dinsdag 16 maart 2010

Passion at work


In coaching we strive to support the development of autonomy in our clients. Autonomy is manifested in the release or recovery of three capacities: awareness, spontaneity and intimacy (Berne, 1964/1967, p.158). Awareness is the ability to hear, see, feel, taste and hear without interpretation. Spontaneity is the capacity to choose from a full range of options and respond directly and freely from all ego states. Intimacy is open sharing of feelings and wants without ulterior transactions.

However is autonomy enough? I often have coaching clients who complain about having lost the passion for their work. Passion is a key element to a successful organization. In his book Good to great, Jim Collins (2001) explores the principles of companies that have become great. One of the principles is the hedgehog principle, in which he states that companies that have become great are led by hedgehog leadership. Hedgehogs are people who reduce complexity to one passionate principle. The principle is based on an understanding of what you can be best at, what drives your (economic) growth and what you are passionate about.

So apart from autonomy, passion is a key element in success. I want to explore passion in the workplace in this blog I’ll explain harmonious and obsessive passion as I understand it, and then tell the story of one of my clients’ search for passion.

The origins of the word passion

There are many different forms of passion. In popular Western culture we often focus on sex as passion, anchored in the second chakra. However passion is actually a general power to create and transform. When underdeveloped a person could seem boring. When over-developed there is a tendency to fanaticism.

In its origins the word passion comes from the Latin for suffering or being acted on by external forces. Nowadays passion is associated much more with an internal desire or conviction for an action, object or person (Webster’s online dictionary, 2009).

This reflects the distinction I want to make between harmonious passion, which originates from an autonomous internalization and leads people to engage in an activity they love, and obsessive passion, which is externally driven and leads people to experience an uncontrollable urge to engage in an activity (Vallerand, 2008).

The development of obsessive passion

Obsessive passion is generated by activities we engage in because there is external or internal pressure to do so, for instance social esteem, or because the drive becomes uncontrollable (Amiot et al, 2006). It has been shown that over time obsessive passion leads to increase of negative affect (Vallerand et al, 2003).

Obsessive passion is driven by early beliefs learned in childhood from parents or self taught to survive, still active outside of awareness. We could say that these activities are regulated by driver behavior, defining your strategy under pressure, restricted by stoppers, defining what you’re not allowed to do or be in your life, and leading to a negative pay-off (Kahler and Capers, 1974). Obsessive passion generates a feeling of having to do things, of being driven to compensate a more basic feeling of not being OK.


I had an executive coaching client who came to me because he had lost joy in his work. He had been an extremely successful accountant for 35 years, and had always enjoyed what he could accomplish for clients. He felt a boy’s glee in being innovative within the rules imposed by the law and the ethics governing his profession. In the last five years he was feeling more and more reluctant to go to work. When I asked him what had changed he told me he had been promoted to a managerial job, in which he had almost no contact with clients. He had also been made responsible for the many redundancies caused by the financial crisis.

At home his children had gone off to college, and he was starting to realize that though he respected his wife as a good mother, they hardly shared anything as partners anymore. He felt lonely.

He had started working longer hours to avoid being at home. He worked more out of a sense of duty now. He complained of emotional flatness and a feeling of distance towards his co-workers. He had become obsessed with finishing off the list of tasks he set himself each week, but never succeeded. He often got into fights with his wife blaming her for having to keep working to keep up the lifestyle she was used to. He felt guilty about fantasizing of a life without her.

When I asked him how he thought he’d end up if he continued working this way he replied: My tombstone will say, “He worked so hard”. He added that he expected to die young, as he had already suffered a small heart attack last year.

In terms of the negative mini-script my understanding was the following:

My client had lost his passion for work. The question was could I help him re-engage with the feeling of harmonious passion he had had before?

The development of harmonious passion

When we are young we have to engage in some activities and our freedom of choice is more limited. Over time we are granted permission to explore and we engage more and more in the activities that satisfy our personal needs for autonomy, relatedness and competence. These activities gradually become self-defining characteristics. We don’t do these activities, like playing the guitar. They are part of our identity: we become guitarists.

These self-defining activities are the ones we are harmoniously, internally and autonomously passionate about. They lead to satisfaction and a feeling of flow (Marsh and Jackson, 1999).

When I thought about how I maintain passion in my work, I came up with the following:

Harmonious passion is based on a desire or feeling of excitement, supported by internal permissions, things you are allowed to be or do, and leading to fulfillment.

Differences between obsessive and harmonious passion

In harmonious passion we translate pressure into a call to adventure, and drivers into desire. We get hundreds of “calls” every day. Many of them are calls to fulfill the roles we are used to in life and to exhibit our driver behavior.

For instance my clients’ boss issued a call and told my client:” The organization is in trouble and with your experience you are the only one that can help us”. He later told me this was very similar to what he experienced in his family of origin, taking care of his mother while his father was on his business travels.

The trick is to heed the calls that could provide us with a new possibility to fulfill our desire and learn new behavior. Pressure and call to action probably cause a very similar physical reaction based on adrenaline. However the interpretation and emotion attached to the physical reaction is very different. Pressure to driver behavior is an unconscious process based on behavioral patterns learned in early childhood, probably engendering some form of anxiety or feeling of having to compensate for imperfections. Desire comes from an inner longing, probably stemming from what transactional analysts call Free Child or a visionary part of the Parent, followed by an Adult decision to fulfill it.

Where obsessive behavior is exhibited to drown out the internal stoppers, harmonious passion calls upon the positive Parent permissions. For instance my client realized that he was working more and more to suppress his authentic feelings (don’t feel) and to avoid being close. Later he sourced some of the positive permissions around being allowed to be successful and to be caring towards himself and others, which helped him break the obsessive cycle.

Sometimes the obsessive passion leads to vengefulness. In the case of my client, they’ll see when I am at home with burnout that they can’t do without me. And he actually fantasized about his boss walking around clueless, because he hadn’t transferred any of the knowledge or included anyone in his projects. When fueled by harmonious passion people share and encourage participation from an OK-OK position.

Lastly the obsessive passion leads to negative pay-offs that confirm script beliefs. In the case of my client for instance possible burnout, loneliness, joylessness. And because the pay-off is based on archaic beliefs it never leads to here and now fulfillment. In harmonious passion the result is fulfillment in terms of vitality, relationship and health.

Changing obsession to harmonious passion

My client wanted to refind joy in his work and life. It was clear he was stuck in a pattern of obsessive passion, very successful on the outside but not fulfilled. My coaching focused on helping him find the desire behind the obsession, the permission behind the stopper, the need for sharing behind the vengeful fantasies, to ultimately refind his sense of joy and fulfillment. My question to him was: what would it take to create an extraordinary life for yourself?

In the end he decided to leave the accountancy firm he worked at to focus on his true desire to provide added value directly for clients. He expanded his work to include coaching of his executive clients, and started using more of his heart power in that.

After years of estrangement he went back to interview his parents about his childhood. He asked them about the background of the strong work ethic and seeming lack of feeling. His parents were moved by his curiosity and were able to share their true permission and support for him to succeed in whatever he endeavored. He also discovered that one of the reasons his father had appeared so strict was that his grandfather had been a true bohemian, making fortunes and giving them away to his employees when he got bored enough to start a new factory. My client read up on his grandfather and decided to take permission from him to be more adventurous and live more from the heart.

When I met up with my client two years later he was still with his wife. They had gone into couples therapy after my coaching of him, and had deep conversations about creating an extraordinary life together. He was less in the limelight, and filled with a more quiet contentment about life and his place in it.

Passion in the workplace

Both harmonious and obsessive passion can actually help build up a good organization. Research has shown that obsessively passionate people do well in highly competitive environments that promote a rigid and inflexible type of involvement, and which require individuals to engage at the expense of other life domains this type of environment. Conversely harmoniously passionate people working in highly competitive environments start feeling dissatisfied and in distress (Vallard, 2003).

However in Malcolm Gladwell’s book on what makes people spectacularly successful at what they do, he stresses the importance of opportunity and practice. On average 10,000 hours of practice lead to expertise. To sustain that many hours an intrinsic feeling of passion and a more harmonious context does seem necessary.

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