The Hidden Leadership Problem with Passion

One problem with passion is that it’s no substitute for good leadership.

Passion is good. You want team members who love their work and serve their customers with passion. We are big believers in the power of purpose. Connecting what you’ve asked to why it matters is a powerful source of motivation. However, there is a problem with passion that can erode your influence, your team, and entire companies.Recently, Amnesty International was in the news for what might seem like a strange reason. The human rights organization lost five members of their leadership team following a report revealing a toxic workplace culture.How does an organization with such a noble purpose as fighting human rights abuses around the world end up with a “toxic culture of secrecy and mistrust?”It might seem strange, but it’s actually more common than you might think – and it’s not limited to charitable organizations. You can easily find yourself in the same situation if you fall into the Passion Pit.

The Problem with Passion

The Passion Pit is the name I gave to the strange contradiction of organizations that do good work but have poor culture – cultures that are caustic, toxic, and abusive.You might think that for an organization like Amnesty International, the negative culture, burnout, and employee anxiety would result from the difficult work they do. Observing human rights abuses like torture would be emotionally draining and take a toll on anyone.But that’s not the problem. According to the report:“The stress, burnout, anxiety, depression … were more often reported to stem from their working conditions–challenging managers, mistreatment by colleagues, bullying–than from stressful tasks such as interviewing survivors of violence and torture.”I’ve watched this same dynamic happen before. I’ve lived it as an employee and I’ve witnessed it as a leadership trainer and consultant.The Passion Pit happens when leaders use people’s passion and commitment as a substitute for sound leadership and management.

If They Really Cared, They Would …

I was working with the CEO of a regional service organization who did amazing work but was having a horrible time keeping employees.As I reviewed my initial findings with her, she said something that stopped me cold. Rather than address the organizational dysfunctions, the clearly abusive and bullying managers, and the lack of clarity that frustrated employees, she said, “If people really cared about what we’re doing there, they’d get it done.”That’s the Passion Pit.This CEO was sincere. She believed in their work, but she was blind to their leadership and management problems (and her contribution to them).Her perspective was so twisted that she interpreted people’s behavior only as a sign of their commitment–not as the healthy indicator of major issues it was.

Diagnose Your Passion Pit

When you say, “If they really cared about what we’re doing here, they would …” carefully examine what comes next. If your next words would be something like:
  • “tolerate that abusive or dehumanizing person …”
  • “sacrifice their health or family …”
  • “stop asking for clarity or priorities and just work harder …”
  • I invite you to consider that the person isn’t the problem. Passion isn’t the problem. These are powerful signs that your culture, processes, and leaders need help.You’re asking people to swim against a powerful current. People can’t fight the culture every day just to do their basic work.Related: One Huge Leadership Secret to Get Innovative Ideas You Need

    Solving the Problem with Passion

    You’re a motivated leader and you care. (You wouldn’t have read this far if that wasn’t true.)If you suspect that the Passion Pit is at work in your team, one direct way to solve it is to change your language from “If they really cared, they would …” to “If we really care about our people successfully serving our customer, we would …”Here are some places to start: “If we really care about our people successfully serving our customer, we would …”
  • Give every employee a trained leader who helps them to succeed.
  • Ensure everyone knows what matters mos t.
  • Ensure everyone knows what they need to do today to succeed .
  • Give each person the training, encouragement, coaching, and challenge they need to grow.
  • Hold ourselves accountable for keeping our commitments.
  • Not tolerate bullying, harassment, or any other negative behavior that has no place in a great team.
  • Structure intense work in ways that motivated people can sustain over time.
  • Celebrate success –big and small.
  • As you implement these steps, you’re on your way to building a culture that supports and energizes your people. You’ll release their natural motivation and you’ll make it easier, not harder, to the work that really matters.

    Your Turn

    When the work is important, it’s easy to fall into the Passion Pit – that’s the problem with passion.This is a short list to get you started. Leave us a comment and share one way you complete the sentence: “If I really care about my people successfully serving our customer, I will …”