Employees with low ambition – Boon or bane?

People with low ambition need to be managed differently as learning opportunities and greater responsibilities do not motivate them. Such employees, however, bring in benefits too, point out HR leaders

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Having worked at the same IT Company for 11 years, Rohan Pandey, a back-end web developer, was the go-to person for most rookies on the team. Although he had guided and coached dozens of new joiners who had gone on to become full-stack developers, Rohan had remained in the same position all these years. He was by no means an underperformer; in fact, he was widely regarded as one of the most dependable employees. He was just content getting a day’s work done – logging in on time, delivering whatever tasks the team lead assigned him, delivering it and logging out on time.

‘Average Joes’ such as Rohan Pandey are found in nearly every organisation. They cannot be dismissed as poor performers; on the contrary, some of them are actually good at what they do. At the same time, they evince little interest in learning new skills, tackling bigger challenges, or advancing their careers — completely at odds with the high-octane go-getters incessantly working to race ahead. Do such ‘low-ambition’ employees benefit an organisation? How can leaders and managers motivate them? At a more fundamental level, is it facile to generalise them as ‘low-ambition’? Could there be other factors at play behind their ostensible lack of drive?

“There are certain distinct advantages of having employees who simply deliver what is assigned to them”

Emmanuel David, MD, Grid International India

Is it really ‘low ambition’?

Priya Adiseshan, chief people officer, Gera Developments, opines that low ambition is oftentimes confused with low performance or effectiveness at work. In her opinion, “People with apparent low ambition make a conscious choice — based on their personal circumstances — to give their careers a certain level of focus vis-à-vis other pressing matters in their life,” she explains.

Adiseshan admits to having come across employees who had different priorities — a new mother, for instance, who had taken a break and preferred working part-time; or an initially high-ambition colleague who re-aligned his priorities when his father was diagnosed with last-stage cancer, requesting for a role with lower challenges. “None of these people were less effective in their roles. They were valuable to the team in their own way,” recalls Adiseshan.

A similar line of thought is enunciated by Emmanuel David, MD, Grid International India. “If such employees are contributing to the organisation and meeting the assigned goals and deliverables, I don’t see a problem,” he says. Moreover, their lack of ambition, he opines, could be due to other factors. “Fear prevents many from taking up more responsibility,” he observes. “Is experimentation rewarded or chastised in the organisation?” he asks, pointing to a possible reason for people’s reluctance to exhibit innovation at work.

Questioning the idea of describing an employee as ‘low ambition’, David points out that everyone today is aspirational and desirous of social mobility. “While lack of self-motivation could be just one reason to explain such an approach, there could be different factors at work — such as the quality of boss-subordinate relationship,” he adds, alluding to toxic bosses who prevent employees from giving their best.

“An organisation needs doers and executors, just as much as it needs innovators and strategists. People with low ambition are usually content working on and delivering the task at hand. They want a better work-life balance. And that’s fine too!”

Tuhin Biswas, CHRO, Emami

Sparking motivation

Motivation can be a real challenge when it comes to managing people that intrinsically lack ambition. According to Tuhin Biswas, CHRO, Emami, ‘9 to 5’ itself works as motivation for such employees. Additionally, he points to the near impossibility of changing a person. “No matter what training is given to an employee who truly lacks drive and motivation, it is bound to fail. Self-motivation is necessary,” he says, emphasising how the zeal to do better must arise from within.

“At times, what drives such people is different from what motivates other people with high ambition in a typically corporate sense,” says Adiseshan, offering a somewhat different perspective. “Besides, there could be aspirations they may not feel comfortable sharing due to fear of facing bias and judgement,” she adds.

Furthermore, Adiseshan highlights the importance of managing such employees – recognising their work or rewarding them – differently. “The ‘one-size fits all’ approach will not work. At Gera, we have developed a matrix to identify colleagues with low ambition, and their pay is treated differently. We make sure to provide flexible work hours or workdays, time off to attend to an ailing parent or to prepare for an exam, as the case may be,” she informs.

Interestingly, Adiseshan stresses on the importance of a positive company culture to support such workers. “An organisation that has a culture of trust, inclusivity, transparency, and open communication will be able to accurately determine and support individualistic aspirations and motivations of employees,” she elucidates. Such a culture, in her opinion, will greatly help organisations capitalise on diverse talent and meet goals.

“People with apparent low ambition make a conscious choice — based on their personal circumstances — to give their careers a certain level of focus vis-à-vis other pressing matters in their life”

Priya Adiseshan, chief people officer, Gera Developments

Valuable in their own right

Today, it is widely accepted that every organisation needs people with different mind-sets, skill sets and attitudes. In that, do people who are less ambitious add any value to the organisation they work for?

“Certainly,” answers Biswas, asserting that an organisation cannot be made up only of exceptional, high-performing or ‘superstar’ employees. “An organisation needs doers and executors, just as much as it needs innovators and strategists. People with low ambition are usually content working on and delivering the task at hand. They want a better work-life balance. And that’s fine too!” he adds.

Biswas further opines that their natural tendency to be content, complacent and compliant usually ensures they remain loyal to their work and the organisation. “They are reliable employees and help bring stability to an organisation, raising its happiness index. They also boost overall employee engagement,” he suggests. “In fact, such employees even help lower the attrition rate in a company. Overly ambitious employees, on the other hand, are go-getters, likelier to seek greener pastures and quit the organisation, should a better opportunity come by,” he notes.

While acknowledging the value such workers bring to an organisation, Adiseshan offers a word of caution. “It is important to take into account the stage that an organization is at, as well as the role assigned to people with low ambition. A role that leads a team cannot be taken up by a person who is low on ambition” she emphasises.

“There are certain distinct advantages of having employees who simply deliver what is assigned to them,” opines David. “Since they are not high-energy, do not take initiative, and are not risk-takers, they are well-suited to certain industries that are well regulated, and where the nature of work is focussed on quality and delivery”.

David points out that it is important for managers and leaders to focus on the unique strengths and understand the limitations of such employees. “Managers should let them play to their strengths, assigning them work they can do well”.

Narrating an anecdote from his experience, David mentions an employee who was terribly upset with her poor performance evaluation and rating. “I sat her down and gave her a blank piece of paper. Although it signified a fresh start and break from the past, I pointed to the paper, saying ‘the past is also not there’”. David recalls how those words deeply impacted her, making her keep that piece of paper for a long time. “We changed her manager and that may have helped as well. Later, she went on to do phenomenally well,” he concludes, hinting at the ever-present possibility of turning over a new leaf.

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