Warning: Your Employees Do Not Love Their Jobs

Last Updated Sep 28, 2010 5:56 PM EDT

According to John Hagel III and John Seely Brown, fewer than 20 percent of U.S. employees say they are passionate about their work. In no industry does that number rise above 25 percent. That doesn't mean the rest hate their jobs, just that they don't really engage.

For leaders, this represents a very bad report card. It implies that their leadership isn't motivating, they may have picked the wrong people to begin with, and that they have a huge wasted resource on their hands. If 75 to 80 percent of your workforce could be more productive, you'd better stop hiring and start thinking.

Why does passion matter? The best business people are hugely, unstoppably passionate. Think about Ted Baker and his vast, unquenchable passion for the perfect shirt -- and for his workforce. Here's a man who doesn't need to work but never wants to stop. Think of Danny Meyer, CEO of the Union Square Hospitality Group. He says he has "an intense, nearly neurotic interest in seeing people have a good time." His passion informs everything he does: who he hires, what he hires for, and the attitude everyone in his company demonstrates to restaurant diners. Think of Chipotle CEO Steve Ells and his obsession with the perfect tortilla heater. Passion drives excellence across corporations in ways that no quarterly goals or pep talks ever can.

I'm not sure it's possible to instill passion where there is none. What you have to do is hire for it -- and then make sure your own leadership, and company processes, don't kill it. This is harder than it looks. But it's worthwhile, before instigating any new systems, to ask whether they build or deplete passion. Very few corporate initiatives would pass this test. In my experience around the world, companies can hire passionate people -- but they rarely manage to sustain their passion. Process, bureaucracy and desire to reduce risk at all costs simply bleed the creativity, passion and energy out of good people who came in wanting to do a great job.

Tom Peters once wrote that great companies are founded by people with "not totally stupid obsessions." But the founders' passions alone won't cut it. That obsession needs to be shared and magnified across the corporation. Otherwise what you build is bloated, wasteful and uninspiring.

Or put it another way: how good do you feel knowing that 75 percent of your workforce doesn't really care? And what are you doing about it?

(Photo courtesy of Flickr user Kellie Allen C.C.2.0)

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    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on www.MHeffernan.com.