The Mixed Messages We Get About Passion In Our Workplace

John Keane
8 min readFeb 9, 2020

Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.

Harriet Tubman

Photo by History in HD on Unsplash

As a child, I recall watching the Apollo landings on television. From then forward, my passion was space. As I look back at this, I am unsure whether I was fascinated by the science, captivated by the adventure and romance, or just enjoyed the diversion day dreaming about space and reading science fiction gave me from my dysfunctional family life.

Whatever the reason, I went through school and entered college with the firm goal of working in the space program.

Since graduation with an Aerospace Engineering degree, I have worked over 35 years on NASA and military space programs. I am driven by a fascination, a passion, for space exploration.

That is a good thing, right?

As leaders we send mixed messages

Throughout my career, I have heard that passion is key to success on ambitious space programs. We should be passionate about the mission, and passionate about the details — especially since space missions are so dangerous. My passion for the details and my passion for the mission, led to focusing my career on analyzing how spacecraft fail, and what we can do to design out failures that could lead to loss of life and loss of mission.

I was recently told that I am too passionate. When I pressed for insight, the issue came down to my being “emotional”. This baffled me at first. I had not punched anyone, sent snotty emails, bashed in a brake light in the parking lot (this happened to me in a previous organization!), or even raised my voice. I told my boss how I felt about a decision, and I let him know that it shook my confidence in the organization to see such a bad idea taking hold. My frustration was clear, and this made him uncomfortable.

One would think that being passionate about mission success and safety is a good thing for someone in my role, right? In reality, passion sometimes makes people uncomfortable. And that can actually hurt us professionally. I have found that passion, at least as I understand it, is often the last thing that leadership really wants — even when they say otherwise.

Do we expect people to behave like robots.

Photo by Franck V. on Unsplash

I did some soul searching afterwards to try and figure out what was going on. Was I rude, or overbearing with my boss (who I greatly respect)? That would have been wrong and worthy of censure.

I happen to believe that being real in a respectful way is a good thing. If I respect someone, I feel I owe them honesty. But, all too often, people get upset when you are real with them.

I puzzled over what the implication is of this reaction to being real. Are we expected to be like Mr Data on Star Trek, with an emotion chip we can turn on and off?

Our company (like many) lists passion as an expected value for all employees. We are expected to have “fire in the belly” for our mission. How can I have fire in my belly and a passionless demeanor? I began to wonder if I have an incorrect understanding of what passion really means. So, being an engineer, I looked it up.

What is Passion?

Photo by Charles on Unsplash

Be still when you have nothing to say; when genuine passion moves you, say what you’ve got to say, and say it hot.

D.H. Lawrence

Searching various online dictionaries I came up with the following. Passion is:

Strong and barely controllable emotion.
A state or outburst of strong emotion.
Intense, driving, or overmastering feeling or conviction.
An outbreak of anger.

It seems clear that emotion is a defining characteristic of passion!

The cost of shutting down passion is high.

Most of us have experienced leaders and peers who are uncomfortable with, and critical of, obvious emotion. I think the reasons for this are complex.

Whatever the reason, the impact of shutting people down for sharing honest emotion is profound. It makes teamwork difficult, and if a Manager shuts down their employee — it will damage trust and respect. It sends the message “you are not safe, when you share who you really are”.

Psychologists tell us that suppressing emotion can lead to mental health issues such as stress and anxiety. So we are asking our employees to deny their feelings on a way that threatens their mental health when we punish them for passion.

The effect of this rejection goes beyond the single employee that has received “counseling”. When Managers stomp hard on those who show emotion, they send a message to the rest of the organization that it is not okay to be honest and open at work. Further, when passion is a stated value of the organization, this undermines the very intent of value setting. People become jaded and learn to ignore stated organizational values.

The message seems to be that we are expected to have intense commitment to the mission — without personal emotional investment in it. That is not possible.

In the end, the creativity and commitment we depend on from our teams will wither and die. We depend on our people believing in what we do, and seeing themselves as influencing and contributing to success. We need their passion and the emotion that goes with it. We should be emotionally mature enough to accept one with the other.

Hiding bigotry behind the “P” word?

Photo by Ben Rosett on Unsplash

Many managers hide a multitude of biases and bigotries behind the term “Professional”.

Sometimes it is simple bigotry.

Bigotry is an obstinate or intolerant devotion to one’s own opinions and prejudices

Miriam Webster Online Dictionary

We often say that someone is UN-professional when we don’t like someone’s communication style, accent, dress, behavior, etc. Some people are simply intolerant toward those who are different. This applies to how we communicate passion just as much as it applies to race, sexual orientation and gender. Progress has been made in advancing concepts such as diversity and inclusion in the workplace. However, not everyone really buys into the intent. The “P-word” gives them cover for behaving as they always have. It is safer and easier to say that someone is unprofessional when we really just don’t like the way they look or interact. In the end, this often has nothing to do with being professional — and has everything to do with bigotry.

Sometimes it is about feeling threatened and exercising control.

Managers sometimes feel threatened by people that display emotion and work to enforce their own personality and methods for dealing with emotions on others. Passionate people come in all colors, shapes, sizes, and personality types. A cool and reserved manager may not be comfortable with a fiery and exuberant employee. But if we expect everyone to conform to our own approach to dealing with emotion we will eventually tear down our team. Further, by attempting to suppress natural emotions and reactions, we show a profound disrespect for our people — and undermine the passion that we said we wanted.

In my experience, there is a real risk that passionate employees will be labeled “un-professional” unless they conform to the organizations (or a single Manager’s) model for behavior.

Controlling your passion

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

If passion drives you, let reason hold the reins.”

Benjamin Franklin

How should we embrace passion? First and foremost: Passion should respect the boundaries of others.

It is reasonable to expect people to avoid throwing verbal, email or physical punches — or having tantrums — when they don’t get their way. Mutual respect MUST balance individual passion. However, it is ludicrous to expect passionate people to be emotionally neutral at all times. It is not reasonable, logical, fair, or psychologically healthy for the individual or the organization.

We need to realize that sometimes our passion conflicts with another’s feelings and comfort zone. If we wish our passion to be respected, then we need to treat others with that same patience and respect we would like to receive.

It is never acceptable to threaten, insult or otherwise be rude to people in the workplace. However, if you find yourself using the “P” word (UN-professional) when accusing someone of acting inappropriately — reconsider. Expressing emotion is NOT unprofessional behavior unless it is insulting or hostile to another. That word is so terribly misused it should be banished from the working world dictionary.

Also, when someone’s life is on the line, or the company is about to take a major loss — expect people to go nuts. We need to be willing to be rude or (wait for it….) ….. unprofessional …… when someone’s life is at stake. If the building is on fire, I WILL yell, scream, and grab if the CEO refuses to believe it is not a drill and will not leave his office. The danger here is that you better be sure it is a matter of life or death, or you will be fired — and with good reason.

Summing Up

If you are uncomfortable with your team showing emotion and being passionate – then don’t ask for the energy, creativity and dedication that accompany passion! Passion is critical if we want our organizations to grow and thrive.

How should we approach passion in the workplace? We need to nurture passion, be willing to allow people to be human, respect peoples emotions, and set limits that assure non violent behavior. Sometimes we need to send someone out of the room, or take them out for a drink. However, we should expect to see emotion on important issues people are passionate about. And we should treat their feelings with respect.

Understand the great blessing a person with true passion for what you do is, and that their honesty and courage in showing it is something to be admired.

Passion will move men beyond themselves, beyond their shortcomings, beyond their failures. — Joseph Campbell, American Mythologist, Writer, and Lecturer

Find your passion, live it with integrity and be respectful of others.

Your work is to discover your work and then with all your heart to give yourself to it. — Buddha

Photo by bruce mars from Pexels



John Keane

Husband, Dad, Rocket Scientist, Retired Military, Space Alien.