Forget Employee Engagement; U.S. Companies Need Passionate Workers

Photograph by Nick M. Do/Getty Images

If you look at surveys designed to measure how happy U.S. workers are (the HR euphemism is “employee engagement”), the numbers are downright discouraging. A recent Gallup survey pegs just 30 percent of the U.S. workforce as “inspired” by their work.

John Hagel believes employee engagement as a workforce metric is short-sighted, a remnant of 20th century management thinking rooted in outdated notions about scalability and efficiency. Instead, today’s intensifying competitive pressures and fast-moving global markets, he says, require that 21st century organizations need employees who are not simply engaged, but passionate about their work.

Unfortunately, new research conducted by Deloitte Consulting’s Center for the Edge, where Hagel is co-director, indicates that even fewer are truly passionate U.S. employees—a scant 11 percent of the workforce. “We’re facing increasing challenges, and we don’t have a workforce equipped for it,” he says.

What’s the difference between passion and engagement? Employee engagement is typically used by organizations to figure out if workers buy into the company’s goals, if they like working for their manager, if they find the company sensitive to work/life balance issues, etc. That serves companies well when they want to scale and have workers “engaged” in the task necessary to expand their particular corporate silo.

The passionate worker—the metaphor Deloitte employs is “the passion of the explorer”—are those who view new challenges as opportunities to learn additional skills. That attitude becomes essential, the consulting firm maintains, because the typical work skill will be outdated within five years. “These people are driven to develop new skills at an ever rapid pace and are thrilled by it,” Hagel says. “Passionate people are the most agile.”

Of course, one doesn’t just go out and hire a bunch of passionate employees, although the report does suggest that companies shift their hiring from a focus on specific skills to recruiting people who exhibit a passion for their jobs. The real boost will come from creating a workplace that encourages passion in employees through physical design, new technology, and management policies. Few companies have recognized this need, and fewer have moved in this direction—especially organizations with 1,000 employees or more, according the research.

Hagel acknowledges this is a huge challenge for managers—especially when dealing with front-line workers who tend to be the least engaged or passionate about their job. He points to Toyota, where the company made plant workers responsible for improving the manufacturing process. The automaker installed an “Andon cord,” a rope on the production line that’s attached to a series of lights. When the cord is pulled, work stops, lights flash, and all the workers around gather to fix the problem. Workers celebrate that they’ve improved performance, and indeed, Toyota has seen an overall improvement in production.

Not surprisingly, the research finds that least passionate workers are in customer service (5 percent), accounting/finance (7 percent), human resources (7 percent), or manufacturing (7 percent). The most passionate workers are likely to be in the management and marketing functions (17 percent and 16 percent, respectively). Slicing the data by compensation yields no surprise either: Of people who earn more than $150,000, 44 percent are passionate, vs. just 15 percent or fewer in lower income brackets.