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Human Resource Management

Finding Passion in Everyday Work

“Do what you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life”
“Find your passion, and the rest will fall into place.” 

Nearly every student preparing to enter the workforce has heard a string of cliches about finding purpose in their career. 

In a new research paper, Jeffrey Pollack, professor of entrepreneurship; and Brad Kirkman, General (Ret.) H. Hugh Shelton Distinguished Professor of Leadership, set out to discover whether or not feeling passionate about work actually leads to better outcomes for employees and their companies. 

“In a nutshell, we did find solid correlations between passion and outcomes like job performance and work satisfaction,” says Kirkman. “But the truth is much more nuanced than ‘Find your passion.’” 

In 2012, Pollack was conducting research on entrepreneurship at the University of Richmond next door to a colleague, Violet Ho, who studied passion at work. Over the next nine years, they combined forces to scour hundreds of manuscripts related to passion in entrepreneurship. When Pollack invited Kirkman to join the research team, he jumped at the chance to explore questions that related to his longstanding interest in empowerment at a team level. “I recognized that an important part of being empowered is having a deep sense of meaning and impact at work,” says Kirkman. 

The research team analyzed data from 106 studies in an attempt to bring clarity and coherence to a fragmented field. In their paper, they establish work-based outcomes of three conceptions of work-related passion documented in the literature: 

  • General passion: overall positive feelings at work. Employees with general passion score high on questions like “I look forward to returning to work when I’m gone” and “I love to work hard.”
  • Dualistic passion: harmonious passion, the feeling that work is aligned well with other activities and values in life; and obsessive passion, feelings of obsession about work that propel someone to keep doing it.
  • Role-based passion: passion for specific entrepreneurial roles, like founding, developing and inventing. 

Each type of passion correlated with positive outcomes for workers and employers, which the authors expected, but one particular finding surprised them. “The assumption in some of the literature is that obsessive passion is always a negative thing, but our findings did not support that notion,” says Pollack. “Obsession can lead to burnout, but it can also lead to more commitment or identification with a venture.” 

Over the past 30 years, Americans have identified meaningful work as the most important aspect of their career, ahead of job security, hours worked, income and other factors. “While we all want to be passionate about what we’re doing, our research underscores the fact that passion takes different forms in different contexts,” says Pollack. When counseling students at the Poole College of Management about finding meaningful work, Pollack aims to set realistic expectations and goals. “It’s exceedingly rare to be passionate about a job every moment of the day. Every job will have aspects that don’t represent your passion. The key is finding a way to use what you’re passionate about to make the world a better place.” 

The paper, “Passion at work: A meta-analysis of individual work outcomes,” is published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior. The paper was co-authored by Jeffrey M. Pollack of North Carolina State University; Violet T. Ho of the University of Richmond; Ernest H. O’Boyle of Indiana University; and Bradley L. Kirkman of North Carolina State University.

Note to Editors: The study abstract follows.

“Passion at work: A meta-analysis of individual work outcomes”

Authors: Jeffrey M. Pollack, North Carolina State University; Violet T. Ho, University of Richmond; Ernest H. O’Boyle, Indiana University; Bradley L. Kirkman, North Carolina State University

Published: Feb. 3, 2020, Journal of Organizational Behavior

DOI: 10.1002/job.2434

Abstract: Academic research on passion is much more complex than the extant literature or popular press portray. Although research on work-related passion has progressed rapidly over the last decade, much remains unknown. We are now just beginning to recognize the different theoretical underpinnings and empirical operationalizations that work passion research has adopted, and the confusion this has generated hampers our understanding of the construct and its relationship to workplace outcomes. Accordingly, we use a meta-analytic examination to study the work-related outcomes of three dominant literature streams of work passion: general passion, dualistic passion (i.e., harmonious passion and obsessive passion), and role-based passion (i.e., passion for developing, passion for founding, and passion for inventing). We employ meta-analytic techniques using random effects modeling summarizing 106 distinct samples across 87 manuscripts totaling 384 effect sizes (total unique N = 38,481; 43.54% women, average age is 38.04). Importantly, we highlight how each of the three streams of passion relates to various outcomes differently, illuminate several important heretofore undetected nuances in passion research, and provide a roadmap for future inquiry on passion at work.