How Great Leaders Ignite
Passion and Performance
Look at today’s top-performing companies, and you’ll inevitably find a high degree of employee engagement. From frontline workers to CEOs, people are passionate about their companies’ purpose, values, and mission.
Most workers are motivated to give their best and often go beyond what’s required. Some are lucky enough to work for companies that are consistently designated a “best place to work.”
But for countless other organizations, only 20% of employees say they’re excited about work. They show up to earn a paycheck. At most, they aim to achieve personal success and climb the promotion ladder.
In the first workplace, people are passionate. In the latter, they’re looking out for themselves, with management struggling to realize performance goals. We can attribute the difference to organizational factors like hierarchy, processes, incentives, and personalities. But the real culprit may be their leaders’ failure to ignite passion.
For years, we’ve been learning how workplace performance depends on emotional factors like engagement, culture, values, and a sense of purpose. But many leaders and managers ignore the need to foster employee connection to the corporate mission.
While most leaders are highly experienced in financial planning, capital budgeting, and organizational structure and strategies, most receive no formal training in building, leveraging, or measuring employee passion.
Engagement surveys are a reasonable way to gauge passion levels, but they cannot capture what it looks like or how to increase it.
We usually see successful startups filled with hordes of passionate people, yet we view them as anomalies – unique because of their youthful culture or trendy products. We seldom imagine older, more traditional companies as hotbeds of passion and energy.
Stagnant leadership thinking plagues executives who fail to identify a purpose beyond making profits.
“If you look through the right lens, every organization has the potential for world-changing impact. The role of a leader is to foster passion around that impact and to keep that passion alive by reinforcing it every day.”
~ Jim Whitehurst, CEO of Red Hat, in The Open Organization: Igniting Passion and Performance (Harvard Business Review Press, 2015)
When leaders recognize a higher purpose and their companies’ potential to make a difference in the world, they ignite passion in their people and achieve stellar performance.
Passion Starts with Purpose
If you haven’t clearly articulated the “why” of your business, people will struggle to be engaged in the “what” their job requires.
In his brilliant 2009 TED Talk and book, Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action, Simon Sinek emphasizes there has to be a reason – a purpose – for today’s workers to commit and give their best efforts to an organization:
“If you hire people just because they can do a job, they’ll work for your money. If you hire people who believe what you believe, they’ll work for you with blood and sweat and tears.”
Employees who don’t know how their job contributes to the organization’s purpose – and who cannot clearly articulate this purpose – are unable to give their wholehearted participation.
Igniting passion starts with defining your personal and company purpose: your beliefs, values, passions, principles, and connection to the company’s mission.
Purpose isn’t what a group does, but why it performs. Defining your purpose is just the first step. Leaders must activate people’s emotions and desires.
Purpose and Passion
If having a purpose encourages people to do the right things, then passion motivates them to give extraordinary performance.
“To put it bluntly, the most important task for any manager today is to create a work environment that inspires exceptional contribution and that merits an outpouring of passion, imagination and initiative.”
~ Gary Hamel, What Matters Now: How to Win in a World of Relentless Change, Ferocious Competition, and Unstoppable innovation (Jossey-Bass, 2012)
Smart leaders infuse passion into their workplaces by hiring for it right from the start.
Hire for Passion
Know anyone who’s so passionate about his work that he has a company logo tattooed somewhere on his body?
Admittedly, certain companies involved in software, social media and video gaming are more likely to have young, cult-like followers. Red Hat, the open-source Linux technology company, and Razer, the gaming hardware developer, are two examples.
When people are truly passionate about their interests and values, they eagerly express it in many ways. Companies harness this passion by encouraging a “raving fan-like” attitude among employees and customers. This can happen only when leaders provide a platform for passion.
Zappos, the large online shoe store known for its customer service, hires talent whose personal values align with the company’s core values. The best candidates have a genuine interest in helping others.
It starts at the hiring process. How do you find people who believe in the same values you and your company represent? You probably won’t unearth them using boring, conventional interview questions. You need to do more than determine someone’s skills, education, and experience.
You must ascertain whether candidates are a cultural fit.
It’s hard to tell if a candidate is excited because she desperately wants a job vs. a job at your company. The best people to gauge true passion, interest, and fit already work for you, so let them participate in candidate interviews. Future peers are likely to learn valuable information about potential new hires.
When it comes to interview questions, evaluate how candidates interact with prospective team members. How important is collaboration to them? Assess for curiosity in others, big-picture vs. little-picture vision, and outside interests and values.
Recognize and Reinforce Passion
Passion is a strong like for something – an enthusiasm usually rooted in personal values, identity, and cultural preferences. The term is often used in context with strong beliefs: religious fervor, political views, or desire for another’s love. We may also be passionate about our leisure activities.
In the context of work, passion refers to strong emotions that drive energy and engagement. To foster passion, leaders must set the stage by openly sharing their own desires and emotional interests. When leaders are unafraid to show their own excitement, others will follow suit. Great leaders recognize and reward people whose passion drives them beyond basic job requirements.
When employees openly express passion for their work, you must recognize and honor it; otherwise, you risk losing it. In a truly engaged workplace, everyone relies on peers for praise and acknowledgment. A leader must encourage this.
When an employee goes above and beyond expectations, make sure others find out about it. A company intranet or bulletin board is a great way to spread and share kudos.
Company Culture, Events, and Team Projects
You can reinforce your company’s culture and brand in many ways, but the most important may be trumpeting grass-roots ideas. When people offer their ideas, make sure they’re heard and responded to within a reasonable time frame. Emails should never be ignored or delayed. If you want people to be creative and innovative, you must listen to their contributions and give them freedom to take action.
Reinforce company values and purpose, and let staff organize themselves to explore projects. Provide a platform to celebrate events and achievements. Let staff plan celebrations to acknowledge hard work, success and initiative.
If your company sponsors charities or donates to a cause, let employees choose which ones to support and how they wish to participate. Even when there’s executive involvement in setting budgets, let associates run the program.
Each time you listen to individuals and teams is an opportunity to reinforce values, purpose, and passion, thereby ensuring that employees connect emotionally to goals and plans.
Connecting personal interests to company purpose can be tricky. It won’t happen without frequent discussions among staff and leaders. Some experts say a message must be heard five times before people actually hear it and incorporate it into memory.
Linking Passion to Performance
When leaders encourage a culture in which employees take psychological ownership, even average employees can perform at high levels. Purpose and passion create meaning and excitement at work. You achieve workplace engagement when employees apply this energy to specific tasks that drive your company’s success.
Be more communicative about strategy, and let every employee know what’s going on with the business, including financials. Managers must ensure their direct reports understand how individual performance contributes to overall long-term success.
Most executives believe they communicate well, but they tend to overestimate their abilities. The more frequently you speak to values and higher purposes, the more others will follow your lead.
Passion is contagious – an energy force that encourages goodwill and collaboration. So, too, is negativity. Ignite passion and diminish negativity by frequently talking about purpose and values.
Passion abounds when people believe their daily tasks have meaning. You energize your workplace when people see their accomplishments have a direct impact on team members, customers, the community and the business.
Leadership Tips for Sparking Passion
In The Open Organization, Red Hat’s Whitehurst provides five key leadership tips:
- Passion is contagious. When leaders display emotion, others will follow.
- Most companies have a stated purpose or mission. Integrate it into your dialogue with others on a daily basis.
- Add passionate words to your work vocabulary: “love,” “hate,” “excited” and “upset.” Others will adopt this behavior.
- Ask questions that tease out passion when hiring (i.e., “What inspires you?”).
- Create vehicles for people to show their unvarnished selves. Company outings or team-building events should allow for some silliness.
How do leaders in your organization ignite passion? How can you participate to create an inspirational workplace?