Reigniting employee passion

What to do when an employee's passion dwindles

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Frank, a longstanding member of my team, was unhappy and disengaged. He was visibly upset, avoided speaking up in meetings, and had declining productivity. It was obvious to everyone who worked with him that there was a problem—we had to do something to get Frank back on track, or his future on the team was uncertain. (And just to clarify: Frank is not a real person, but an amalgamation of several).

Tracing the problem, I knew where Frank's loss of passion started. Frank had been in my group for a long time—years longer than me, in fact. My team and I are responsible for creating all of the documentation that ships with our products—documentation that enables customers to successfully plan, deploy, and maintain certain software solutions. Frank had a lot of experience at other companies and a great deal of passion for technical content and communication. He was well versed in both theory and the mechanics of how to create "good" content (I use the word in quotes because it is a subjective concept). Because of his passion and experience, Frank brought many good ideas to the proverbial table, things we could do in order to drive improvements to our methods and processes, things that would result in an overall better experience for our customers. My typical reaction to this kind of situation would be to encourage Frank to follow his passion and take the initiative to start executing (perhaps as a pilot) some of the changes he thought we needed to make.

But in this case, there were complicating factors. Taking my entire team's situation into account, I saw two problems:

  1. We weren't ready for the kinds of things Frank wanted to implement (not everyone agreed on their importance).
  2. We had other, more urgent priorities that we needed to address before we could focus on Frank's initiatives.

Given the environment, my request was for Frank to focus his energy in other places in order to help us address some of our higher priority needs.

In open organizations, we know how important purpose and passion for workers to excel at their jobs. They've already bought into an organization's mission, but sometimes life happens and passion can dwindle. For leadership, managing this shift can be difficult.

How do you re-ignite passion after it fades, especially when you've focused so much of your energy on pointing that passion in the right direction? In other words: What do you do when an associate is not engaged or not passionate?

During the All Things Open conference in Raleigh this past October, I had lunch with a group of community moderators and Open Organization ambassadors—and we heard Jim Whitehurst answer this very question.

Listening to Jim talk about Red Hat, it's easy to develop the illusion that the company's refrigerators are well-stocked with Kool-Aid, that everybody is continuously happy and so passionate about work that engagement is not even a question; it's just a natural trait of working at Red Hat. While it's certainly true that the level of passion and engagement is high at Red Hat (yes, we have at least three associates who have our company logo tattooed on their arms), it's also true that there are plenty of examples where individuals become unengaged, lose (or don't develop) passion for the purpose of the organization, or develop the kind of skepticism familiar to anyone who feels "management" is out of touch with the daily reality of the organization. Yes, I've seen plenty of people lose their passion.

As we discussed this with Jim and Red Hat Chief Marketing Officer Jackie Yeaney, we raised the question of accountability: who, we wondered, is accountable for employee engagement? Do employees need to bring passion to the table, or does a manager need to help them develop it?

The answer is usually "both." Both managers and individual contributors can work to triangulate the intersection between a person's passions, talents, and skills, then link these to the organization's needs. They should strive to find the "sweet spot," that point at which all three of these things intersect.

But it's not always that easy.

Here are a few thoughts and lessons I've learned from both Frank's situation and other experiences I've had with declining engagement:

  • Leaders need to create a vision that people can get excited about. This has to happen at all levels of leadership, not just at the CEO level. This is hard. When someone's passion and the purpose of the organization are not in alignment, leaders can work to connect the two in ways that might not be initially obvious.
  • Individuals (both managers and individual contributors) need to work to align their passion and skills with the needs of the organization. Hopefully your leaders make this easy by clearly articulating the vision and purpose of the organization or team, but it also requires work from the individual. Nobody can make you passionate or tell you what your passion and skills are. You need to articulate that to yourself and to others, then actively work on aligning it with the organization's goals.
  • All of us have to be open to changing our ideas as we work together and evolve as a team. If you become fixated on "one right way" to do things, and that way is not accepted by others, then you won't be happy.
  • We all have to take care of ourselves: think about what you want out of work and where your passion lies, manage your energy, and continually evaluate if your work and passion are aligned.

Cases like Frank's generally have one of two outcomes.

  1. Frank could leave his role (either take another role in the company or elsewhere).
  2. Frank and his manager, and perhaps other trusted mentors, could work to bring Frank's passion and skills in alignment with current priorities, and perhaps also make a longer term plan for Frank's ideas to play out in the future.

In situations like this, I've seen both outcomes several times. Neither is better or worse, but usually one emerges as the better option for the situation at hand.

And both are better options than letting associates' passion dwindle.

About the author

Sam Knuth - I have the privilege to lead the Customer Content Services team at Red Hat, which produces all of the documentation we provide for our customers. Our goal is to provide customers with the insights they need to be successful with Open Source technology in the enterprise. Connect with me on Twitter: @samfw