Sunday, April 27, 2008

Passion for work and anasakti

" People here are not passionate about their work. If you ask them to do something more, they start speaking about their deliverables, resource constraints and work-life balance. People should show passion for their work and they should be willing to work beyond office hours and on weekends to go beyond their job descriptions", said the senior HR professional. I did not know how to react to this immediately. There were many themes and assumptions (in addition to many emotions!) in his statement. I needed to think through this before I could come up with a reasonable response. So I just shook my head (in an ambivalent manner !) and tried to change the subject of the conversation.

Now, if you have been in the corporate world for some time, it is highly unlikely that you would have been able to avoid hearing these kinds of statements about 'passion for work'. While most of these statements are made in the context of 'motivational speeches' (without any concrete action points on this 'passion for work'), this is not just a 'philosophical' issue. It has been observed that while 'passion for work' might or might not have a significant impact on actual job performance, 'perceived passion for work' is an important factor in selection decisions. Of course, we have more fundamental issues here - like 'how exactly do we define passion for work' and 'what are the behavioral manifestations of this passion for work'. To begin with, I don't agree with the assumption made by our senior HR professional that 'passion for work can't be demonstrated during normal office hours'!

While the connection between 'passion for work' and job performance seems logical (though I am not sure how much empirical evidence is there to support this), I do wonder if one can do anything to develop/enhance 'passion for work' in oneself and/or in others. It appears that it is very difficult to train/'inject'/'program' this 'passion for work' into anyone (including oneself !)- especially on a sustainable basis. 'Passion for work' seems to be a byproduct of more fundamental things like meaning, purpose, talents, basic personality orientations etc. (Please see 'Employee engagement an the story of the Sky maiden' for a related discussion). So it appears that 'passion for work' is more like something that we can discover/re-discover and help others to discover/re-discover (as opposed to something that we can directly create).

While this seems promising, we might find it difficult to align the 'passion for work' that we have 'discovered' to the immediate job requirements/context - as passion for work might not be bothered about 'minor' things like job descriptions!. May be we should 'let our passions find work that meets them' rather than the other way around. Of course, this is not a simple task - either for the individuals (in terms of actually finding such work - over the span of an entire career) or for the organizations (in terms of developing/maintaining the flexibility required - in organization design and in talent management).

This could explain why our senior HR professional came to the conclusion (based on many years of experience in the corporate world) that passion for work requires working beyond normal office hours. However, the problem with this approach/conclusion is that it tries to work around (and even perpetuate) a problem rather than trying to solve it. From both 'organization effectiveness' and 'personal effectiveness at work' points of view it is worth trying to solve this problem - though it would involve significant amount of effort. By the way, it can also be argued that since passion for work is not easily trainable, using 'demonstrated passion for a particular type of work/job' as one of the selection criteria for that job is not a bad idea - especially if we can find a reliable way to define/ assess it (e.g. formulating a definition in terms of its behavioral indicators in the particular context and using targeted/behavioral interviews based on those indicators).

Another aspect that intrigues me is the possibility of 'undesirable side effects' of this 'passion for work'. For example, I do wonder if 'passion for work' comes as a package deal - along with complications such as too much attachment to the task/job/position, tendency to attempt for local optima (at the task/individual level results) that might not add up to global optima (at the team and organization level results) etc. On a more philosophical plane, this discussion has similarities with the discussion on the fundamental issue of 'whether happiness and sadness are a package deal' (i.e. "can one be 'emotionally open' to feeling happiness while being 'emotionally closed' to feeling sadness" or "can one reduce one's sensitivity to sadness without reducing one's sensitivity to happiness"- assuming that the person has no major psychological disorders !).

So is there a type of 'passion for work' that is does not involve attachment? There does exist such a concept (in yogic literature) - anasakti. While anasakti is sometimes translated as 'detachment', the true meaning of anasakti is closer to 'non-attachment'. Actually, there are three related terms here - asakti (attachment), vairagya (detachment) and anasakti (non-attachment). Non-attachment is acceptance of situations (and responding to them adequately) without getting emotionally affected by them. This is similar to the ideas of 'being in the world but not of it' and of 'engaging in tasks, yet not being concerned with rewards involved'. It is also interesting to note that anasakti has similarities with Scott Peck's definition of true love. A person high in anasakti carries out tasks (as a karma yogi) with a sense of responsibility and task enjoyment without any additional expectation (while this person does not refuse to enjoy the 'fruits of his labor', he/she does not get hooked on to these conveniences).

I must say that there is a huge difference between finding the concept of anasakti and implementing the same successfully in work-life (as a model of the ideal type of 'passion for work')! Finding a term that describes what we are trying to achieve, does not automatically enable us to achieve it. However, we can get some useful ideas from the thoughts/experience that have already been developed around the term (though in a slightly different context) and this in turn might help us avoid 'reinventing the wheel' in some aspects. So our quest for finding and implementing the ideal type of 'passion for work' continues.

Any comments/thoughts/ideas ?

Note1: In this post, I haven't really tried to define 'passion for work'. There are essentially two reasons for this. 'Passion for work' is essentially an internal phenomenon (more like a feeling) and internal phenomena are 'better experienced than defined'. The exact nature of the feeling can also be highly individual-specific/personal. Hence any formal definition given in the post can create some sort of a 'disconnect' in the minds of some of the readers - as some parts of the definition might not match with their own tacit/intuitive personal definition. Hence by using the phrase 'passion for work' without defining it I was trying to prompt the readers to use their own personal/intuitive definitions of 'passion for work'. Now let us look at the second reason. This post was focusing mainly on the implications of 'passion for work'. Hence I was concerned that dwelling too much on the technicalities of a formal definition could shift attention away from the main focus of the post. Of course, this approach would work best when there is quite a bit of 'common ground' among the personal/intuitive definitions and when we are concerned more about the implications of 'passion for work' (especially for particular individuals) as compared to 'passion for work' itself.

Now that we have got the reasons and rationalizations out of the way, let us look at some of the common themes/terms/phrases/definitions associated with 'passion for work'. One of my favorites is 'spark in the mind' - that a person brings to work (and that makes him/her look forward to coming to work!) - that encourages him/her to care deeply about the work and to put in his/her best - and even to approach work as an act of love . We can also try to define 'passion for work' in terms of its typical behavioral manifestations - increased energy, creativity, commitment etc. This bring us to another term related to passion for work - enthusiasm - to be inspired . If we look at the original roots of the word enthusiasm (en + theos = 'in god' or enthousiazein = 'to be inspired by a god'), it is not difficult to arrive at the 'work as an act of worship' idea associated with 'passion for work'. Another related dimension is 'finding/ experiencing deep meaning in the work that one is doing ' - in the work itself and/or in terms of one's work contributing to a worthwhile objective (in the 'laying bricks - building the cathedral' sense). Since we are also speaking about anasakti and non-attachment, it is important to avoid any undue attachment to these objectives/goals - even while being inspired by them!.

Hence, 'being inspired, caring deeply and feeling an intense connection (or even 'oneness') with what one is doing - without developing any undue attachment' is the closest that I can come at this point to a definition of the kind of 'passion for work' that I am talking about here. Quite a tall order, I must say!

Note2: As I have commented here, I feel that 'passion’ is closely related to meaning and purpose. Yes, if one is passionate about something, one will be willing to stretch/extend one self (‘suffer’) for it. Interestingly, this again takes us very close to another aspect of Scott Peck's definition of 'true love' that was mentioned earlier in this post(Etymologically speaking, the origins of the word passion can be traced back to the Latin words pati (to suffer/endure; the word 'patience' also has similar roots) and passus(suffering). But it is ‘meaning’ and ‘purpose’ that take ‘suffering’ into the realm of ‘passion’ (as in 'Passion of the Christ'). After all, there is a lot of meaningless (neurotic) suffering in the world, in addition to meaningful (passionate) suffering.


bombay dosti said...

Prasad, first of all, glad to see you back :)
Passion alone does not always translate to results, especially when a number of activities in 'delivery' based environment could be repetitive and transactional. And when the "passion" revolves around certain aspects of the job itself, other elements could suffer - ya, as you say, the high attachement. I think, we could see passion in light of the kind of job. A delivery based job, would need a person to be motivated by targets. The passion would then be directed not on the job but probably on "what motivates me" which could be achievment, recognition, reward, whatever it might be.And in these, I guess, therefore, the most important thing would be to create that challenge - which, I dont think is not always easy :( But in jobs like in academics, research,medicine, sports I guess, the passion should be there for the job itself.I think what differentiates a good from a great teacher is this passion.
You never fail to surprise me with the linkages.

Prasad Kurian said...

Thank you very much. My current thinking is that passion for work has more to do with intrinsic motivation as compared to extrinsic motivation. Of course, my 'thinking' keeps on changing!

Anonymous said...

Great thoughts! I agree with you about the "passion for work" and non-relatedness of the number of hours spent at work. I wonder how passion of work is related to productivity.

I had to to work in different parts of the world. I have to say Europeans, and generally Germans were the most productive employees I have ever seen.

I am not sure, how that translates to "passion of work", but I definitely see a connection to "being of the world, but not of it" as you mentioned. They are fairly detached I think, though they seem to be extremely productive.

The idea of number of hours spent at work is kind of a wrong indicator of the passion for work, or worse productivity, which somehow managers have to most managers have to unlearn.

Vidhu Joshua

Prasad Kurian said...

Thanks Vidhu.

In one of the books of Sudhir Kakar (Shamans, Mystics and Doctors - A psychological inquiry into India and its healing traditions), I came across a story that provides a beautiful illustration (though in a different context) of the non-attachment (and being in the world but not of the world) that we are speaking about here. The story goes something like this:

Once there was a wise sage(guru) who was married. A young man came to him one day to become his disciple and asked him: 'Tell me, how may I serve you?'. The sage said, 'Go and get lunch for one person from my home'. The man did so. The sage said, 'Now go and give this lunch to my colleague who is sitting at such and such place'. The disciple asked, 'Guruji, there is a river on the way on which there is neither a bridge nor arrangements for a boat. How will I cross the river?'. The guru replied, 'Tell the river that you have been sent by a man who has never been close to a woman in his life and you will get your way.' The young man thought to himself that he was being made a fool of since the guru had both a wife and children. Anyway, he carried out his instructions and on reaching the river repeated what his teacher had told him. To his surprise the river parted and he walked across to the other bank where the other sage (guru) was sitting. After the old man had eaten, the disciple collected the utensils for his return trip but became worried as to how he would cross the river again. On inquiring the case of his apprehension and hearing his answer, the sage said : 'This is really a small matter to get upset about. Just tell the river that you have been sent by a man who has never eaten in his life.' The young man of course doubted the guru’s sanity! Here was a man who had just finished his lunch asserting that he had never eaten in his life!. But let me test his words too, the disciple said to himself. On reaching the river he repeated the guru's message and the river parted once again to let him through. When he came back to his guru, the young man confessed his bewilderment at the strange happenings and demanded an explanation.

'It is not the act but the spirit in which it is done,' the guru said. 'I cohabit with my wife not because of my needs but because of hers; the guru eats not because he wants to but because of others who wish to keep him alive.' This is our ideal of fakiri, in which both God and worldliness walk arm in arm.'

Advait said...

I like this post very much. There is a book on the psychology concept of flow that I had read a few days back - and it has a chapter on 'Work as Flow'. The topic was very interesting and it reminded me of this post so I thought of posting this comment :)

The topic of Flow is related to 'quality of experience', and the idea that I found interesting was that while at work our motivation is low while flow is high. Conversely, while doing leisure activities, the motivation is high but flow is low. Thus we have a paradox here: while at work, because of having a high level of skills along with high level of challenges (both at the same time), people feel more involved and satisfied. And during free (leisure) times, the skills are not being used to their maximum, and also challenges are low so people tend to feel weak, dull and hence dissatisfied.

The reason of this (I agree to what the book explains) is that people disregard the quality of immediate experience, and base their beliefs on the typical cultural notions that work is supposed to be some kind of a daily uninteresting routine.

This is another reason to think that the quality of optimal experience depends on how we perceive what we are doing rather than what is the typical cultural stereotype.