Passion exploitation is the assignment of extra, uncompensated work to workers who care deeply.
The assignment may be explicit like your boss tasking you with something or implicit like you stepping up because you are the natural choice and everyone assumes you will.
Sometimes it comes about due to an acute reason. For example, you knew the organization’s reputation would be harmed if the work wasn’t done properly in the timeframe – so you stepped in.
It might also be due to an ongoing issue like your team being under resourced.
You might even tell yourself that there is no alternative. Your boss is grateful for your contributions and there just isn’t the money for staff pay raises or to hire additional help.
However it comes about, if your responsibilities are increasing and you aren’t being increasingly compensated, you should take a beat and consider whether passion exploitation is in play for you.
Your boss may not realize that they are doing it to you.
You may not realize that you are doing it to your staff.
The human brain likes to see the world as a fair place. So it does some strange things to rationalize when things are out of alignment.
Researchers at Duke University1 found evidence of two common beliefs that led to people legitimizing treating passionate workers worse than non-passionate workers.
The first is the expectation that passionate workers would have volunteered to work longer and harder anyway.
The second is that the work itself is its own reward.
In my experience in the social impact space, both nonprofit and for profit, the combination of purpose-driven people with enormous and pressing issues makes passion exploitation a common occurrence.
1Research Citation: Kim JY, Campbell TH, Shepherd S, Kay AC. Understanding contemporary forms of exploitation: Attributions of passion serve to legitimize the poor treatment of workers. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2020 Jan;118(1):121-148. doi: 10.1037/pspi0000190. Epub 2019 Apr 18. PMID: 30998042.
There are tons of great articles out there about boundaries - how to figure out what your boundaries are (physical, mental, and emotional), how to communicate them to others (clear not vague!), and how to respond when your boundary has been crossed.
In light of that existing wealth of knowledge, I’m going to focus today on two helpful practices that I find to be the “secret sauce” for getting boundaries to stick at work when it comes specifically to passion exploitation.
It can be hard to say no. And also, simply saying no isn’t necessarily effective on its own. Most bosses don’t respond well to it.
So how do you say no without saying no? Adopt a mindset of “yes, if”.
It can be incredibly helpful to explain the implications for your existing work, that will follow if you do say yes. For example: I’d like to be able to help out with [x]. Here’s what doing this would mean for my other work…
Since you might not know what the implications are off the top of your head, get in the practice of saying something like: That sounds like something I would enjoy contributing to, but first I’d like to check my schedule and verify that I can commit to it.
You might circle back with a response like: I’ve reviewed the current priorities assigned to me and taking on [x] would necessitate that I step back from [y] in order to make sure it got done properly. Here are my ideas for delegating/deferring/pausing or reducing the scope of [y].
If you were caught off guard and already said yes to something, you might try: I know I said yes, but I had not considered the other things I have going on. I can’t add anything else to my task list.
When you get an ad-hoc request from your boss: I’d love to help out, but I still have roughly [number of hours] hours left on [task 1], [task 2], and [task 3] that I’ve been prioritizing this week before our [due date] deadline. Let me know if [insert request] is higher-priority, and I’d be happy to switch gears!
Now, sometimes bosses react poorly to staff who communicate their realistic work capacity. This often happens when they are underdeveloped in their own managerial skills.
Skilled managers accept the reality that adding more work to someone’s plate means that other work cannot also get done at the same time.
If you are dealing with an unreasonable boss in this capacity, I empathize with you. Sometimes change is possible for them if you practice managing up and holding your ground long enough. Sometimes you have to look for a different career opportunity and leave that person’s leadership domain.
To avoid passion exploitation going forward, you must believe that your own well-being is just as important as your mission-driven work and you need to act accordingly as demonstrated by the choices you make.
If you say your health is important to you, but you deprioritize scheduling or going to health care appointments when work gets busy, then you aren’t acting in alignment with your belief. This misalignment always causes cognitive dissonance. Over time it is resolved either by you changing your belief or changing your action.
If you are in a burnout situation or find your passion is being exploited, then more often than not it is your belief that has changed – and not in a healthy way. What you actually believe is “My health is something I can attend to later. It is not as important as work right now.” which is congruent with your actions.
Here are a few questions to consider.
If you’re interested in doing something outside of your job description or taking on extra work because you anticipate an outcome that will ultimately serve you (e.g., promotion, career opportunities), then perhaps it makes sense for you to do so.
Just make sure you are intentional about it and periodically reevaluate your circumstances to see if you are moving forward or just doing more work.