Love thy coworker; thy work, not necessarily

The whole "passionate about work" attitude irks me out; save your passion for the bedroom. This is not to say that I'd rather be ridiculed for being a nerd who works too hard.

In fact, personally I'm in a strange position of a certified programming nerd with a blog and code on github, who nonetheless does it strictly for the money (I'd be a lawyer or an i-banker if I thought I could.) I'm thus on both sides of this, kinda.

So, in today's quest to change society through blogging, what am I asking society for, if neither passion nor scorn for work please me? Well, I'd rather society neither encourage nor discourage the love of work, and leave it to the individual's discretion.

From a moral angle, I base my belief on the Biblical commandment, "love thy neighbor", which I think does not dovetail into "love thy work" for a reason. From a practical angle, again I think that one's attitude to coworkers (also managers, customers and other people) is a better predictor of productivity than one's attitude to work.

People talk a lot about intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation – passion vs money - but I think they're actually very similar, and the more important distinction is personal vs social motivation.

Why? Because whether I work for fun or for the money, it's a means to my own personal end, which in itself precludes neither negligence nor fraud on my behalf. What makes you do the bits of work that are neither fun nor strictly necessary to get paid is that other people need it done, and you don't want to fail them.

Perhaps you disagree with my ideas on motivation. If so, here's an idea on boundaries that I hope is uncontroversial. Telling me how I should feel about my job infringes on my boundaries, which is to say that it's none of your business. If however I do a shoddy job and it becomes your problem, then I'm infringing on your boundaries, so you're absolutely entitled to complain about it. Here again requiring respect for coworkers is sensible, while requiring this or that attitude towards the work itself is not.

So:

  • Someone's attitude towards work does not predict the quality of their work
  • Inquiring reports and potential hires about their attitude towards work is a minor but unpleasant harassment
  • A corporate culture of "we're doing this thing together" beats both "we're passionate to change the world by advancing the state of the art in blah blah" and "we're laser-focused on fulfilling customers' requirements on time and within budget"

P.S. Which kind of culture do managers typically want? Often they're schizophrenic on this. They want "passionate" workers, hoping that they'll accept less money. On the other hand, the same person often doesn't care about the actual work in the worst way (he sucks at it and not having to do it anymore is management's biggest perk to him.) But what he cares about is deadlines, etc. - so he encourages a culture of shipping shit in the hope that it sorts itself out somehow (these are the people that the term "technical debt" was invented for, of course nobody is convinced by this pseudo-businessy term if they weren't already convinced about the underlying idea of "shipping shit is bad.") Of course a truly passionate worker is going to suffer mightily in the kind of culture created by the same manager who thinks he wanted this worker.

20 comments ↓

#1 jack on 05.14.16 at 2:26 pm

It's true that passion does not matter for an employer intrinsically but passion is a useful heuristic to predict work performance.

There's a difference between intrinsic passion and passion "inspired" by management. I find this passion inspiring approach naive. It's evidence of low empathy.

The way to inspire passion is to provide work that actually is attractive to the workers. Many companies don't have that ability because most work is very boring.

#2 Yossi Kreinin on 05.14.16 at 4:19 pm

My point is that passion is not the best heuristic to predict work performance precisely because most work is very boring! I claim that what I called "social motivation" will take you very far in acquiring a taste for that sort of work.

(Of course I suspect there are limits to it and I'm not sure what they are; meaning that I think that some work is just a very poor fit for some people and nothing will bridge that. But I'm very, very sure that what they call "intrinsic motivation" isn't enough, just like what they call "extrinsic motivation" isn't enough.)

#3 jack on 05.14.16 at 5:19 pm

Well, you can also be motivated by doing a good job regardless of what that actually entails. For example, I'm a very good programmer. Programming has become boring because there is no challenge anymore. But I do enjoy producing very high quality output and being better than almost everybody else. So I don't care what I program or who uses it but I want it to be the best possible engineering solution.

That's intrinsic motivation and it's relevant to the employer because it makes me aligned with his goals.

I guess I'm passionate for succeeding, not for programming.

#4 bob on 05.14.16 at 10:04 pm

I think you may be right. I haven't been that excited about working with my coworker recently and my productivity has taken a dive.

#5 Yossi Kreinin on 05.14.16 at 11:39 pm

Oh, it would definitely do that.

#6 k on 05.15.16 at 12:57 pm

Who cares what kind of worker a *manager* wants. And refering to the Bible to 'analyse' work relationships…. really?

#7 Doktorfaustus on 05.15.16 at 4:15 pm

People who really excel at something even use time considers leisure to think about it. That's what differentiates them: they have thought more about it, thus come up with better ideas and win arguments with others. This causes social recognition which in turn fires their motivation to think more about it. So: it's a self-referential system, passion leads to social recognition leads to passion leads to…

#8 tony on 05.15.16 at 4:51 pm

Doing what you're passionate about is having a hobby. Work is doing things you don't care about because you get paid to. Then you take that money and spend it on things you are passionate about, like food, clothing, shelter, functional programming, whatever. When you make your passion your job you become a prostitute and turn joy into commerce and only the pimps prosper

#9 Jamison on 05.15.16 at 5:17 pm

Please define "passion".

#10 vladThatOtherGuyNotHimTheOtherOne on 05.15.16 at 6:54 pm

I work in Romania, where most work is outsourced. From my experiemce, that means it's boring. I realised this just recently, after a few years of peogramming. For me, the intrinsic motivation played an important role at the beginning of my career, because that made me study a lot. That however did not have positive social effects, quite the contrary! Now I think that the social environment is more important in the next stages of my career, because people don't really respect work here – because it's mostly boring stuff

#11 Daniel Kaplan on 05.15.16 at 9:36 pm

I was going to write a reply but it started to become quite lengthy so I just turned it into a blog article of my own: http://www.sleepeasysoftware.com/your-passion-affects-me/

#12 Yossi Kreinin on 05.15.16 at 10:15 pm

@Daniel: your main point is one does a shoddy job if one lacks passion. Firstly someone doing a shoddy job is a legitimate complaint if there ever was one; I'm not sure why bringing the culprit's attitudes into it though, I think it's more polite and productive to point out what in their output adversely affects you regardless of their attitude. Secondly – my experience contradicts your claim regardless attitude being a great predictor of performance, I've seen plenty of people who aren't huge lovers of programming doing a great job and plenty of people loving it who either consistently or inconsistently but on multiple occasions neglected enough of their duties to be far worse than their dispassionate coworkers in terms of output; though for obvious reasons I'm reluctant to share the anecdotes. Certainly the worst offenders – at the time of committing their worst offences – had in common not a shared attitude to the craft of programming but the fact that they didn't give a shit about the resulting suffering of their fellow men, to put it in dramatic terms.

It's hard to argue with these things, of course, because both productivity and attitude is hard to measure. You could always say a person was "passionate" about programming based on liking his output even if they (as many do) say things to the effect of "I don't particularly enjoy programming"; and indeed, self-reported feelings are perhaps less trustworthy than objectively visible output – but then ranking that output is also a subjective process, also you've just won by simply redefining everyone producing good code as "passionate" and that is not the kind of win you were looking for, really, right?

So my point is mainly that in my experience, leaving people alone here and not looking for the typical in-love-with-programming type but instead largely ignoring their attitude and looking at other things works well. And this is as subjective as it gets because I sincerely don't know how to improve upon it; it's your word against mine and it pretty much has to be. A legitimate takeaway is that both my viewpoint and yours, and the resulting larger culture, are compatible with producing reasonable output as a team, if indeed we assume that both you and I are on teams that do so.

#13 Bob Telfer on 05.16.16 at 10:13 pm

I'm kind of in agreement with both of you for different reasons. First, let's not forget that over 70% of people in the workforce today are not happy at work, and 20% of those people actively sabotage progress in a company. But the real kicker though is that despite everything that's be done to try to improve this organizational crisis: high salaries, perks, flex-time, dogs and ping pong tables at work, paid lunches etc….. it has produced ZERO improvement. In the past ten years, the same stats are EXACTLY the same. A lot can be said about putting the wrong people in the job, but it's far more a condition of intrinsic compatibility between people working together in teams. In other words, how we blend people together to support each other's strengths and weaknesses goes a long, long way to creating 'passion' in people and the motivation to do good work – regardless of how boring the job might be. Google did a pretty fascinating study of what charcteristics were required in high performance teams. Their conclusion: 'psychological security'. You can check it out here: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/28/magazine/what-google-learned-from-its-quest-to-build-the-perfect-team.html?_r=0

#14 Yossi Kreinin on 05.16.16 at 10:46 pm

@Bob: from your link to your company's website it looks like you have an ax to grind in this debate. Good luck, erm, grinding it.

For the record, I have an aversion to anyone coming as an outside consultant/vendor/etc. "helping companies improve" – but especially to people claiming that "high salaries… produce ZERO improvement." Guess what: they do produce large improvements. That's why you're on your quest to "help companies improve", after all – and that's why a lot of the people at the workforce are at the workforce, and the perception of being paid generously produces in many decent people a desire to generously contribute to the company's success, while the perception of being paid just enough to be "retained" creates in many people a desire to work just hard enough to not get fired.

But of course no consultant will ever come to a company with the advice of paying more! There's no trick in that. Consultants promise to increase performance without the extra expense, selling the idea of paying them less than that expense would have been.

Do not expect sympathy from people doing the actual work in these companies while peddling this stuff though!

(And please excuse my tone; but really it could have been avoided if you didn't go the "high salaries… ZERO improvement" route, and I'm sure you understand well enough why it gets my goat. Grinding your ax happens to get almost everybody's goat! Incidentally, Google to whose study you linked pays quite a lot, and does quite considerably better than many. Go figure.)

#15 Bob Telfer on 05.17.16 at 12:56 am

I don't really have an axe to grind really. I just love the idea of companies starting to support people, and people supporting each other at work – kinda what drew me to your post in the first place. I'm not a consultant – i'm more of a researcher and technology provider. But in any case, i certainly would never advocate that a company pay their people shitty wages – it just doesn't have any overall affect of improving the problem of disengagement at work or solving the problem of high turnover in companies. As the google study showed (despite their high paying employees) what produced high performance are things like "trust", "support" ,"respect". I study team dynamics and how different people are capable of getting along (or not) with others so that's where i'm coming from. If that interests you, then great! In any case, i don't really find that salary is the # 1 motivator for people – that's a finding supporting by a great deal of evidence over the past 5 years. It's more about the connections you form with the people you work with, and the respect you receive from the people your work for. Most organizations though are cesspools of toxic conflict. We've got a long way to go towards building companies and organizations that put people first.

#16 David on 05.17.16 at 11:01 pm

re being a lawyer or an i-banker:both require enormous amounts of "moral flexibility". When your kid asks what you do for a living it's much easier telling them "I save people: I design cars safety features" than "daddy legally robbed today a retirement fund because law hasn't caught up with technology".

#17 Yossi Kreinin on 05.17.16 at 11:15 pm

@David: I'm not that sure about moral flexibility (a lawyer can defend an innocent victim pro bono, and what can a programmer do against injustice or simply against software shitting on its users? Is programming a smartphone made by workers in a sweatshop and sold for a huge margin that much worse than one market participant outguessing another?)

The reasons why I'd hardly make it though are my weaknesses in the arbitrary crazy shit department and the extroverted socialization department. I'm social and extroverted enough for a programmer but probably not for these other things and I can't handle the kind of intricate sensible-except-not-really rules of which there are so many in law and finance without losing my sanity bit by bit.

#18 Kyle on 05.25.16 at 7:53 pm

I'm Extremely passionate about my work. Its a major problem. The issue is I'm passionate about my primary responsibilities (algorithm development, R&D, Optimization, hardware acceleration…) and I get bored out of my mind with the other parts of the job. (UI, Databases, networks/services, security…).

The problem is i get so interested and energetic about the "Passion" parts i finish them in record time and way better than expected. (fixing two problems at once. the data-structure/algorithm is so efficient, we dont need to make any variations/optimizations of it that we had planned…) so I'm always running out of things to do and the higher ups take several days worth of meetings to prioritize my next task.

It is this downtime that ruins my entire job. They switch me to somebody else's task, or pull something off the deepest part of the backlog that everybody else has been purposely avoiding for … years.

"Thanks for doing the best work we could have possibly imagined in the thing you are passionate about. As a reward you now get to do the worst possible job we can come up with in your least passionate subject… congratulations."

With this paradigm, that i'm sure every passionate programmer will hit in their career, there are two options; Stop being passionate about your work (so the banalities don't hit you so hard), or stay passionate but drag work out as long as possible to avoid the horrible punishment you get when you finish work ahead of schedule.

Solution? Never ASSIGN me an unplanned task from the backlog (EVER). If you dont plan/schedule enough "relevant" work for this sprint; i get to work on anything i want for the rest of the sprint. my own pet project, my own "unplanned" algorithm i think we might need in the future, maybe if i get bored ill even pick my own task from the backlog.

the major problem here is planning, obviously. however there is no way in hell a project manager could be passionate about THEIR job, or an architect could still maintain passion by the time they get promoted that high if they had to go through the same shitty system to get there.

Promote me to architect? I have seen your code, i would rather fire everybody and start from scratch than inherit this bullshit technical-debt mess the dispassionate people slapped together while waiting for their next paychecks.

#19 Yossi Kreinin on 05.25.16 at 8:10 pm

When someone's done early they get to choose what to work on, at a decent place. Certainly I never had a problem to find something for myself being done early as a report, and never prevented someone done with everything I asked them to do from working on whatever they chose. Alternatively you can only tell that you're done once you're done and in the meanwhile work on something that you chose, at some point it too will become done and you'll say "yeah, I did it in the background", it's hard to get fired for delivering more than they asked for in the time frame they defined.

Seriously, if you can't choose your own work despite being done early, you need to find a place where you can do that, it's not too much to ask for IMO. (If however your problem is, you feel that you're surrounded by dimwits and assholes, then changing THAT might well be too much to ask for – let's say that if you change a few places and they're all dimwits and assholes, maybe you just have a very low tolerance for some widespread human traits. Here change only comes from within, as a guru once said after getting paid for a visit, in response to a request for change.)

#20 Raghavendra Satish Peri on 06.10.16 at 12:05 pm

For me passionate or not, money matters at the end of the month. Work is just small part of my life & worrying too much about it doesn’t help me in my view. I always try to give my best at my workplace & then go do whatever I want to do to fulfill my inner thirst…i was a digital marketer first then I became blind so I moved to digital accessibility…if tomorrow my eye sight returns I might go back & do totally something else. I might pursue art or try my luck at engineering…Do I have passion! I don’t think so I am curious & want to know what I am good at…

My visual & learning disability played a major role of what I can do & what I cannot do for a living.

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