Putting Passion Back into the Workplace: CUHK Business School Professor Found How Passion is Contagious from the Top

The corporate world can at times seem cold. But according to Shige Makino, Professor of Department of Management at The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) Business School, it is fuelled by passion, little-studied in the field of business academia.

Passion, in the corporate sense, refers to the conscious and intense positive feelings that develop when someone is engaged in what they feel is a meaningful contribution to the entrepreneurial activity of a company. It is a valuable organisational asset, Prof. Makino believes, as it empowers those who feel it to strive for excellence and to overcome performance barriers. Whether passion is transferred from a corporate leader to employees affects company performance and the pursuit of its strategic goals.

Prof. Makino, working with his research team at the University of Hong Kong and Sungkyunkwan University in Korea, has devoted his recent work to measuring how effectively leaders of companies translate their passion into success for their company to their “followers.” His findings show that it is not just sufficient for a corporate leader to have passion about his or her dream. What matters most in terms of results for a company is whether the leader can share that passion with others.

Borrowing insights from Fourier’s law in physics, a standard model for the conduction of heat, Prof. Makino developed a model of how a leader’s passion is transferred from the headquarters of Japanese companies to their overseas units. His study measured a sample of 150 small- and mid-sized enterprises in Japan and 100 of their foreign subsidiaries. He sampled senior executives at the headquarters and in the overseas units.

His latest research paper posits a conceptual parallel between heat conduction and passion transfer, in which the “heat” of passion bombards the company through engagement activities, leading to the transfer of “atoms and molecules” in the form of emotions and inner thoughts from a company’s leader to other members of the company. Successful passion transfer in a corporate sense involves the company’s ability to communicate and act on entrepreneurial vision and success.

There has been considerable research about romantic passion in the field of psychology, but very little study about what drives people in the working world.

“One of the reasons scholars have not paid attention to emotions is that it is very difficult to measure emotions,” Prof. Makino says. In order to compile his research, Prof. Makino’s Likert-scale responses specifically surveyed employees about their emotions and their feelings in their place of work. Traditional business research “ignores the very simple fact that organisations are a collection of emotions and a collection of individuals.”

Inspired by the work by Prof. Pingping Fu from Department of Management at CUHK Business School, Prof. Makino examines the effectiveness of the transfer of “self-enhancing” passion versus “self-transcendent” passion. The former starts from a viewpoint of “This is my dream, follow me if you believe the same.” In contrast, the self-transcendent viewpoint holds that “We all have the same dream, let’s work together to make it come true.” The professor’s findings from the Likert-scale psychological responses show that it is three times more likely that self-transcendent passion can be transferred.

“We tend to attribute the passion as the foundation of success. But this is a biased view,” Professor Makino says. “Probably due to the halo effect of such figures as Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, people think that leaders with strong passion are more successful, but companies with strong leaders with passion also fail. Passion is not necessarily a sufficient criterion for success.”

The findings suggest that for employees of multinational companies, leaders do better when they are committed to developing and imposing a coherent organisational identity rather than imposing the leader’s own self-identity.

It is a lack of communication that is the main impediment to the transfer of the leader’s passion to other employees. Interestingly, whereas most company leaders think that pay or the chance of promotion is the main driver that will engage their “followers,” the findings show it is actually the lack of a chance to participate in important decision making that deters employees the most. What puts employees off the most is insulation from the “atoms and molecules” of emotions about what the company is or should be doing.

In terms of communication, large companies tend to become more and more bureaucratic, and that leads managers to focus on systems rather than the individuals with whom they deal. Professor Makino warns that this poses a danger to the success of the company.

“The current paradigm in strategic management tends to favour rational thinking,” his paper on the findings states. “The dominant tendency is to build an impersonal and objective architecture for a highly efficient output system that is properly managed and monitored. Over time, many of these systems evolve into bureaucracies that restrict innovation. In so doing, human feelings and the need to have a “fire” behind innovation are subconsciously suppressed. … Our findings advocate for a degree of balance in orientation.”

By encouraging consideration of the emotional side of individuals, Prof. Makino’s findings have immense implications for the development of better management styles and practices for companies.

Ranked by the International Journal of Business as one of the 20 most prolific academics in international strategic management research, Prof. Makino has also won international accolades such as the Haynes Prize for the Most Promising Scholar from the Academy of International Business in 2002 and the Japan Academy of International Business Studies Award of the Year in 2003. He is the director of Centre for International Business Studies at CUHK Business School.

This article is also available in Chinese.

By Alex Frew McMillan