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The Dark Side of Passion

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This article, a guest post by Dr. Gavin Symanowitz of FeedbackRocket.com, originally appeared in Finweek Magazine (12-July-2012 issue)

We all want to work for passionate leaders – but does it come at a price?

passionate leader.jpg

“Go hard or go home”. This was Stuart’s favourite saying and all his employees knew it. His passion was legendary, and combined with a strong ability to execute, had catapulted him up the corporate leadership ladder.

I sat opposite Stuart, going through the results of a review of his management style. Stuart’s direct reports had been asked to rate him on fifty different competencies or behaviours which are most valued by employees.

The results were excellent. Stuart sat back in his chair smugly as the data confirmed what he already knew – his employees rated him as a great boss.

“There is, however, one problem area” I said hesitantly, as Stuart straightened up. “Your employees rated you very poorly on your ability to control your emotions.”

“Oh, that”, said Stuart, relaxing again. “That’s not a problem.”

I was intrigued. It seemed that Stuart was well aware of this character flaw, yet did not seem disturbed by the fact that his employees had noted it as his biggest weakness.

“You see, I’m a passionate guy” he continued. ” And while I’m passionate about success, I’m equally passionate about failure. I hate it when things go wrong. So sometimes I’ll shout at people in meetings when they’re not delivering. But it’s not a big deal”, he concluded, shaking his head dismissively.

“Why not?” I enquired.

“Because I’ve forgotten about it ten minutes later, so obviously everyone else has as well.”

I was floored by his comment. Anyone who has ever been shouted at in a meeting knows that you don’t forget about it ten minutes later. In fact, you remember it forever.

I was disturbed by Stuart’s lack of insight into his behaviour and the potentially destructive impact it could be having on his team. So we opened up the interactive chat feature on the system, and encouraged Stuart to explore his employees’ perceptions in more detail through anonymous private online discussions.

I reported back a week later to discuss the results. Stuart was visibly shaken. “I had no idea that this was such a big issue. A lot of my team are actually scared to say things in meetings. They say they don’t know how I’m going to react. They’re scared they might be on the receiving end of my next outburst.”

I asked Stuart what he was going to do about it. “Well, luckily, some of my employees actually made some useful suggestions. Like taking the person aside privately instead of shouting at them in front of everybody. Or leaving the meeting and revisiting it the next day after I’ve had a chance to calm down.”

This was good advice. In fact, one might argue that this is obvious advice and wonder how Stuart could not have thought of it himself. This, unfortunately, is the dark side of passion. In the heat of the moment, it is very difficult to regulate your behaviour. It is very difficult to think of the most appropriate way to act in the given circumstances. Even if you’re a great manager.

In fact, especially if you’re a great manager. Stuart was one of our first clients and since then I’ve seen the pattern repeated over and over again. We’ve reviewed hundreds of good managers and by far the highest average rating of all 50 behaviours and competencies is the manager’s passion to succeed. The ability to control emotions comes in third last.

So what can be done about it?

If you’re a passionate manager, it’s important to recognize that not all employees share your passion for success. There is often no clear link between your success and their reward, and so naturally passion will be tempered somewhat. The first step is to ensure that all incentives are aligned so that employees should feel equally passionate when things go right – and when things go wrong.

The second step is to create firm boundaries between work and personal interactions. While you may be able to separate someone’s work contribution from their personal identity, your employees are seldom able to do so. Their identities are often so tightly wound up in their contribution at work, that passionate criticism of their work output is often experienced as a direct attack on their self-esteem.

Passionate leadership can achieve great things. Make sure it doesn’t leave casualties in its wake.

Dr. Gavin Symanowitz is the founder of FeedbackRocket.com, an award-winning online innovation that enables management feedback.

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Author: Colette Symanowitz

Managing Director of www.BeatingBullies.com and www.MBAconnect.net. Passionate about entrepreneurship, personal branding and networking. I also tweet under @mbaconnect_net and @Beating_Bullies

2 thoughts on “The Dark Side of Passion

  1. I have been reading out many of your posts and it’s pretty good stuff. I will definitely bookmark your blog.

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