were competing against a co-worker for a promotion, participants not only declined to support a passionate co-worker but viewed them as threatening.

 “People are really good at spotting fake passion.” 

Given this friction, managers should avoid pitting passionate employees against one another, particularly if a team needs to work collaboratively. For example, rather than offering just one promotion among three passionate workers, a manager can offer to promote all employees whose work reaches a certain bar.

“The moment you set up a zero-sum setting, expressing passion becomes a poison in the workplace,” Jachimowicz says. “If two employees are competing for something, one may try to undermine the other.”

Pretending doesn’t work

Expressing fire in the belly in a job interview can work in a candidate’s favor, but the candidate should also be mindful that in certain situations, it might come across as off-putting. “If I’m the hiring manager, what if I think this person is going to come for my job in three years?”

One piece of advice Jachimowicz has for job candidates—as well as all workers, for that matter: Never fake passion if you don’t feel it.

“People are really good at spotting fake passion,” he says. “Even if I can deceive you once in an interview by saying I really want to work here, I can’t deceive you for the next six months on the job. And once people find out you’re not passionate, they feel deceived. When people express passion in the workplace, it should always be authentic and genuine.”

This article originally appeared in Harvard Business School’s Working Knowledge.

 

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