Is Lack of Ambition a Bad Thing?

Is an un-ambitious employee who is diligent and reliable in his or her work, and easy to work with on top of that, a bad thing? When many companies hire new employees, questions asked include where they see themselves in 10 years. Consider the following response to that question: “Oh, I don’t know. Right now I’d just like to focus on doing great at this job I’m applying for, and then down the road, we’ll see how I feel.” What would you advise your hiring managers to think about that kind of response?

A recent study reveals that many, if not most, employees are not striving for leadership roles: Most American workers are not aiming for the corner office, according to a new CareerBuilder survey. Approximately one-third (34 percent) of workers aspire to leadership positions, with only 7 percent aiming for senior or C-level management.

A dynamic employee who is looking for ways to grow professionally is a great thing. But sometimes it seems employees can be so ambitious they overlook the importance of giving their current work their all. For instance, I once had a co-worker who was hired the same time as me, and almost immediately she was thinking of her next step. She spent her time dissatisfied, feeling that she was just waiting long enough to move on to something better. Six months after accepting the job, she left for another company, and we heard not long after that (via reference calls to our office), that she was onto another position someplace else.

One of the stereotypes about the youngest generation of workers—Millennials—is that they don’t want to put in their dues at a company, and expect to advance much faster than previous generations expected to advance. In the case of this former co-worker of mine who was a part of that generation, this stereotype held true. Do you think the prototype of the super-ambitious young employee who can’t wait to move on to something bigger is going to start negatively affecting the workforce? If there is an increase of this workplace personality, I wonder if greater challenges in employee engagement will arise. After all, how can you be engaged in your work if you already are thinking of your next step?

Personally, I thought it was great news that so many employees lack ambition in aspiring to leadership roles. It reminds me of myself. When I started in the workforce, I specifically did not want to be in any kind of management or leadership position. “Why would I want to have to worry about other people’s work?” I wondered to myself as a 20-something. I was interested in doing well at my assignments, but had no interest in managing others—it just seemed like the kind of burden that would weigh me down and inhibit my creative spirit. I’ve since grown past that phase, and now am in a managing position at a health trade publication with the possibility of maybe even a higher-level management position some day, but I can understand those who don’t aspire to anything more than their current role.

Do you think it’s important for companies to paint a picture of their ideal employee as part of their mission statement or corporate culture? For me, that idealized portrait might not specify anything about ambition or a competitive spirit. Employees who are dedicated to the job you hired them for, and want to focus on that role for the time being, might not be a bad recipe for an engaged, focused, super-productive workforce.

What is your company’s ideal employee? What characteristics are most important? How important do you consider dynamism and ambition?

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