Communicate for Passion at Work

Ide Katrine Birkeland

It is critical for leaders to communicate what kind of passion they would like for their organizations. Here are five tips on how to do it.

LEADER'S TOOLBOX: Communication for Leaders

Passion is important for organizations. It’s something we need and want in our employees, but not at any price. Not all passion is a good thing, and it’s important to be more nuanced when calling for more passion in the workplace.

Although all passion emanates from love and identification with work, it’s necessary to distinguish between harmonious and obsessive passion for work.

The passion we want

Harmonious passion: You love and identify with work because it’s fun and enjoyable to perform the work itself. This type of passion is relatively easy to combine with other aspects of life (e.g. family or leisure) and is a flexible way of identifying work. This is because the foundations of the passion are based within the individual’s control (“I learn something new” or “I think my work is fun”) and employees do not rely upon others to feel successful.

Harmoniously passionate employees choose to work, but only because it is fun and rewarding performing the job in itself. Harmonious passion is associated with in-role performance, wellbeing, creativity, and organizational commitment.

Dangerous passion

Obsessive passion: This kind of passion emerges when other needs such as social status or self-esteem are intertwined with the job. The passion comes from what are the gains from the job and not from performing the job itself.

When relying on work to satisfy these needs, employees run a bigger risk of getting addicted to work. This is because they rely on others’ approval in order to feel successful or competent and this makes them vulnerable for negative emotions. If employees have an obsessive passion for their job, the relationship they have with work is very rigid and leaves little room for other aspects of life such as family or leisure.

Obsessively passionate employees have to work to feel good about themselves and their whole identity is tied to what they do.  Work takes up an unreasonably large proportion of their life. Obsessive passion is associated with burnout, stress, uncivil behavior, and is actually unrelated to in-role performance.

What can be done?

Two elements are particularly relevant when it comes to what managers and organizations can do to mitigate the negative consequences of obsessive passion. 

First, in buffering the relationship between obsessive passion and burnout, supportive colleagues in particular seem to help. That is, coworkers that show consideration and support for their colleagues may be important in slowing down the development of burnout for those with high levels of obsessive passion. 

Second, a motivational mastery climate may be helpful in reducing instigations of incivility, but only for those with lower levels of obsessive passion. In a mastery climate, success is characterized by great effort, self-development, task mastery, and collaboration.

For those with very high levels of obsessive passion, such a climate actually seems to be perceived as a threat to their need to shine in comparison with others and so the rate of incivility instigations actually increases for those individuals.

Five pieces of practical advice

Given that organizations want employees that feel passionate about their jobs and their employer, it is critical for leaders to communicate what kind of passion they would like for their organizations. 

The following are five pieces of practical advice on how to communicate effectively the kind of passion you’d like in your organization.

  • 1. Talk about and practice the importance of interpersonal relationships at work; ask how people are doing, take the time to listen and respond to their answers (even though it may be more elaborate than you expected).
  • 2. Focus on how everyone should compete with themselves and not others.
  • 3. When realizing that someone is in “too deep”, talk to them about what you see and how it affects the organization.
  • 4. Advise them to get professional help, and support them in getting it. This can for example be done by providing information of where this can be obtained, by offering time off when they are in treatment, or by other means of financial aid.
  • 5. Set a good example by talking about your life outside of work and show how you sometimes prioritize this over long work hours.


Ide Katrine Birkeland: Fire Walk with Me - Exploring the role of passion in wellbeing and performance at work. Series of Dissertation 8/2014, BI Norwegian Business School.

This article is published in Communication for Leaders 2014/2015 (Link to E-Magazine).
Communication for Leaders is a Science Communication Magazine published by Centre for Corporate Communication and Department of Communication and Culture at BI Norwegian Business School.


Published 11. December 2014

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