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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

Why Passion for Your Work Isn't Always a Good Thing

If there’s one thing I thought I knew, it’s that passion is a good thing. For your significant other, for a social cause, and—if you’re lucky—for your job.

Well, there’s a new caveat in town—and it’s potentially a big one. In a series of studies out of BI Norwegian Business School, PhD student Ide Katrine Birkeland differentiates between two types of career passion: harmonious and obsessive. The latter, she found, is not only bad for you—leading to burnout, not to mention alienating your friends and family—but it’s also bad for your colleagues and organization, linked with incivility on the job.

“If your work is everything to you, it’s easy to get blinders and just focus on what you need to do to meet your goals and to lose perspective of everything else that goes on in your organization,” says Birkeland, who conducted the research for her dissertation.

In her work following 1,263 members of a technical trade organization for a year, she found that people with high obsessive passion for their jobs—or those who endorse such beliefs as “without my work I am nothing” or “I can’t seem to think about anything else”—are likely to be condescending and degrading to colleagues by leaving them out of meetings, for example, or making jokes at their expense.

In even worse news, Birkeland found that there’s not much workplaces can do to help temper obsessive employees’ rudeness. In fact, organizations with “mastery climates”—or the type of highly regarded work environment that rewards employees for personal progress, skill development, and cooperation rather than for how they perform compared to colleagues—seem to make obsessively passionate workers’ behavior worse.

“The more the organization talks about cooperation, the more they get annoyed,” Birkeland says. “They’re not being able to shine like they need to, so they put in more effort to push everyone down.”

So how do you know if you’re harmoniously passionate or obsessively so? Ask yourself why you love your job, Birkeland says. If it’s because you find the work itself rewarding and joyful, all’s clear. But if it’s because you love what your work gives you—social status or an ego-boost, for example—beware. In that case, Birkeland says, “Who you are isn’t good enough—it’s what you do.”

For managers, the lesson is to seek out the harmoniously passionate during the interview process by asking about candidates’ interests outside of work. “That actually seems to be important—that people also have another life that they care about,” Birkeland says. For her, that life includes two kids and a side gig as a DJ with the six-woman crew “Oh Mama!” in Norway.

“It’s all about maintaining your other identities as well,” she says. “Work a lot, love your work, be passionate about work, but also think about, ‘What else am I? What other parts of my life do I care about?’ And remember to also maintain those.”

Photo of spark courtesy of Kelley Bozarth.