When Does Career Passion Cross The Line?

Psychologist Benjamin Schellenberg discusses his new research on obsessive passion in the workplace.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | February 19, 2022

A new study published in Personality and Individual Differences explains why an obsessive form of passion has come to dominate the workplace, even when it has been proven to have negative and maladaptive outcomes for the individual.

I recently spoke with Benjamin Schellenberg, lead author of the research from the University of Manitoba, to understand this phenomenon in greater detail. Here is a summary of our discussion.

What inspired you to investigate the topic of obsessive passion, how did you study it, and what did you find?

There has been a lot of research on the effects of obsessive passion in many domains, such as in sports, school, and the workplace. The research has overwhelmingly supported the conclusion that obsessive passion predicts maladaptive outcomes.

Highly obsessively passionate people tend to experience more negative emotions, anxiety, and stress, and generally report lower levels of psychological well-being. We wondered why obsessive passion appears to be common in the workplace, despite all these negative consequences. If obsessive passion is so bad, why does still exist? We thought people's beliefs about obsessive passion can help answer this question. We suspected that people believe that, in some types of workplaces, being obsessively passionate is the best way to succeed.

We conducted three studies to assess people's beliefs about obsessive passion and its effects on work performance. All participants were asked to imagine themselves in different hypothetical scenarios. Some participants imagined that they were hiring different job applicants (Study 1), some imagined that they were applying for a promotion (Study 2), and some imagined that they would be working for a new supervisor (Study 3).

In all cases, people indicated that obsessive passion, both in themselves and in others, would lead to greater success in workplaces with a "bottom-line mentality."

What is a 'bottom-line' mentality workplace?

Workplaces with a bottom-line mentality are those that focus exclusively on the "bottom-line" (productivity, profits, performance) and pay little attention to everything else (such as employee wellness and personal relationships). A lot of what we know about workplaces with a bottom-line mentality is from research conducted by Dr. Rebecca Greenbaum (Rutgers University) and her colleagues.

Your research talks about two different kinds of passion: harmonious passion and obsessive passion. Is one inherently better than the other?

The dualistic model of passion, which was first developed by Dr. Robert Vallerand (Universite du Quebec a Montreal), distinguishes between harmonious passion and obsessive passion. Both types of passion involve loving an activity and devoting a great deal of time and energy toward it.

However, harmonious passion involves pursuing an activity with a sense of balance and flexibility, whereas obsessive passion involves feeling an overwhelming urge to engage in an activity and becoming preoccupied with it.

Research on these two passion types has shown that harmonious passion tends to predict adaptive outcomes, whereas obsessive passion predicts some maladaptive outcomes. Although there are some studies that have linked obsessive passion with some adaptive outcomes in very specific situations, the evidence strongly supports harmonious passion as being linked with many positive outcomes (well-being, interpersonal relationship quality, positive emotional experiences, etc.) for most people in most situations.

What are the practical takeaways from your research for someone working in a bottom-line mentality workplace?

Having a workplace with a bottom-line mentality can be problematic because it can lead employees to attempt to achieve bottom-line outcomes by any means necessary, including cutting corners and other ethically problematic behaviors. But also believing that you need to be obsessively passionate in these types of workplaces can make the problem even worse.

Being in a workplace with a bottom-line mentality surrounded by obsessively passionate workers sounds like a recipe for disaster. Research outside of the workplace has shown that high levels of performance can be attained when one's passion is predominately harmonious.

Although we have yet to study the relationship between harmonious and obsessive passion and performance in workplaces with bottom-line mentalities, having harmonious passion for work has consistently been shown to predict adaptive outcomes in the workplace.

Do you have plans for follow-up research? Where would you like to see research on perceptions of passion go in the future?

A first important step is to study the accuracy of people's beliefs. Does obsessive passion predict better performance in workplaces with bottom-line mentalities? We also need to understand how changes in workplace culture change people's feelings about being obsessed.

For example, during an economic recession when businesses become more focused on the bottom line, do people develop more positive attitudes about being obsessed with one's career?

Also, beliefs about passion are not only important in the workplace; they matter in other areas such as academics, sports, and the performance arts.