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Workplace autonomy fosters passion, passion fosters creativity

Any celebrity CEO worth his salt—or his salary—will extol the virtues of passion in an organization, citing personal belief and illustrative anecdotes, but little in the way of hard proof. Now there’s proof.

A new paper by researchers at the University of Washington Foster School of Business offers the first empirical evidence on the relationship between passion and creativity in the workplace. What’s more, the study demonstrates that the key to developing passionate employees is giving them autonomy.

“Context is very important,” says co-author Xiao-Ping Chen, a professor of management and organization at the Foster School. “Teams, units and organizations that promote and support autonomous thinking and working will become more passionate. And, in turn, more creative.”

Harmonious passion

The authors studied the behaviors and attitudes of employees at two very different types of organizations: a manufacturing company and a financial services firm. They measured degrees of “harmonious” passion, an intense commitment to work that is driven by internal rather than external motivation.

“Harmonious passion comes from intrinsic motivation,” explains co-author Dong Liu, a doctoral student at the Foster School. “You are passionate not only because you are interested in the work, but because it identifies part of you. It defines you.”

The research team found that harmonious passion facilitates increased workplace creativity—acts of devising new and improved ways of doing tasks, from an ergonomic shift on an assembly line to an innovative marketing campaign.

Some people, Chen explains, are naturally predisposed to be passionate about their work. These people will exercise creativity whatever the environment. The rest, however, could develop harmonious passion if given a degree of autonomy to decide how they will execute their tasks—even when pressure to perform is external (think deadlines) rather than internal.

Autonomy opens the door

The authors say that some companies have a clear strategy of seeking and fostering passion. Google, for instance, screens its hires for levels of passion and then provides employees a culture of autonomy—even mandating 20 percent of work time to be spent outside of projects—to further enhance the creativity that is the company’s greatest asset.

“There are practices that any company can use to foster environments supportive of autonomy,” says Liu. “Things such as open communication, flexible work designs and supervisor empowerment.”

Harmonious passion is universal

One final note that emerged from the study is that the connection between autonomy, passion and creativity appears to be universal, existing among people of every cultural orientation.

“Passion is universal,” Chen says. “It’s important to creativity in individualistic cultures such as the United States. And it’s also important in more collectivistic cultures such as China.”

From autonomy to creativity: A multilevel investigation of the mediating role of harmonious passion” is published in the March 2011 Journal of Applied Psychology. It is the work of Dong Liu and Xiao-Ping Chen of the University of Washington Foster School of Business, and Xin Yao of the University of Colorado at Boulder.