Passionate employees do not always deliver the best performance

Are you sure you are looking for passionate employees? Research has shown that it is not a foregone conclusion that enthusiasm will actually benefit the company.

Engagement and work performance
Those who strive for personal fulfilment and a better world in their work generally experience more job satisfaction and joie de vivre. But whether this engagement also automatically leads to better work performance remains to be seen. Winnie Jiang, assistant professor of organisational behaviour at Insead, researched this.

If employees voluntarily take on extra tasks, this is quickly interpreted as self-management, hard-working and inspired, Jiang observed in Harvard Business Review. That can blur the view of actual performance. With the danger that managers feel obliged to return the favour for these ‘good deeds’ of the employee. But they often have no idea whether this engagement actually benefits the company.

Passionate employees who strive for more personal satisfaction often work longer and are more likely to volunteer for extra jobs. If you do what you like, you will never see your work as an obligation again, it is often said.

This is precisely why people are looking for their ‘calling’ in their work more than ever before. That makes them more passionate and involved, but it does not necessarily improve performance, Jiang says. This enthusiasm can also lead to excessive idealism. An overly critical attitude towards the organisation soon has a counterproductive effect. In short: enjoying your work does not automatically mean that you will excel at it.

More salary for inspired employees
Together with Yuna Cho of the University of Hong Kong, Jiang conducted further research into the remuneration of these employees with a vocation. They often appear to command a higher salary and a higher work status.

Managers are apparently susceptible to their enthusiasm, without having a good idea of their actual performance. The risk is that, as a manager, you alienate employees with more business motivations, such as job security and career development.

Jiang and Cho think that managers also often have a distorted picture of the loyalty of these motivated employees to their employer. Based on sociological and psychological theories and principles, they suspect that this also influences the reward structure within the organisation. Psychologists speak of the signalling theory: in the absence of other information, managers are quick to base their judgements on superficially observable behaviour.

Random selection
One of the pillars of Jiang and Cho’s research is the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study (WLS). It is based on a random sample over the years of Wisconsin high school students who passed their final exams in 1957.

Of the 1,077 respondents, 49 percent cited engagement as the most important work motivation. For 35%, having a job with an income was the main motivation, for 16% it was career development. The people with the greatest enthusiasm did indeed turn out to earn more on average than the people who worked primarily for income or career.

Virtual Joe
To get an even better view of these ‘skewed’ relationships, Jiang and Cho organised a digital follow-up experiment with 372 US-based test participants, with an average of 12.4 years of work experience.

Three different groups were presented with three different scenarios, in which an imaginary employee – ‘Joe’ – explained his motivation to his virtual colleague Taylor. Based on these motivations, the different groups had to assign a virtual bonus, salary increase and promotion opportunity to the three different imaginary Joes.

This led to significant differences: the ‘Joe with a calling’ could also count on a larger bonus, a larger salary increase and a greater chance of promotion. These differences turned out to be mainly the result of how the different groups judged Joe’s work performance, based on his organisational commitment and enthusiasm.

Halo around enthusiastic employees
A panel of experts in the field of work attitude and performance came to slightly different findings. They saw no difference between the dedicated and the more business-driven ‘Joe’.

The former apparently has a halo of intrinsic motivation, passion for work and positivity. But for the experts, this was no reason to ascribe better performance to him. A healthy focus on the different motivations of employees does, however, have a positive effect on diversity within your organisation, Jiang argues.

‘The goal-orientation of these passionate employees is good for the energy of the team. On the other hand, the more business-minded colleagues ensure that the team keeps its feet on the ground.’

Excitement and happiness
In scientific literature, enthusiasm is described as a ‘positive, affective-cognitive state of supreme satisfaction, characterized by vitality, dedication and absorption’. Or as Arjen Banach formulated it earlier: engagement leads to feelings of excitement and happiness. And with that, it is still preferable to workaholism.

‘In many cases, this is expressed in feelings of peace and tranquillity, being relaxed in your work. It says nothing about performance in the future, to what extent you are agile as a company in a rapidly changing world’. Studies on engagement have shown that less than 20 percent of the employees surveyed fully experience this joy of work and life.

Nevertheless, according to Wilmar Schaufeli, professor of work and organisation psychology at Utrecht University, we in the Netherlands are relatively well off. ‘A ranking emerged from an engagement questionnaire included in a European Working Conditions Survey in 2015. And the Netherlands is number one.’