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Did We Create the “Passionate Quitter”?

If you had to choose between two employees for your organization, both solid performers, one deeply passionate about their work and profession but who will leave within 3 years, and the other who is looking for a long-term career with your company but sees this work as “just a job”, who would you pick?  .

If you chose the passionate employee who’s likely to move on soon, why? I’m not suggesting that this choice is wrong. But I am curious about the reasons behind it.

This curiosity was sparked by two very different pieces of writing I came across last week about the modern career, and the factors contributing to decreased knowledge worker tenures and the associated changes in employee and employer mindsets.

The first was from Illana Gershon for Aeon, and bears the title ‘How Work Changed to Make Us Passionate Quitters’. It describes the shift in how we view our individual careers, situated in a broader economic and cultural context.

“When employees are treated as short-term assets, they reinvent themselves as marketable goods, always ready to quit”

The second, ‘The Changing Nature of Careers in the 21st Century’ from Josh Bersin of Deloitte, notes market forces and the organizational responses that have made it necessary for today’s workers to take more practical accountability for their careers.

“One way to think about careers today is to consider yourself a surfer: We catch a good wave early in our life; as it crests and falls, we need to look for the next wave.”

Are people job-hopping more? While the data can seem to be contradictory, there does appear to be a decrease in tenure specific to knowledge workers.

While HR continues to focus on the challenges of engaging and retaining employees in organizations, we frequently fail to ‘zoom out’ and see the bigger context of these challenges, not only in the broader organization but outside of it.

Simplistic explanations of decreased tenures or ‘job hopping” (like attributing it to generational characteristics) overlook the contribution and interaction of more complex underlying factors, and (this is key): it ignores the role that organizations, leaders, and HR play in this system. That’s not to say we’re at fault, but if we don’t recognize our place in all of this we can’t question whether we’re influencing the system in the right way, and we’ll be locked into a cycle of reactive responses.

Historical Context

As Bersin notes, as the industrial age ended, many large companies outsourced parts of their value chain to maximize profitability and focus on their core business. This shift contributed to a decline in the sprawling business structures that allowed companies to build many-runged career ladders that had meant life-long job security.

In the decades since, we’ve seen the hollowing out of ‘middle management’ and in many cases an erosion of highly specialized corporate roles, as these shifted into professional services and specialty consulting firms:

“Big corporations have outsourced many specialized (and highly paid tasks), which can make it harder to “move up” in socioeconomic status.”

As organizations witnessed an increase in turnover of knowledge workers, many have  responded by adjusting their expectations and incorporating assumptions about the modern worker that reflect this apparent “new reality”. I think we can assume that this further reinforces the perception that jobs are merely ports of call.

“LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman believes that careers are now simply “tours of duty,” prompting companies to design organizations that assume people will only stay a few years. And data bears this out: 58 percent of companies believe their new employees will stick around less than 10 years.”

 The Changing Career Mindset 

Gershon traces the origin of the mindset behind shorter tenures to the collapse of the Soviet Union, after which US economic intellectuals embraced the views of individualistic philosophers and thinkers (in reaction to Marxism). This thinking extended to reframing the concept of a career:

“…they developed a metaphor – that every person should think of herself as a business, the CEO of Me, Inc. The metaphor took off, and has had profound implications for how workplaces are run, how people understand their jobs, and how they plan careers, which increasingly revolve around quitting.”

It was at this time that American economist Gary Becker coined the term ‘human capital’, which influenced business writers of the day:

“…business writers began to talk about how people need to think about investing in themselves, and viewing themselves as an asset whose value only the market could effectively determine. Over time, a whole body of literature emerged advocating that people should view themselves as a business – a bundle of skills, assets, qualities, experiences and relationships to be managed and continually enhanced.”

This has consequences, of course. Situating the full accountability for careers with the individual necessitates that they will become far more sensitive to risks and opportunities; they must look out for themselves.

“The CEO of Me, Inc is a job-quitter for a good reason – the business world has come to agree with Hayek that market value is the best measure of value. As a consequence, a career means a string of jobs at different companies. So workers respond in kind, thinking about how to shape their career in a world where you can expect so little from employers. In a society where market rules rule, the only way for an employee to know her value is to look for another job and, if she finds one, usually to quit.”

Bersin describes the near constant pressure that technical workers are now under to learn emerging technologies to remain relevant and competitive in their fields. This can be a challenge if one remains in the same role and organization. The necessity of staying marketable may be too great a risk to justify remaining in job for long.

Passion and Purpose

Coinciding with these historical changes were shifts in the language that workers and employers used to describe the ideal job and worker. Descriptors like ‘loyal’ and ‘productive’ were eclipsed by ”engaged and ‘passionate’.

Organizations’ desire for engaged, impassioned workers driven by more than just a pay cheque makes sense when we consider that knowledge work is largely invisible to the institution for which it is being done. Faced with the lack of a clear, real-time measurement of the labour being performed in knowledge workers heads, it perfectly logical that companies would cast about for a reliable predictor of commitment and performance. Employee engagement, or better yet passion for their work and employer has become an increasingly important quality in the ideal employee.

However, organizations’ professed desire for passionate employees often stands at odds with the lack of organizational channels for that passion to be put to good use, particularly in the long term.


For workers, the rise of the Do What You Love movement, an increased emphasis on finding one’s purpose and meaning through one’s paid professional work, the deification of entrepreneurs, and start-ups all contribute to a sense that if you don’t bound out of bed everyday to live your dream then something is wrong. Perhaps a new job would help…



When we tell workers that passion is a signal, then a lack of passion becomes equally significant. Employees are unlikely to persist in a role that fails to sustain the enthusiasm they brought with them to a new role or employer. So, when many (most?) organizations are unable to invest the effort and intensity required to continually fuel the level of passion and engagement they want from workers, the cycle of churn continues.

Think About the System

The prevailing HR wisdom often defaults to simplistic interpretations and prescriptions. People leaving? It’s the war for talent. And/or we’re not doing enough to keep them. Or those people suck. Or that’s just the way it is now, so we need to accept it.

It seems to me that we don’t usually ask big enough whys in HR. I’m trying to get better at that. It sounds sexier to call it it systems thinking (and that’s what it is). But a key truth of systems thinking is that there is no ‘out there’. The war we’re in for talent doesn’t have an adversary. We are not the good guys. We, and our challenges, are part of the same system. That means that any reaction or response is an input back into that system, and the results may not be the ones we intend. There is no one right answer, and stepping back to survey the interaction of these forces and our reactions is complicated and challenging.

This is hard. It’s not intuitive. We’re not taught to think this way in our profession, and our organizations rarely come to us with the expectation for complex analysis or thinking. More often, they expect a new program, cosmetic changes, reactive tactics, or reassurance that the problem is ‘out there’ (Millennials, a competitor). I’d like to get better at claiming the time to see the forest, not just the trees.I’d like HR to do the same.

Read This Week:

Emotional Intelligence Needs a Rewrite – Nautilus, Lisa Feldman Barrett

How do the assumptions underlying emotional intelligence as a concept hold up in the age of neuroscience? According to this article, not particularly well. Instead, the author offers another definition for emotional intelligence, based on the theory that emotions are the product of our brains unconscious, never-ending attempt to predict the risks, rewards, and implications of our interactions with our environment. Te better we can become at recognizing and clearly describing these emotions in ourselves, the more complete our repertoire of emotions we have to deal with various scenarios, and to predict them in others.

“Emotional granularity is a key to emotional intelligence. If your brain can construct many different emotions automatically and make fine distinctions among them, it can tailor your emotions better to your situation. You’re also better equipped to anticipate and perceive emotion in others in the blink of an eye. The more emotions that you know, the more finely your brain can construct emotional meaning automatically from other people’s actions. Even though your brain is always guessing, when it has more options to guess with, the odds are better it will guess appropriately.”

How Actionable Improves the World of (My) Work – Alysha DeMarsh,

You may have seen me post links to posts on Actionable’s team blog before (in large part because we have a team of kick-ass communicators and a masterful editor that together create excellent writing), but what may not be clear is that our team blog isn’t vetted by anyone on our leadership team. We don’t ask people to write posts, we don’t suggest or police topics people choose to write about, and we don’t see what team members have written until it gets published and the whole team gets a notification on Slack.

This is one way that the trust required to work in a fully remote team shows up. The wonderful side benefit is that I am always surprised and impressed to read what’s on my colleagues’ minds. This week was no different, with this excellent post from my co-worker Alysha:

“Just like that, the work I was doing took shape and played out in front of my very eyes. Due to my place in the business, I don’t often see our end product, Actionable Conversations, being implemented in order to drive lasting behavior change. However, I feel so much pride when the people in my everyday life are able to see clearly that what we’re doing as an organization has value. Because it does have value. Not just to business consultants, and not just to people in suits and ties, but to people like me.”
Learning To Learn: You Too Can Rewire Your Brain – New York Times, John Schwartz

I love this charming profile of Barbara Oakley, who co-created the most popular MOOC of all time Learning How To Learn. I’ve taken it and found it incredibly interesting and influential in how I understand my own learning process and capability.

“The studio for what is arguably the world’s most successful online course is tucked into a corner of Barb and Phil Oakley’s basement, a converted TV room that smells faintly of cat urine. (At the end of every video session, the Oakleys pin up the green fabric that serves as the backdrop so Fluffy doesn’t ruin it.)

This is where they put together “Learning How to Learn,” taken by more than 1.8 million students from 200 countries, the most ever on Coursera.”

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