The Dark Side of Passion at Work

It's not my work, it's my passion at work

Being passionate about one’s work is widely recognized as one of the most desirable aspects of employment. To be rewarded, not by external means such as money or promotions, but rather by appeal to the intrinsic value of meaningful work is the ultimate state of work motivation. On Maslow’s pyramid this equates to the pinnacle of motivation known as “self-actualization.” Everything is beautiful when one enjoys complete passion at work. Right?

Not necessarily, according to recent studies.

There is a dark side to the experience of being highly passionate about one’s work. Maybe you’ve experienced it – or exploited it.

The phenomenon is called “legitimization of passion exploitation” and it falls under the broad umbrella of cognitive dissonance, or rationalization. It occurs when some unsavory or demeaning task is handed to an employee because they are so passionate about their work that they won’t be bothered. Examples include being asked (forced) to work extra hours without pay, or to carry out undesirable tasks that have no legitimate relationship to the worker’s job. In the boss’ mind these are trivial matters because the passionate worker is so motivated, they would do just about anything simply out of their “love” for their work.

From a phenomenological standpoint, it can be readily apparent to a passionate employee when they are being “overused,” but it’s unknown to the boss who imposes such demands. As mentioned, cognitive dissonance results in the boss thinking to themselves, “They love their work so much, they will be glad to work a few extra hours” or “they’ll appreciate coming to another team dinner this evening,” etc.

So, while passionate work may be arguably the greatest reward for people at work, it also can have a downside.

How do we handle this?

The most direct means is to make the boss aware that their explicit, or implicit demands that aren’t fair or aren’t part of the worker’s job are, in fact abusive, if not as psychologically harmful as some of the more obviously exploitative behaviors (e.g., sexual harassment, exposure to extremely dangerous conditions, bullying, etc.). This could be accomplished as simply as by educating the boss about the potential for legitimization of passion exploitation as a form of abuse of power but may require more intensive intervention if the “bias” (it’s not technically a psychological bias) is deeply ingrained in their behavior or world view.

Alternatively, the worker could – or need -- be the point of intervention. In this case the employee who is being exploited for their passion may first have to overcome their own possible biases that also can serve to justify the exceptional requests. Passionate employees oftentimes volunteer for various “extraordinary” tasks because they too justify the behavior in the name of their own passion. But this isn’t always the case.

Once one notices that they are being exploited by a presumably caring, but blinded boss, they need to “unblind” the boss in a way that doesn’t do more harm than good. This can be difficult since the boss is not consciously aware of their exploitative behavior and there may even be a longstanding precedent in which the exploited employee willingly – cheerfully – submits to the excessive demands. Ideally, a third party, such as a coach or HR, could broach the topic between employee and boss. But not everyone, mostly no one, has the benefit of a trained third party so ready to intervene.

For the passionate employee, the greatest hurdle is to get over the impression that anything is justified in the line of their ‘beloved’ work. Sometimes even great jobs ask too much of employees. And this is where the intervention begins; noticing that one is being exploited and that it isn’t right. It’s far more difficult for the employee to remedy the situation than the boss or via a third party, but it isn’t impossible.

In cases where a third party is unavailable or inappropriate (some boss’ would rather be addressed directly by the employee than to be made aware by a coach or HR) the employee should first remember that they are likely perceived in a positive light by their boss. In addition, this type of exploitation isn’t deliberately demeaning or pejorative. The employee just needs to find the right way to bring up the issue without causing undue harm, i.e., embarrassment by accusation. This will require tact and diplomacy on the part of the employee.

The first issue is timing: when should the employee bring up the perception that they are being ‘overused’? Generally, the best time to bring up sensitive issues is when emotions are balanced. It’s not wise to mention that you’re being overworked when your boss is under a lot of pressure. Instead, the employee should wait for a time when both they and their boss are “psychologically removed” from the behavior or situation to minimize reflexive, defensive reactions. Both the employee and boss should be in a neutral frame of mind where it comes to the given exploitative situation. A particularly good time would be when the boss asks for feedback. This doesn’t mean they won’t be upset by the accusation, but they’re presumably prepared for some corrective encouragement.

If you, the exploited one, must bring the issue up, be sure to do so in a private meeting with your boss. Face to face is best, then via voice/teleconference if face to face isn’t practical. The least favorable means are via the written word. Email or notes (or even worse, tweets) are much less personal or intimate and miss the sensitivity of being more “present.” Traditional advice on giving negative feedback applies in this situation. Try starting with what you appreciate most about your boss or your job and then delicately introducing the one thing that would make your boss or your job even better. When positioned as an extension of something positive, negative feedback is more palatable.

There are other means of guarding against or remedying exploitation of passion, but the main point is that it happens and that it isn’t intended to be exploitative. While not on level ground with child labor or blatant abuse of power, passionate employees can be victims of the very work for which they are so passionate.

Do you know of anyone who is experiencing passion exploitation at work? You probably do and it isn’t “just okay.” Step in or step up to this subtle, but real form of abuse and right a wrong that many don’t see.