The passion dilemma

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Nature's Passion (c)Patricia Lane 2016Passion drives engagement.

Passion makes me get up in the morning and not feel work as “work”. It transforms me from an introvert, who’ll likely spend most of the time at a party hugging the drapes, to an extrovert whose curiosity and creative juices start to flow, already in project mode, when exchanging with a client or prospect.

Passion is the key ingredient in creativity and vision.

Usually, passion is an asset

In The Future of Management, author Gary Hamel measured the relative contribution of various human capabilities to value creation. The top 3 were passion (35%), creativity (25%) and initiative (20%).

If a project resonates with me, the passion gene kicks in. I find it easy to respond to questions about what I can do for a client and the expected results in a compelling and relevant way. Energy and creativity are contagious; discussions about project X quickly “go deep” and when prospect and consultant start getting into the meat of the subject, most often the contract is as good as signed.

Sometimes, passion can be a tripwire

I learned recently passion sometimes can be a tripwire depending on the stage of the project and the phase in which the team one might be joining is. It takes time for a group to become a team.

American psychologist Bruce Tuckman is best known for his 1965 publication on four stages of  small group development, to which he added a fifth stage in 1977:

  • Forming – interpersonal and task behaviors, development of dependency relationships
  • Storming – polarization, conflicts and adjustments (aka getting the kinks out)
  • Norming – in-group feeling and team cohesiveness
  • Performing – “the interpersonal structure becomes the tool of task activities.” (Mark Smith, 2005)
  • Adjourning – project completion, termination of roles, team dissolution
(Source: Donelson R. Forsyth, The Psychology of Groups on


When teams reach stage 3 or 4, changing circumstances, such as a new player, may make them “revert to storming as the new people challenge the existing norms and dynamics of the team.”

The closer a team gets to the fifth phase, project completion and adjourning, the greater the concern about preserving group cohesion to complete the project.

Cohesion — a hallmark of high performance teams

Yet as Edgar Pierce Professor of Social and Organizational Psychology at Harvard University J. Richard Hackman points out, sometimes teams can benefit from new participants to remain fresh and creative, but that needs to happen slowly so they have the chance to settle in lest newness be a liability.

Every team needs a deviant…. Deviants are the ones who stand back and say, “Well, wait a minute, why are we even doing this at all? What if we looked at the thing backwards or turned it inside out?” … The deviant opens up more ideas, and that gets you a lot more originality. In our research, we’ve looked carefully at both teams that produced something original and those that were merely average, where nothing really sparkled. It turned out that the teams with deviants outperformed teams without them. In many cases, deviant thinking is a source of great innovation….[M]any team leaders crack down on deviants and try to get them to stop asking difficult questions, maybe even knock them off the team.

Where I erred, lessons learned

In my first conversations with this prospective client, I assumed the project was in its infancy. My wish to provide the client with the best I could offer led to a detailed discussion about the project, its SWAT and paths to a winning result.

I had failed to ask two essential questions:

1) When did this project kick-off?
2) How long has this team been working together?

Two-thirds of the way through a working session with the full team, I discovered the answers to the two questions above. And sensed, despite the quality of the exchanges and the creative energy in the room, that I’d probably blown it. Preserving team cohesion and the familiarity inherent to a nearly year-long collaboration would weigh more than the benefits a new person could bring so late in the game.

And that’s exactly what the email received later said.

Had I asked those 2 questions at the start, would the outcome have been different? Perhaps. I might have asked fewer questions, been more reserved in responding to others, and refrained (uh… with difficulty!) from offering insights and suggestions.

But then I’d have had an ethical dilemma. When a client seeks out my expertise, they are paying for what I can bring them; they are not coughing up fees for someone who won’t bring new spices and ingredients to the menu. If I serve up bland fare or just go with the flow, what am I being paid for? Is the client getting his/her money’s worth?

Team dynamics would have changed in any event — the butterfly effect.

The client made the right decision. Newness would have been a liability, notwithstanding the creative benefits to be gained.

As one of my favorite authors, Seth Godin, put it:

If you’re passionate, be passionate enough to fail.


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Comments: 3

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  • Ouch, that sounds like a painful lesson! Thanks for sharing your story, Patricia. Team dynamics can be so tricky to navigate, especially with an existing team.

    Your post also interested me as I’m just about to read ‘So good they can’t ignore you’ by Cal Newport – which is about ‘Why skills trump passion in the quest for work you love’. However, his point is not that you don’t need to be passionate about your work – it’s that the passion comes after the hard work to develop your skills. Because using those well-developed skills can be deeply satisfying. Do you think that’s what drives your passion? Or does it come from a different place?

    In any case, here’s hoping the next project will go a little more smoothly!

    • Morning, Jayne and thanks for your comments.

      I can’t say the lesson was ‘painful’, despite it being disappointing of course, because I understood the reason for the decision, notwithstanding the impact on the project itself. Had the team just been formed, the outcome would have been different. Up side too, one never ceases to learn.

      As to Newport’s take that passion comes *after* the hard work to develop your skills — will you come back and give us a review once you’ve read the book please? — it sounds like a classic chicken and egg question.

      Sure, the better you get at something the more you probably enjoy it (and thus feel passionate about it). Yet I have a hard time imagining putting in all the effort and time to develop skills (and find that satisfying) if I don’t already have a deep interest (curiosity) in that area. Passion isn’t finite, it can grow along with skills, experience, positive experiences, professional (or personal) satisfaction. But in its absence, you can put in the effort to develop skills, be proud of yourself for doing so, yet that is no guarantee that this will sustain you and bring joy for decades.

      Let me take a reverse example. When I set up shop in France back in late 2001, I took courses to learn how to do my accounting, file my “2035” (business tax return for independent professionals), learned the software and so on. I wanted to understand the whole process (a pre-requisite to asking the right questions) and to be able to do it myself. I developed the skills and for years handled it all solo. I did it well, but there was no joy, no passion in it whatsoever. Just as I was getting royally fed-up with it all, serendipity had me cross paths with a wonderful accountant and in under a minute, I decided to off-load it all to him and never looked back. No passion had developed despite all the years of hard work to gain and hone those skills.

      When people change careers mid-stream after all those years invested, what does it suggest? That perhaps they didn’t have enough passion in area X to sustain them durably, that they wake up one morning and realize they are not in the right place, that going to work and performing that work is a constant stressor with limited (if any) satisfaction, that maybe high school career counseling (or wish to make parents happy/proud) had led them down a path that turned out was not for them.

      So I’ll agree with Newport that passion can grow as skills develop. But, speaking for me, there must be a little passion flame at the outset for the process to be satisfying and the engagement durable over the long haul.

      What are your thoughts?

  • I think Newport makes some very good points. But I don’t agree with everything he writes. I think you’re right – as well as great skill, there has to be great interest, and alignment of your trade or profession with your own values.

    I’ve only just started the book, so I don’t yet have much to say about it. I’m also reading his more recent book, “Deep Work”, at the same time – which is eliciting lots of nodding from me in the early chapters, although I don’t agree with his thoughts on social media (he thinks it’s a time-waster).

    I’m certainly very fortunate to have work that I love and am passionate about, and that earns me a good living. In my case, I think the passion has grown as my skills have developed, but it also draws on activities that I’ve always enjoyed – like writing, communicating and learning. I’ve had a convoluted journey to this point, but I’m glad I got here!