How Ambition Can Torpedo Your Career

And How To Prevent It

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Is ambition a dirty word? And is it detrimental to your organization? Or has it gotten a bum rap? It probably depends. Each of us has our own unique way of approaching our careers. We need ambition to climb the career ladder, but there’s a point where it can torpedo career success.

On one extreme, are those with unbridled ambition—highly competitive with cutthroat ethical and moral values and willing to trounce over co-workers to reach their career goals. On the opposite end of the scale, are those with little ambition—lacking vision and direction and retreating from career obstacles. They take career slams personally and see themselves as victims of workplace difficulties. They stand on the sidelines and muddle through challenges, succumbing to the blows of competition and wonder why their career dreams go up in smoke.

In a way, ambition is like water. It can help or harm, depending on how you use it. Too much water can drown you, but a lack of it can also kill you. So it is with ambition. It lies in the middle in-between the extremes. Ambitious workers are neither passive nor aggressive. They’re assertive. If you’re ambitious, you possess determination and willpower with clear goals and a career plan on how to reach them. You’re energized, capable of ratcheting up your inner resources and thrive without running over others. Your optimistic nature causes you to use misfortune as fuel for motivation to perform well. You view obstacles as a challenge, instead of a threat, and look for collaborative opportunities to overcome roadblocks, ways to avoid or attack others. You can see the upside of a downside situation and welcome scenarios that offer a chance for you to learn and improve. If you’re ambitious—contrary to passive and aggressive career climbers—you’re committed to concerns bigger than yourself: the good of your team and organization.

What The Research Shows

Studies show that when you see yourself as being a cause instead of an effect in your life, you’ll have more career success. Research shows people with ambition move up the career ladder faster and farther than those in the extremes. Why? When you’re master of your fate and bear responsibility for your success, you’re able to distinguish between situations under your control and those beyond your control and choose your reaction to them. Ambitious people who stand on the shoulders of successful people who came before them tend to be perceived by colleagues more positively than workers who strong-arm colleagues or run over them to reach their goals.

A new study by ResumeLab surveyed 947 American workers to find out how ambitious they are these days and discover if ambition is beneficial for organizations in the long run or if it inevitably leads to workplace clashes and burnout. The results showed that 80% of the respondents believe ambition is a desirable trait, but when it comes to ambitious co-workers, only 53% said they like to see their colleagues be ambitious, and 46% admitted to feeling hostility when other co-workers are ambitious. The researchers summarized this paradoxical finding to mean that people in general think ambition is a positive thing, but they’re less enthusiastic about working with ambitious co-workers. They cited either fear of competition or that being overly ambitious makes people less likeable as the main reasons.

Size of the organization made a difference in how ambitious workers were perceived. A total of 54% of respondents in firms of 51 to 200 employees were most likely to feel antagonistic toward ambitious colleagues. But these negative feelings were less common in larger organizations employing more than 1,000 workers where only 27% had antagonistic feelings toward ambitious colleagues. Apparently, in bigger companies, respondents felt that ambitious peers were less threatening and less likely to undermine promotion chances.

Other noteworthy findings include:

  • Self-Perception: 74% of the respondents said they were ambitious. The group least likely to self-describe as ambitious were the self-employed. Full-time workers (77%) were more likely than part-timers (66%) to think of themselves as ambitious.
  • Career Advancement: 28% of the respondents cite managers as their biggest obstacle, 22% say unrealistic ambitions and one in five mentioned the industry they work in as the primary reasons holding them back.
  • Gender: 39% consider “ambition” to be a masculine trait—34% women and 44% men. Yet, 62% believe you have to work overtime to showcase your ambition.
  • Organizational Benefits: 46% of the respondents believe the biggest benefit to organizations employing ambitious workers is they are a positive resource and 25% said they would be an inspiration to others.

Finding The Middle Way

Whether you’re an unmotivated career avoider—fearful of sticking your neck out—or an aggressive career vigilante—running roughshod over colleagues—either extreme can backfire and become self-defeating. It’s easy to get trapped by your mind’s extremes and not recognize it. Ambition doesn’t come gift wrapped in black and white. It’s wrapped in shades of gray—that dot somewhere in-between—and known as the middle way. Research shows that when ambition is balanced, collaborative and beneficial to the common good of other employees as well as the organization, it is perceived positively and serves the collective success of everyone.

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