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Research Week 30

Is Passion about Fit? Or Just Sameness?

"Passion" is a must-have for many hiring managers these days. But how do you know passion when you see it? Research suggests that, unless you're careful, "passion" can become another way to say "just like me."

Is “passion” one of your criteria for identifying potential in a job applicant,  mentee or junior employee? If so, it’s time to consider how using passion as a marker of drive can go wrong.

For starters, what feels like a “good fit” is often based on our own similarities with the person. We may be more readily prone to recognize someone’s passion when it aligns with our own values and goals.

Lauren Rivera, Professor at Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, found that hiring professionals wanted to be inspired by candidates’ personal stories about their passions. One interviewer, Tristan, recounted, “I say, ’Tell me about your life story.’ That shows how passionate they are about themselves, their goals, and aims. I like it when people tell a good story.” But Rivera found that interviewers like Tristan expressed more empathy and excitement for candidates whose passions stem from life experiences that more closely resembled the interviewer’s own story.

These dynamics lead to workplace homophily: that is, a workplace full of people who look and think the same. Research suggests that homophily is not actually as good for business as one might expect, because people are less motivated to perform than in more diverse settings.

Also, how we express and perceive passion is often shaped by gender, race, and social class status. For example, students from less class-privileged backgrounds may not express a passion for a particular career path, because this is a luxury available primarily to students from more affluent families. Research finds that middle- and upper-middle-class parents often teach their children to pursue their passions, while working-class parents often strive to instill a strong work ethic to encourage their children to become upwardly mobile. People from less affluent backgrounds may show their drive through a commitment to stay in school, or a desire to pursue a stable profession, rather than following a riskier career path that they have a “passion” for.

In addition, girls and boys are often taught to professionally pursue “passions” which gender scholars have shown are actually tied to how girls and boys are socialized. Girls, for example, are generally encouraged to play with dolls. Then, later on in life if women major in nursing or teaching, it is assumed to be because of a natural “passion” for providing care.

Meanwhile, racist stereotypes mean that passion is not interpreted the same for everyone. For example, black workers’ expressions of passion may be misinterpreted by white colleagues. Research identifies how black men and women have to work hard to avoid being read as threatening or aggressive. An expression that may be read as a “passionate” outburst by a white colleague could be interpreted differently when a black colleague does the very same thing. So black workers may intentionally dampen down their expressions of excitement or enthusiasm for their work, in order to avoid negative labels and even retaliation.

With these lessons from the research in mind, here are four actions you can take to more accurately and equitably evaluate a person’s commitment and drive:

  • Instead of evaluating “passion,” which is ambiguously defined and measured, use a more concrete criteria for drive. There are many ways for a worker to express their commitment to the job—a sense of integrity, a high bar for excellence, or respect for the company brand—that do not involve “passion.”
  • Be careful not to overvalue internships, especially those that are unpaid or underpaid. Applicants with less social class privilege may be equally motivated as their affluent peers, yet less financially capable of taking time away from school and paid work to do an unpaid or poorly paid internship that aligns with their passion. Instead, place equal weight on paid work experiences during school. For less privileged applicants, paid employment during school may be a better signal of determination. It’s a sign that the applicant was extra-motivated to stay in school and worked to make it happen.
  • Be willing to take a chance on applicants who majored outside of the field or took a less straightforward career path. While cultivating a passion early on and following it may seem like a good marker of drive, those who have taken time to explore other disciplines, careers, or family leave may be equally motivated to pursue a new or different path. And their varied experience may provide added insights and expertise on the job.
  • In more extreme cases, some markers of passion for work, such as competition and overwork,  can also be signs of a toxic workplace, which can lead to harassment, burnout, and underperformance. Valuing a sense of fulfillment or accomplishment may promote a more well-balanced and healthier workplace for everyone.

When passion because the primary measure for hiring and promotions, it may leave people out who may be motivated by other valuable pursuits. Furthermore, rewarding passion may actually be rewarding sameness, which can lead to a workplace of likeminded but not necessarily more motivated or innovative workers. Which would you prefer?

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