Can passion at work last?

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Work passion

Either you have passion for your work or you don’t, researchers find this to be a myth and suggest passion can be cultivated and sustained over time

When hiring new staff, managers often look for candidates who show a great deal of passion for their work. But even if a new hire starts off with a bang, how long does that initial passion last? As literary giant Victor Hugo once lamented “passion does not endure” in a love letter, the same caveat can be applied in the context of work.

Much research has been conducted on the subject of passion at work, but it presented a static and one-directional view – one that assumes an employee either has the passion or doesn’t at all. Presumed to be simply a character trait, passion then leads to positive outcomes in the workplace and enhances employee satisfaction, job performance and career development.

A group of researchers believe that this view of work passion is too limited in scope and does not match the changing reality in the workplace. While previous research did find that even when an employee possesses passion, it fluctuates over time. The question remains: “How do you sustain it?”

career, work passion
Passion for work can be sustained over time through proactive “job crafting”.

Professor Li Wendong, Associate Professor in the Department of Management at The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) Business School, and his collaborators were one of the first to tackle this question in their study named Sustainability of passion for work? Change-related reciprocal relationships between passion and job crafting.

His team included a doctoral student at the same department, Yu Kaili, as well as Professor Zhang Xin of the Shanghai University of Finance and Economics, and Professor Hannes Zacher of Leipzig University.

New findings about passion and work behaviours

Professor Li and his team asked more than 3,500 participants at a German company over the course of 15 months to respond to questions about their work experiences and behaviours in the preceding three months.

The study demonstrates that passion for work not only can be developed on the job but also sustained over time despite its ebbs and flows. According to the study, an important factor that helps keep employees’ passion for the job alive is proactive “job crafting.”

“Job crafting is a type of goal-directed proactive behaviour that helps to align employees’ work more closely with their interests and values,” says Professor Li. “When we found out how influential job crafting is in fueling an employee’s passion for work, we realised how important personal agency is in keeping someone’s work passion alive.”

“An employee doesn’t necessarily start out with a ton of passion,” he adds. “By strategically directing and shaping the tasks, goals and connections at work, the employee can gradually grow their passion and sustain it in the long run.”

By strategically directing and shaping the tasks, goals and connections at work, the employee can gradually grow their passion and sustain it in the long run.

Professor Li Wendong

As a breakthrough from previous research, the study discovers a positive reinforcement loop between job crafting and sustained passion for work. This means one helps enhance the other and vice versa. So instead of a one-directional relationship, as previous research had shown, these two have a dynamic, reciprocal relationship.

Shaping the job to fuel passion

Based on existing research, there are two types of employees who exhibit passion for their work. One has “harmonious passion” while the other has “obsessive passion.”

“Those who have a high level of harmonious passion are driven by their intrinsic interests and values,” says Professor Li. “They are more likely to express their authentic selves at work and pursue goals that align with their genuine interests, talents and enduring values. They naturally devote more time and effort to job crafting. They would calibrate and recalibrate their work strategies over time to achieve their self-directed goals.”

While these employees incorporate work as part of their identity, work becomes well-integrated into their sense of self and does not take over their entire lives in an overpowering way. Their work is in harmony with other aspects of themselves, hence the term “harmonious passion.”

These employees would devote time and energy to tasks that are most meaningful to them. They also like to seek out new and stimulating tasks, and build connections with people at work who appreciate their values and support their efforts. In addition, they have a strong desire to grow their creative work capacities over time.

The close fit between their job and their internal values as a result of job crafting in turn gives these employees a greater sense of satisfaction, meaning, purpose, growth and enjoyment through their work. This further motivates them to put in even more effort to promote a higher level of alignment — thus positively reinforcing their passion for work.

career, work passion
Employees with “obsessive passion” feel intense pressure and an uncontrollable urge to work all the time.

The researchers conclude that a major key to sustaining passion at work is harmonious passion, and that engaging in job crafting itself can contribute to the development and enhancement of harmonious passion over time. These two forces positively reinforce each other.

When passion becomes an obsession

On the other hand, the researchers believe that this kind of positive reinforcement is less likely to occur among employees who exhibit “obsessive passion” in their work. These employees have mixed motivations in their passion for the job.

While they carry intrinsic motivations like those driven by harmonious passion, they also engage in work out of a sense of obligation, or with the goal of gaining social acceptance, meeting others’ expectations or achieving their own personal standards of excellence.

Although these employees love and value their work, they feel an intense pressure and an uncontrollable urge to work all the time. Their self-esteem may be dependent on other people’s recognition of their work contributions. They may feel compelled to work intensely to repeatedly experience the thrill of rewards from their job.

Because these employees hinge their sense of self-worth primarily on their achievements and recognitions, they are also more vulnerable to comments and events that threaten their ego. As a result, they tend to experience more negative feelings, such as anxiety and rumination.

Although less likely to engage in job crafting, when these employees do engage in it, their passion is still sustained, and the sustained obsessive passion in turn motivates them to engage in more job crafting. A caveat: the types of job crafting involved in this dynamic are more limited than the types that those with harmonious passion engage in.

Practical applications for managers and employees

The study findings shed light on how employees can cultivate and sustain their passion for work through their own efforts. So, instead of suggesting people to go find their passion and then get a job that matches it, the study demonstrates that a dynamic growth mindset can allow employees to grow their passion on the job over a period of time. This can be achieved through job crafting.


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At the same time, managers can take active measures to cultivate harmonious passion in employees by providing some flexibility in their work environment.

“If managers allow some degree of customisation in their employees’ work based on their strengths and values, employees will be more likely to engage wholeheartedly with their job,” says Professor Li. “Autonomy and support go a long way in making them more passionate about their work and motivating them to further craft their job on their own initiative. This is how we can fuel the fire of their passion and keep it going.”