November 2014

Passion, Competence, Alignment and the Game of Golf

By John W. Myrna

John W. MyrnaEmployee engagement is a hot topic in strategic planning meetings. Jack, the manager of hospital operations, commented on the lack of employee engagement at his institution: “What do you expect? Most of the jobs are repetitive and boring. How can someone get excited about being in that kind of job? Their only hope is to be promoted to a more interesting position—but we don’t have more than a handful of those available each year.”

I challenged Jack with a stock response I’ve developed over many years of hearing this argument: “Consider the game of golf. Can you think of anything more boring than that? You use one of a maximum of 14 clubs to hit a ball and then walk to where it landed. Hit, walk, hit, walk, hit, walk. Imagine having to do that more than 72 times in a row for the four to six hours it typically takes to complete one game. That’s boring and hard.”

The CEO piped up: “Are you crazy John?” (I’d forgotten that before he took over as CEO, Carl had been a professional golfer on the PGA tour.) “Golf is anything but boring. People are passionate about the game. There are waiting lists for tee times, avid audiences following it on TV, and every golfer wishes they had more time to spend playing it.”

“My point exactly,” I said. “But consider how a boring task like hitting a golf ball can generate such passion.”

The difference between employees with “platinum-level” performance and employees with “lead-level” performance is not based on whether employees are good or bad, but rather on the fit between the employees and the definition of their job. Platinum-level employees are passionate about their jobs, highly competent, and find that the job’s demands align with their personal needs. Lead-level employees are at the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of passion, competence, and personal alignment. (See “Platinum or Lead? Check Your Passion, Alignment, and Competence” on The Conference Board’s HCE blog.)

The question is, how do you generate passion, assuming the employee has sufficient competence and the demands of the job align with their personal interests? That’s where the golf analogy comes into play. I asked the CEO, “What is it about the boring and difficult game of golf that generates passion?” The CEO’s answer was simple, “golfers like to play golf.”

Paul A. O’Keefe, a social psychologist and postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University, studied the psychological effect of liking or disliking your work (see “Liking Work Really Matters” on in The New York Times.) His research has identified strategies for taking a “boring” activity and making it interesting:

  • Make it personally relevant and valuable. It’s important that you not only know what needs to get done but why it’s relevant and valuable to you and your company.
  • Social engagement in activities fosters interest. This can take the form of competition or collaboration.

O’Keefe found that people who thought their tasks were highly enjoyable and important not only performed among the best, but solved the most problems without becoming mentally exhausted. In contrast, those who were uninterested in the task generally performed worse, and were mentally fatigued by the effort.

Consider borrowing a page from the game of golf.

  • You keep score. This enables you to track your performance against yourself, your playing partners, and the published standard.
  • You have social engagement, sometimes collaborative and other times competitive.
  • You have regular assessments. Your handicap is updated twice a month. You can compare your personal performance against local, regional, and national groups.
  • You are motivated to improve your standing in your peer group.
  • You are motivated to improve your game. Tracking your handicap compels you to improve your published performance.
  • You can be recognized for improved performance through various competitions, titles, and awards.

The Engagement Prescription
You can dramatically improve productivity and job satisfaction by re-engineering positions to function more like a game such as golf. Create effective productivity measures. Provide multiple opportunities for cooperative and competitive social engagement. Continuously strive to make the job personally relevant and valuable. Celebrate improvement with recognition, including titles and awards.

Staff the position with people who have the potential to perform at a platinum level. Choose people whose personal interests align with the needs of the re-engineered job in terms of hours, challenge, and opportunities for personal and professional growth. You also want people who have sufficient competence to meet the job’s current standards, and who can embrace the job with passion and truly like the work.

John Myrna is the author of The Chemistry of Strategy: Strategic Planning for the Not-Yet-Fortune 500, and a management consultant, coach, and facilitator. He can be contacted at or visit