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Celebrate efforts that create knowledge that might lead to higher performance, and eliminate the real disincentives that prevent all but the bravest from taking risks. Complex and ever-changing challenges are pervasive today, not confined to specific industries or roles that have been classified as knowledge work.


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Difficult problems that require creativity, resourcefulness, and new skills can be found everywhere, for frontline workers and support teams, in business, government, and other public- and private-sector organizations. Consider the case of the captive logistics business of a heavy-industry manufacturer based in the Midwest.

In , the logistics group, which had historically been a cost center, reorganized its operations, assigning logistics coordinators to serve groups of customers or drivers rather than dispatchers serving regions. Where previously the dispatchers might have used a fairly simple assignment system to move freight across a region with the available truckers within that region, today—with the trucking sector struggling with high churn and variable quality—companies that rely on their logistics as a competitive advantage have needed to pay more attention to driver retention and satisfaction.

It used to be a job you could do with a high school degree, and that was what most of our staff had. At the same time, trends such as automation, augmentation, virtualization, and gig employment are opening up new opportunities for the companies that can exploit them. In this environment, companies will continuously need to find new ways to be competitive and deliver value for customers, new and old. For that, they will need employees who can solve challenges in a rapidly changing environment, think flexibly, learn quickly, and create new tools and approaches or adapt old tools and approaches to new contexts.

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Yet many workers are under significant pressure just to perform, right now. With the ongoing march of technological change and globalization, workers face the disappearance of some types of jobs and transitions to others that require new tools and in many cases, new skills and understanding. At the same time, workers are feeling the effects as companies react to these pressures with cost-cutting, tighter controls, and intense focus on short-term results. In this environment, mounting performance pressures lead to cognitive biases—such as shortened time horizon, zero-sum thinking, heightened sense of risk, and diminished expectation of reward—that get in the way of effective action for both organizations and individuals.

The world is changing too quickly to predict the shape of the next challenge or to forecast all of the skills your employees will need, even in the near future. But through cultivating passion in the workforce, you may develop people who can spot new opportunities and quickly acquire the skills and other resources needed to pursue those opportunities. The passion of the explorer has three components: a long-term commitment to making a significant and increasing impact in a domain, a questing disposition that actively seeks out new challenges in order to improve faster, and a connecting disposition that seeks to build trust-based relationships with others who can help passionate employees get to a better answer see figure 1.

An additional 39 percent of workers have one or two attributes of passion see figure 3. This concept of worker passion grew out of our research for the book The Power of Pull. In researching environments where organizations and groups were achieving accelerating performance improvement under conditions of rapid change, we kept seeing these same three attributes.

Passion Is Not Enough

Tapping into this kind of passion can shift individuals from the fear of change or failure to excitement about the opportunity to test boundaries, to expand skills more rapidly, to apply creativity to meaningful problems, and to have a significant impact. For example, not only do passionate workers report seeking additional skills and knowledge from a much wider variety of sources—they report spending significantly more time outside of work in gaining new skills and knowledge. The organization further benefits when workers are committed to finding solutions despite—or even because of—obstacles and constraints.

In fact, 71 percent of passionate workers find themselves working extra hours even though they are not required. Employees who are optimistic about the future and focused and energized in their work are a powerful resource for companies that will need to continuously invent the future. In spring , the Deloitte Center for the Edge surveyed more than 3, full-time US workers from 15 industries across various job levels. The purpose was to explore how the attributes of the explorer manifest in the workforce—and how they relate to traditional measures of employee engagement, to gain insight into the impact of employee engagement initiatives on passion.

This large sample size allows us to detect relatively small differences between different populations and gives us confidence in our results. The analysis explored the differences between three distinct clusters that comprise the worker passion survey population: the passionate those respondents who have all three attributes of worker passion , the contented those respondents who score high on an index of engagement indicators but who do not have all three attributes of passion , and the halfhearted those respondents who lack all three attributes of worker passion and score low on engagement.

Additionally, the majority of our findings in this report are based on inferential statistics and predictive analytics to bring more durability and robustness in insights.

In the nine years that we have been measuring worker passion, the percentage of US workers exhibiting it has remained consistently low, with no statistically significant change over the past three years. During this same time, employee engagement, although higher, has also remained stagnant at around 32 percent, according to organizations such as Gallup and Glassdoor.

The low scores persist despite significant investment from US companies in strategies and initiatives to engage workers. Engagement is seen as a key tool in retention and has been associated with reduced downtime, improved productivity, and better customer service, all of which can help improve overall financial performance. Engagement may improve retention, but the people who stick around may not be the people you need; consider that government employees topped the list for retention in a recent study based on Glassdoor data.

What we found is that being engaged is hardly a guarantee of passion: 69 percent of engaged workers are not passionate.

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Engaged employees most often lack the questing disposition, the inclination to take on difficult challenges with a desire to learn figure 4. Only 38 percent of engaged employees have the questing disposition—comparable to the overall population, suggesting that whatever else they do, engagement initiatives are not encouraging people to embrace challenges.

Both engagement and passion are more common at higher levels, although engagement is also more heavily represented in middle management and manufacturing roles, each of which scores below average on passion. The statistics might seem to tell a fairly negative story, one of a dispirited and apathetic workforce at odds with the organizations that employ them, passively awaiting their own irrelevance. This is far from the case. While managers should see the data as a wakeup call, it also contains a more hopeful story: Not only do many people want to be passionate—they want to learn and make a positive impact.

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They believe themselves to be open to challenges and opportunities. For example, 66 percent of the halfhearted express at least some agreement that they welcome opportunities to try new tasks, while 61 percent suggest that they are excited to encounter new challenges at work see figure 5. They aspire to be better. The passion of the explorer is defined by behavior, however—a propensity to act in certain ways.

When asked questions that get at actual behavior, respondents show a gap between what they believe about taking on challenges and how they actually behave: for instance, whether they actively seek out challenges in order to develop their skills and make more of an impact. Fortunately, the three attributes of passion reinforce each other in ways that can activate passion. So although the contented often lack the questing disposition—the tendency to seek out challenges—they may, in the right environment, be propelled into questing behavior if they are strongly committed to making an impact. Similarly, those strong in connecting as the contented tend to be may discover both greater commitment and increased capacity for questing through the example and support of others who are dedicated to seeking out challenges in order to improve and make an impact faster.

In this light, those 39 percent of workers who have at least one attribute of passion—and particularly those engaged who have at least one attribute of passion—have great potential to be developed. Everyone, we believe, is capable of having the passion of the explorer. For some, work is just the source of a paycheck, not a place for learning, growth, and enthusiasm. In other cases, some jobs—among them, the likeliest targets for automation—may currently be such that almost no one could be passionate doing them. When it comes to developing passion, both the work itself and the work environment matter.

A majority 56 percent of passionate employees report having discovered their passion through work, compared with a third of the contented and 13 percent of the halfhearted. In other words, we discover passion through practice. Yet many organizations fail to support—and sometimes squelch—the behaviors we associate with passion. That might mean focusing on different organizational structures, such as teams or workgroups, that support the peer-based learning and curiosity that feed and amplify passion.

Given the investment in engagement efforts, why are so few employees seeking out challenges and opportunities to create the new tools, approaches, and ideas that the organization will need for the future? What can we learn that might point to useful actions to start shifting workers, of all kinds, toward passion? The passionate, the contented, and the halfhearted differed significantly in their answers to several questions about their perceptions of the work environment; figure 6 shows some of those. Others may lack meaningful autonomy at work and have a sense that the risk of taking on a new challenge might not be worth the effort.

Interview Highlights

When we consider the significant differences in responses to questions about work environment, motivation, and opportunity, it raises the question: Are the passionate in our survey simply employed in environments that encourage them to bring out their passion? Or do the passionate perceive the environment and opportunities around them differently because of their dispositions and skills? We know that not all passionate employees have passionate co-workers although 82 percent of the passionate believe their co-workers are committed to doing good work , but being around others who are passionate is both inspirational and educational.

Some people, by personality or experience, may be more prone to the attributes of passion: They already have a tendency to connect, a desire to learn and challenge themselves, or a dominant area of interest in which they are committed to making a significant impact. For the passionate, these dispositions are strong enough that they can persevere past some organizational deficiencies, inadequate tools, and knowledge gaps. While they seek out learning more often and report seeking learning from a wider variety of sources, the passionate also have a mind-set to see everything as a resource and look to figure out how to gain the skills and support they need in pursuit of their passion.

For the rest of the workforce—the contented and the halfhearted—beyond the disincentives and structural barriers, lack of guidance, skills, and perspective can be significant barriers to taking on challenges with creativity, imagination, and determination. And frustration. Giving employees tools to have visibility and connect to others in the organization might create only noise and distraction—or, worse, no noise, if no one finds value in it. Crafting productive experiments, harvesting learnings from failures, amplifying successes into the organization—these are not trivial skills.

Neither are finding the most relevant resources, participating effectively in professional forums, or deploying social media tools. And while all workers may have the capacity for passion, the skills to pursue passion might not be so innate. As the following sections discuss, overbooked schedules, constant pressure to deliver results, and lack of opportunity to work outside of silos prevent workers from getting experiences in which they could learn the tacit skills of being a questing, connecting, committed worker.

Taking on a difficult new challenge almost by definition means deviating from the standard, the accepted, and the proven. Actively pursuing these challenges, and acquiring the resources and perspectives to address them, requires some degree of autonomy and flexibility. While the appropriate degree of autonomy depends on the nature of the work, the experience of the worker, and the complexity of the organization, the survey reveals that contented employees are far less likely than the passionate to believe that they have sufficient autonomy to achieve their goals.

A hierarchical organization that focuses on process compliance, reporting, and getting things right the first time implicitly denies permission to experiment or share and learn with others outside the chain of command. Micromanagement, a side effect of this culture, at a team or unit level can also frustrate the impulse to seek and experiment, irrespective of broader directives.