Harvard Business review

Your Most Passionate Employees May Not Be Your Top Performers

“If you do what you love,” the saying goes, “you’ll never have to work another day in your life.” Whether that’s true or not, there is good reason that finding your calling at work has become a sort of professional holy grail. People who work to achieve a sense of personal fulfillment and make the world a better place — or what I call calling-oriented employees — have been shown by research to experience stronger work and life satisfaction and feel more successful than those with a job orientation, meaning they work primarily for money. But are they objectively more successful in their careers? Do they receive higher pay and organizational status?

What little research that has been done on this question focuses on how having a calling orientation or a job orientation affects a person’s actual job performance. Those findings show that calling-oriented employees do tend to spend more time and effort at work; however, they can often be overly idealistic rather than effective, and they can be critical of organizational practices in ways that don’t lead to success. In other words, if you do what you love, it doesn’t necessarily follow that you do it well.

But in our recent research, Yuna Cho of the University of Hong Kong and I found evidence that calling-oriented employees nevertheless do actually tend to achieve higher pay and organizational status. So if they’re not necessarily doing a better job, why are these professionals more successful? Our research indicated that it’s because managers tend to be biased toward those with a calling orientation.

That has critical implications for managers, who need to check themselves for this bias. Ignoring it could result in lower employee morale (as job-oriented team members see a calling-oriented colleague receiving preferential treatment), the promotion of underqualified candidates, and the encouragement of inauthentic displays of passion for the job. It also suggests that professionals themselves need to adjust their view of having a sense of calling or passion for work as a requisite for success — despite all the attention being paid to professional purpose and passion these days.

The Benefits of a Calling

My co-author and I suspected that managers might be misperceiving calling-oriented employees’ levels of performance and their likelihood of staying at the organization for the long haul and that this in turn might affect how the managers decided to reward those employees.

Our hypotheses were based on a number of theories and principles from psychology and sociology. What psychologists call signaling theory suggests that managers would likely make their decisions based on observable actions when they do not have complete information about their employees’ unobservable traits. Because calling-oriented employees tend to volunteer to perform extra tasks, managers might extrapolate these signals to see them as more self-driven, hardworking, and committed. Availability bias can reinforce this by predisposing managers to judge employee performance and commitment based on easily available information rather than a detailed assessment on output or results. Finally, reciprocity, or the sense of obligation to reward good deeds, is a moral and social norm, but by adhering to it without adequate information managers can end up rewarding “good” behaviors that don’t actually benefit the company.

Two studies we conducted support our hypotheses. In the first, we tapped the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study (WLS), a long-term data collection effort that measures life outcomes in a random sample of Wisconsin high school graduates from 1957.

Participants of the study were surveyed on their work orientation in 2004. Among the 1,077 respondents to this survey, 49% identified as having a calling orientation, 35% identified as having a job orientation, and 16% said they worked primarily for career advancement.

After controlling for demographic, socioeconomic and employment-related characteristics, we found that those who had found their calling at work tended to earn more than those who worked for compensation or status.

Why a Calling Pays

Next we carried out an experiment to understand why calling-oriented employees tended to outearn others. We recruited 372 U.S.-based test participants with an average of 12.4 years of work experience. The majority were white (76%), male (62%) and had either some college education or more. Participants were randomly assigned to one of three groups — job orientation, calling orientation or a control group with no specific work orientation.

In each group, participants were presented with a scenario in which an employee, Sam, reveals his work orientation in a recorded Zoom conversation with a colleague, Taylor. For example, for those participants in the job-oriented group, Sam remarks “I often think about my retirement. I’m looking forward to it” while for those in the calling-oriented group, Sam says “I’m not looking forward to retirement at all. In fact, I’d be fine not retiring.”

We hired two experienced male actors to play the characters to ensure they acted consistently across conditions and to eliminate potential gender bias. Sam does not make any statements that indicate that he is dedicated to working at the organization for the long term in either recording. We also ensured that he exudes positive energy in both scenarios.

Participants were then asked to imagine they were Sam’s manager who inadvertently accessed the recording without his knowledge. They were asked how much of a $1,000 bonus and a 0–5% raise they would give to Sam, and to what extent they would support his getting promoted.

We found that participants were more likely to assign a higher bonus and raise to calling-oriented Sam ($675; 4.36%) than job-oriented Sam ($630; 3.95%) or the control version ($556; 3.33%). These differences are statistically significant. Calling-oriented Sam was also most likely to be recommended for promotion (6.12 vs. 5.74 and 5.33).

The Halo – and Deceit – of Purpose

We also asked participants to rate Sam’s job performance and organizational commitment and analyzed whether these assessments had an effect on participants’ decisions about Sam’s bonus, raise and promotion. We found that participants’ perception that calling-oriented Sam had higher levels of job performance and organizational commitment than did job-oriented Sam indeed underpinned their decisions.

However, a panel of negotiation experts we had engaged separately rated the two Sams as comparable on both measures. The findings suggest that calling-oriented Sam’s career achievements did indeed result from our pretend managers’ misperceptions about his performance and commitment.

What’s more, we found that calling-oriented Sam was perceived by participants as more intrinsically motivated, more passionate, seeing his work as more meaningful, and generally more positive. This demonstrates a halo effect that may have little to do with reality. It could also explain why such employees are seen as better and more committed workers – and reap the associated rewards.

Our studies have a number of limitations that mean our findings may not apply to all situations. In particular, participants in our first study were all residents of Wisconsin who were born in or around 1940. There might be regional and generational effects on people’s perception of calling-orientation that this study could not capture. And since all participants in both our studies were U.S. residents, our findings largely reflect the American work ethos and may not apply to other cultures.

For example, having a calling orientation is often the exception rather than the norm in less developed economies in Asia, and in nonprofit organizations the majority of staff are calling-oriented. In both of these contexts managerial bias toward a calling orientation may play out differently. Future research that examines a calling orientation’s effect on individual work outcomes in different cultural contexts would be instructive.

Still, I believe the overall implication of our findings is clear: Managers should not get carried away by the current obsession with seeking higher purpose at work. This zeitgeist, our findings suggest, may create an unhealthy culture of employees signaling a sense of purpose they might not have, or it may drive away job-oriented workers — to the detriment, ultimately, of the organization. Having employees with different career orientation types contributes to the diversity of organizations. In another study that we’ve completed but has yet to be published, I found that work teams benefit from having both calling- and job-oriented members: The former boost the team’s energy with their strong sense of purpose; the latter help to keep the team grounded.

Find your calling at work – or not. Either is absolutely fine. I simply argue that your job performance shouldn’t be tied to any demonstration of love for your work. Still, our findings suggest that job-oriented workers may benefit from drawing attention to their commitment to work as well as their good performance. For organizations, why employees do the work they do should not matter as much as what comes out of it.

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