When you think of the most desirable qualities an employee can have, your mind might first go to mainstays like strong leadership skills, ambition, or work ethic. These traits are, of course, impressive and no doubt contribute to good performance, but having the ability to perform at a certain level is different than having the desire to. That's what puts passion at the top of the list when it comes to high-performing employees.

Passion drives performance

In a study of more than 450 employees at two non-profit organizations over two years, a team of researchers found that it's better to identify people who are excited to work at a company rather than try to keep people who are ambivalent or want to leave. There's actually a term for employees who want to leave a job, but instead stay and perform poorly. It's called "dysfunctional retention" and it could become more commonplace in the wake of recent hiring strategies.

With the current labor shortage, companies are instating sign-on and retention bonuses, increasing base pay, and offering other unprecedented compensation just to get people in the door. And while these recruitment techniques have certainly helped fill vacant positions, on the whole, they do not prioritize the procurement of dedicated, performance-focused, long-term employees.

According to the nonprofit employee study, knowing who is likely to enthusiastically rather than reluctantly stay is critical to organizational productivity and success. When calculating year-end financial results of the fundraisers in their sample, the researched found that enthusiastic stayers raised in excess of 40 percent more than reluctant stayers.

The factors that account for passion

According to a survey from Deloitte, passion comprises three characteristics:

  • A long-term commitment to a specific domain. This describes a person who is committed to making an increasing difference to one domain over a sustained period of time.
  • A questing disposition. When confronted with a challenge, this person becomes excited and wants to pursue that challenge, seeing it as an opportunity to reach the next level of performance.
  • A connecting disposition. A person whose instinct, when confronted with a challenge, is to actively reach out and connect with others who can help address it together.

When these attributes come together, they reinforce each other in a powerful way.

How to identify passionate employees

One of the most impactful lessons I've learned from owning a business over the past two decades is how beneficial it is to ask how employees feel about their work and workplace. Making a point to learn about who they are, how they operate, and what they think is a key to our success. I've made a habit of asking my employees for feedback that allows me to take their temperature not only about their role but about the company as a whole--for example, one thing they like about the company and one thing they'd like to see improved.

When it comes to job candidates, you're not likely to find someone who doesn't come across as enthusiastic or passionate during an interview. But how do you know if it's real? While passion is a soft skill you can't test for, here are 10 questions Orion Talent suggests asking to identify passionate employees; I think some work for existing staff reviews, as well:

  1. How do you stay up to date in your field?
  2. What's a big question you regularly try to solve?
  3. How do you connect with other professionals in your industry?
  4. What makes you most excited about this role?
  5. What is the most satisfying thing about your job?
  6. How do you define success?
  7. Why do you want to work for our company?
  8. What separates our product/service from others you've seen?
  9. What do you think is our key to success?
  10. What do you think we can do better?

What sets passionate workers apart is that they are intrinsically motivated. They may be influenced or excited by outside factors such as money or accolades, but at their core, they enjoy what they do. They are motivated by new challenges, constantly looking to improve themselves, have the best interest of the company they work for at heart, and are in it for the long haul.