Jake Breeden

Tipping Sacred Cows

How to Have More Harmony at Work

Avoid the burnout and bad decisions that come with obsessive passion.

Posted Jun 21, 2013

There are two kinds of passion for work: obsessive and harmonious. If you have obsessive passion, you work hard because you feel you must. You need to prove something to someone, or you need to feel you belong. You’re driven by insecurities or compulsion to do work.

Obsessive passion leads to bad decisions and burnout. We coarsen our culture and worsen performance by celebrating people who sacrifice their health and happiness for a quick win. The quick wins that come from obsessive work can seem seductive but distract us from the sustainable progress that comes from a more harmonious approach.

People who fall prey to obsessive passion are often driven to prove they can make it in an arena that seems beyond what was expected of them. Martha Stewart, the granddaughter of a Polish immigrant who failed as a restaurateur, was so driven to succeed that she ended up in federal prison for five months. And she continues to find herself ensnared in legal drama.

Bill Clinton and Lance Armstrong both come from similar backgrounds as children of a struggling, single mother. And they both followed a similar pattern of rising to stunning heights and then falling just as spectacularly. Tiger Woods was driven to make it to the top of a sport that had no stars who looked like he does. And his career blew up as he made the classic mistakes of indulgent, destructive, obsessive passion.

We’ll see if Armstong recovers, or if he sticks stubbornly to Martha Stewart’s compulsive passion. Woods seems to be no longer driven to prove anything to anyone. Instead, he’s driving under his own power and performing on his own terms. In the words of Robert Vallerand, the psychology professor who first contrasted obsessive and harmonious passion, Woods’ motivation for work is now autonomous while it was previously controlled. (To be clear, the terms are Vallerand’s but the armchair diagnosis is mine.)

Meanwhile, back on earth, non-celebrities also grapple with the distinction between harmonious and obsessive passion. One woman who gets it right is Melanee Hannock, the Senior Vice President of Marketing for ALSAC/St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. If you’ve ever seen an appeal to donate money to help the kids at St. Jude, Melanee was likely involved in some way. She runs a staff of 100 that is responsible for helping to raise the money that supports the hospital. Fundraising matters deeply because more than 75% of the money needed to run St. Jude comes from individual donations.

Before her role in the nonprofit sector, Hannock worked in marketing for Hasbro and Disney. I asked Hannock if she was passionate about work, and her response reveals the harmonious passion of leadership:

I would say I am passionate about life. Work of course is a part of that passion and I believe that one of the greatest gifts in life is to be able to make a living doing something that you are passionate about and that brings you joy. So as it relates to work, yes I am passionate about learning, growing, teaching and helping others. Really, that is what my job boils down to and I have had the pleasure of being able to do that for most of my life.

 You might think that someone who spends her energy working to help raise money for children who are sick with cancer would be relentlessly driven to work and do nothing else. Cancer never stops, so how can Hannock? And you might think that sort of relentless drive would be draining.

But instead, Hannock embodies harmonious passion. When she’s not at work she spends her free time running and playing with animals. She volunteers to help students with business plans and coach people who need help planning their finances. And instead of taking away from her job, these outside activities help. As she puts it:

My passion for other things in life enhances my work. Health is really important to me and without our own personal health, it’s hard to help others. I think it is really important to have other interests. So I continue to exercise, volunteer and help friends. It gives me the energy to lead others.

 Hannock teaches her team, empowers them and then trusts them to do their job. She wouldn’t have the time to play and work outside of the job if she micro-managed her staff. This was a lesson she learned the hard way, by focusing too narrowly on work in previous roles. But once she worked to set up others for success, she realized she had plenty of time to be great at work and enjoy life too. And of course that in turn made work more enjoyable.

Three traps we can learn to avoid based on Hannock’ success:

  • Don’t over-identify with your work’s purpose. Just because you care deeply about work doesn’t mean you must single-mindedly obsess over it.
  • Don’t fall into the trap of micro-managing. Shush the stubborn voice in your head that insists “if you want something done right, you better do it yourself”.
  • Don’t fall into the trap of working to prove you belong. Reflect on this question: what are you trying to prove? Often, you proved it long ago, so you can give yourself permission to stop fretting now.

Learn from Hannock: teach, inspire and trust others to do more at work. Help others to contribute more at work, and then you can live your own life more fully.