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This article was first published in the February/March 2019 international edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

You have probably read about managers and entrepreneurs who say how passionate they are about their work. But it turns out that passion is not always positive, with studies showing that there are actually two broad types.

To what extent do you agree with the following three statements?

  • ‘My work allows me to create memorable experiences.’
  • ‘My work is in harmony with the other aspects and activities in my life.’
  • ‘I often discover new things through my work that allow me to appreciate life even more.’

Consider also the next three statements. To what degree do you agree with these?

  • ‘My mood depends on me being able to perform well at work.’
  • ‘I have an almost obsessive need to work hard.’
  •  ‘I have a difficult time controlling my need to work.’

The first three statements measure what’s known as harmonious passion. When people feel harmoniously passionate, they feel motivated to work hard because they enjoy it – their work is inherently fun or gratifying. People with very high levels of harmonious passion may even work without pay because it’s almost a hobby for them.

The second three statements measure obsessive passion, which develops when people feel compelled to work hard. That could be because they need recognition and social plaudits or because they wish to feel superior to others. Another common driver is because they feel they need the money to support a family or other demands in life. Obsessively passionate individuals feel that they ‘must’ or ‘have to’ work as opposed to enjoying their job.

Harmonious or obsessive?

Harmonious and obsessive passion both exist to some degree within most people, but many experience one more strongly than the other. It’s also possible for people to have low levels of both: they may be quite disengaged from their work.

The two types of passion are related to different outcomes. Norwegian researchers Ide Birkeland and Robert Buch found that harmonious passion for work was correlated with life satisfaction. In contrast, obsessive passion was negatively correlated with life satisfaction: these individuals reported feeling less happy overall.

More worryingly, the researchers also found links to burnout: a physical and psychological syndrome characterised by exhaustion, cynicism and diminished work performance. Unsurprisingly, people with higher levels of harmonious passion seemed to be protected, while those who felt more obsessively passionate had more markers of burnout.

Another study by Violet Ho and Jeffrey Pollack found links between passion and business success. Harmoniously passionate entrepreneurs were more effective at networking – they tended to receive more income from peer referrals – than their more obsessively passionate counterparts.

If you feel driven by higher levels of obsessive passion than you would like, consider changing the nature of your work. Studies suggest that it is possible to boost levels of harmonious passion by identifying and then putting into use your signature strengths. These are skills or behaviours that fulfil two criteria: they must both get verifiably good results (ie colleagues or customers give you feedback that these are things you do well) and feel energising for you to do. For example, if you receive praise for your presentations but dislike giving them, then this is not a signature strength because it does not invigorate you. Similarly, if you enjoy dealing with customers but have been told that you need to work on these skills, then this cannot be a signature strength for you.

Next, pursue tasks, activities and projects that allow you to use your signature strengths. Volunteer, negotiate, trade responsibilities and use your ingenuity to find ways to exercise these important skills more frequently. Also, seek advice on how best to do so from colleagues, mentors and confidants.

Changing the nature of your role to feel more appropriately passionate about your work is an ongoing process that will reap benefits over many months rather than weeks.

Dr Rob Yeung is an organisational psychologist at leadership consulting firm Talentspace: