Sector News

Research: your love for work may alienate your colleagues

June 16, 2023
Borderless Leadership

A growing number of companies are seeking out employees whose passion for their work is the driving force behind their performance, and they’re investing in strategies to encourage and nurture this motivation. The research on this topic is clear — more passionate employees are more productive, innovative, and collaborative, and they demonstrate higher levels of commitment to their organizations. Fostering passion is a winning strategy for organizations that aspire to achieve sustained growth, innovation, and success.

However, in the pursuit of nurturing passion, our recent research reveals that employers may have overlooked and neglected the needs of employees driven by other sources of motivation, such as financial stability, social status, or familial obligations. These employees play a critical role in the success of their companies, but may be subject to an invisible penalty due to their perceived lack of passion for their work.

Doing What You Love Makes You “Moralize” Loving Your Work
Our research involving 1,245 full-time employees across several organizations that varied in size and industry revealed a novel phenomenon in the contemporary workplace: The more people love their work, the more they see it as a moral imperative. Employees who were more passionate about their work agreed more strongly with sentences like “Working for personal enjoyment is morally virtuous” and “Being intrinsically motivated is moral.” For these individuals, loving their work had moral significance beyond personal fulfillment, and they were more likely to judge their colleagues’ work motivations against their own moral yardstick or ask, “Are my colleagues here for the right reasons?”

This emphasis on loving your work as a moral obligation has far-reaching implications. Our research suggests that those who love their work more are also more likely to view working for external rewards less favorably. Those who agreed with sentences like “Being intrinsically motivated is moral” also agreed with sentences like “Those who do their work for money alone are not virtuous employees” and “Employees who are motivated by external rewards tend to be immoral.”

Critically, we found consequences to these character judgements. Employees who love their work more also prioritized helping their more passionate colleagues, whom they consider morally superior. In contrast, employees who worked for other reasons received less help from their more passionate colleagues, making it more difficult for them to advance in their organizations and making them more likely to be excluded from important projects. Such treatment can have severe consequences for employee morale, retention, and overall organizational performance. By contrast, employees who worked for external rewards treated their colleagues equally, regardless of why they worked.

Creating an Environment that Values Employees’ Diverse Motivations
Managers need to be aware that organizations that valorize passion can create a sense of alienation for some employees. Recognizing and celebrating the unique contributions of all employees, regardless of their underlying motivations, will help create a sense of belonging and purpose among your workforce, leading to increased engagement and productivity.

Managers should also strive to foster an open and inclusive workplace culture where employees feel comfortable discussing their motivations and goals, even when they are misaligned with a passion-driven ethos. This can both encourage dialogue between employees who vary in their motivations for working and provide opportunities for employees to explore and develop their passion both inside and outside the workplace. For example, mentorship, networking relationships, or job crafting (i.e., spending more time on tasks that are more meaningful to them) can expose employees to roles they may be more excited about.

If you are an employee who loves their work, keep in mind that this could make you more judgmental about your colleagues and affect how much you help them. Not everyone needs to do the work because they are passionate about it. Some employees may have families to take care of, need benefits as a safety net, or have not yet discovered their true passion for work.

Finally, organizations should examine whether their benefits and perks appeal to employees with diverse motivations. While some employees may be attracted to work because they are passionate about it, others may be motivated by flexible work arrangements, or access to professional development opportunities. By offering a range of benefits and perks, leaders can create a workplace that appeals to employees with diverse motivations and help retain top talent.

Despite the prevalent belief that passion is crucial for success, all employees should be appreciated for who they are and how they contribute — regardless of their motivations for working. Leaders should recognize the diverse motivations that drive their workforce and create an inclusive environment that supports and values all forms of motivation, rather than penalizing those who do not fit the passion-centric mold.

by Mijeong Kwon, Julia Lee Cunningham, and Jon M. Jachimowicz


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