What’s Your Dispassion?

heart“What’s your passion?” Lately I’m often asked this when meeting new people socially for the first time. This always trips me up. Shall I name hobbies? Family members? Questions that I am pondering? Issues that make me angry or happy? Just today I heard a woman say, “I am passionate about chocolate and cheese and wine and my dog…” When did “passion” become a buzzword in discussions of vocation or avocation? Have we become afraid of using the perfectly good word, “love”? Passion appears in more CVs, job postings and “about me” statements of all sorts. Enthusiasm for the job, a positive attitude and palpable energy are certainly important traits, but should they be job requirements? While I respect those who can be passionate about their work or hobby, I am suspicious of the passion buzzword. Perhaps it’s due in part to having spent my formative years in Japan, which as a whole is less emotionally expressive nation than the United States.

What is passion? Passion simply means a very strong or uncontrollable feeling. Being passionate means demonstrating passion or being driven by passion. The opposite of passionate is not being passionless; it is being dispassionate. When we are passionless, lacking feeling or love, this is a bad thing or at best neutral. It is hard to care if we are passionless, and harder still to succeed at something if we don’t care. When we are passionate, we are influenced by strong emotion, when dispassionate we are not. We may still have the strong emotion, but our decision-making and actions are not swayed by it. Being dispassionate does not require a lack of passion; it requires self-awareness and self-control. The danger with making a buzzword out of passion is that in essence we are saying something is right and good “because I feel very strongly about it.” It is logically impossible for every passionate person to be right, because two passionate people can have opposing views. While we can’t and shouldn’t deny the reality of how someone feels about something, when this person is in a position of leadership and influence, a strong but incorrect belief that goes unchecked leads to bad things. I feel strongly that leaders have an obligation to temper passion with dispassion.

When we pursue our personal passions, it may feel good. If we pursue it with all of our heart and soul and energy, we may feel fulfilled even if in the process we do not succeed materially, professionally or financially. The benefits of pursuing one’s passion as they are portrayed in business books are told as just-so stories, full of survivorship bias. We only hear the outstanding cases when someone followed their passion and succeeded and draw lessons from this, not from cases where being led by very strong emotion led to ruin. Thus far, promoters of the passion buzzword have not objectively made their point that passion is key to success. The stories of people who dispassionately toiled to their success are bland, not inspiring, not emotionally engaging, so we rarely tell them. It is a pity, we could learn much by listening to successful people who answer the question, “What’s your dispassion?”

To be dispassionate is to be not influenced by strong emotion, and thus to be unbiased, impartial, rational and cool. Dispassionate people are able to coolly and rationally assess situations, free from bias and prejudices, make sense of data and arrive at sensible decisions. What are you dispassionate about? This seems to me like a question that is as important, if not more, in understanding how effective and happy a person will be in their work, as a member of a community or as a friend. Behavioral economists and psychologists tell us that we are in fact dispassionate about much less than we think we are, thanks to various cognitive biases. However, “passionate” is the buzzword because the story of the benefits of optimism associated with passion is more appealing than extolling dispassionate and old-fashioned attention to detail.

Lean is all about rational management methods that are proven to work. Before there was a word for lean, Taiichi Ohno wrote and spoke about “rationalization” as the overarching process of building the Toyota Production System and transforming Toyota into a world class company. His aim was to create a culture at Toyota that valued efficiency, effectiveness, logical thinking, respected the humanity of the people, and conformed to scientific truths. By all accounts, this was a passion for Taiichi Ohno. I believe that part of the reason he succeeded was because Ohno was a very atypical Japanese person, a man willing to express his emotions and be passionate about his beliefs in how to make Toyota a better place.

There is no doubt that passion is important, both as a source of energy in our lives individually and within group efforts. What then, should we be dispassionate about, when pursuing a lean management system? Here are a few points to consider.

  • Listening to customers. It is great to be passionate about customers, serving customers and making customers happy. We must be careful not to let our enthusiasm carry over into talking too much at the expense of listening dispassionately, with empathy but without prejudice.
  • Exposing problems.  We can be passionate about discovering and solving problems, but we must be dispassionate when we expose them. It is too easy to present the problem with causes, solutions, even blame already in mind in our eagerness to solve it. Even if we love to find, expose and address problems it is important to remember that for most people not practiced in lean thinking, an exposed problem in the workplace is a potential social threat. Sensitivity requires a dispassionate approach.
  • Getting the facts of a situation. Confirmation bias helps us find facts that match what we believe, and overlook those that don’t. If passion, prejudice and bias are part of the same disease, going to gemba for some fresh air is part of the cure.
  • Evaluating countermeasures, solutions and investment decisions. In problem solving best countermeasures are found and implemented when we take the advice and counsel of others, use long-term thinking and look at options on their merits in terms of how they address root causes, rather than how we feel about a particular solution. Warren Buffet may be the past century’s hero of dispassionate selection of good investments, built on decades of good habits.
  • Self-reflection a.k.a. hansei. Looking back on one’s mistakes either on a day-to-day basis or as part of a project review can arouse strong emotions. It is okay to have these emotions, but the skilled lean leader or change agent brings a dispassionate approach to stating the facts and leading the discussion around lessons learned and future improvements.
  • Explaining our thinking process. The so-called A3 thinking process is a microcosm of dispassionate analysis, presentation, communication and reflection. Perhaps that is its most important feature.
  • Recognition of the irrationality and passion around us. While depending heavily on tools, methods and systems, lean-based organizational change and continuous improvement are deeply human endeavors. As such, strong emotion, passion and irrationality are part of the process. This is nothing to get upset about, but many people do. A dispassionate recognition of this reality is the first step towards making respect for humanity a focal point of lean.

The American psychologist and placer of self-actualization at top of pyramid, Abraham Maslow said, “Dispassionate objectivity is itself a passion, for the real and for the truth.” We should be dispassionate with a passion. Even in pursuing our passions we should temper it with a degree of dispassion.

1 Comment

  1. Rob Thompson

    May 26, 2015 - 9:20 am

    Emotion is what moves us to act. Without the desire to change something that we find unacceptable then most business decisions wouldn’t happen. But these decisions are based on unacknowledged emotional influences and biases. I agree that you have to try to separate these from solution generation.

    This dispassionate outlook reminded me of the stoic view of how “the passions” influence and cloud judgement. What the stoics advocated was a rational-cognitive approach to deciding on the best course of action.

    To make better decisions, I find that by just being aware of what emotions and cognitive biases are affecting you is a good first step. Also, collaboration is a good tool too. It’s easier to see flawed decision making in others than it is yourself.

    First learn the meaning of what you say, and then speak.
    ~ Epictetus