Friday, January 13, 2012

The Myth of the Passionate Employee

I've had conversations with two separate people in the past week, and in each the person I was talking to said, "No, I really need an employee. I want someone who's going to be passionate!"

It piqued my interest. When you really sit down and parse those two simple sentences, there are several assumptions and definitions in there that are fascinating.

First there's the notion that an employee - rather than a contractor - is needed to display passion. I'm not sure I buy this, although I can see where they're coming from. After all, if you pay a contractor to build something, they're going to do the job and expect to be paid for it, and that's all. If they're good at what they do, they will do a good job and do what it takes to deliver quality work on time. An employee is theoretically more closely tied to the future of the company and therefore will display more passion about it. Unfortunately, this is a loose correlation at best. There are passionless employees and there are contractors who are highly passionate about each of their clients.

Second there's the definition of "passion." I do not think this word means what  my conversation partners think it means. After all, passion merely means "strong emotion". What they think is means is more along the lines of "cares deeply about the future and vision of the company and will work as hard as it takes to see that vision come true." And that is a very different idea. Both of the people I was talking to are company founders. They live and breathe these companies: they stand beside their sons' soccer games thinking about closing the next client; they send emails - and reply to them - at all hours of the day and night; and they've sacrificed normal jobs for this. They want everyone to want their companies to succeed as much as they do, and to work as hard. That's what they call "passion".

Here's a little hint: It ain't gonna happen.

There are people who work very hard for dreams. They do it because they personally are getting something out of it. Maybe it's a chance to be rich ("I'm gonna be the next Google millionaire because I'm employee number 2!). Maybe it's advancement in their career. Maybe it's fame (the guy who came up with Amazon AWS is a rock star in some circles). Maybe it's just because they're really interested in the work.

There are other people who won't work that hard. Your dreams and blood and sweat and tears are their job. They want to do their job, get compensated fairly for it, and go do something else.

Specifying an employee or a contractor won't guarantee you passion or lack thereof. The financial arrangements of the work - employment or contracting - really don't have anything to do with how hard they work and what they want for it.

Working hard or long is also no guarantee of quality. Ask yourself what you really need. Do you really want someone who will be there all the time responding to your emails and putting in the hours - regardless of how good the output is? Or do you want someone who is going to help you build your product well, even if that someone will only do it in 40 hours a week?

So the next time you say you want a passionate employee to work for you, don't. Step back and think about what you really mean. Do you want someone who will build good things? Or do you want someone who is always around? Me, I'll take building things.

Your choice.


  1. Hmm, I'm not sure I agree.

    If you frame it in absolute terms, of course you are correct. Some employees are passionless, and some contractors are passionate. I agree that there are no guarantees either way.

    But certainly your conversation partners really meant something like "I want people who will work hard and do good things, and I've found that people tend to do that more often when they feel connected and invested in the future of the company."

  2. Interesting post. In a corporate environment, I see your point. I've given a lot of thought to this also.

    I currently work with a group whose values and mission align with my life's own mission. So I for one, have a [self-interested] personal passion that aligns with the greater goal of my work.

    It comes at a cost, but I've found myself in an interesting place. This happens often in open-source, where personal interests meet corporate needs.

    ... just my vague $.02

  3. Hi Catherine Powell,
    Totally agree with you.
    -Dhanasekar S

  4. Joe, it's an interesting take, and certainly a lot politer! I think there are a lot of motivations when you're trying to be a boss and a leader and inspire people with your vision. It's particularly hard to draw lines when that dream is - like it is for so many founders - all-consuming.

    Corey, I'm glad you've found yourself in an interesting spot - that's both good luck and knowing what you want, and it's a wonderful feeling. For engineers, I think the open source project of their dreams is often what they do after they finish the 9-5 job part of the day, so to be able to combine them is even better.

  5. Catherine,
    It's a nice written article. With 'passion' I also find one word that is often used i.e. 'Enthusiasm'. Not sure if that is also used in the correct form :)

  6. Catherine,
    It is a nice written article. I also see one of the word that is often used is "Enthusiasm". Not sure if that is also used correctly :)

  7. Catherine, nice article, but I can not agree with it in 100%. It is possible to find passionates. These founders are able to find passionates. However these guys (employees) won't be passionated about the company, they will be passionated about their work. There are lots of employees who love webdevelopment, webdesign, copywriting or anything else. We must look deeper to find them, but it is possible. And if we find them, we will have the real passionate employee.