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How leaders can manage employees through an ‘ambition reset’

A director of change management at Kotter explains how to navigate the balance between what teams “have to” do with what they “want to” do to keep them engaged.

How leaders can manage employees through an ‘ambition reset’
[Photo: Екатерина Глущенко/Pexels]

Workplace dissatisfaction is nothing new, but the past two years have prompted many Americans to ask, “Is my job really worth it?” Some have titled this era—one in which employees are unwilling to compromise personal interests for organizational gain—as the Age of Anti-Ambition. But is it fair to claim we’ve reached rock bottom? Perhaps what the last two years have offered employees is an ambition reset.

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Whereas ambition used to be measured in promotions and salary raises, today it’s a marker of how much passion or personal pride employees bring to their roles. The pandemic prompted many of us to reconsider what matters most in life and how a career can contribute to overall well-being. Levels of ambition have changed accordingly as some step away from their jobs and others lean further into them. The result is an objectively different workforce with new expectations for their leaders. 

What an ambition reset means for the workplace

The rise and fall of ambition will have significant impact on innovation. Great ideas emerge when people explore what’s possible by stretching beyond their immediate surroundings. Steve Jobs was able to see a sleek personal computer buried in the clunky commercial machines of the 1980s because he had the time, money, and technical expertise. In contrast, when we feel constrained and unmotivated—whether it’s by workload or finances or leaders—our ability to think beyond the here and now diminishes.  

As change accelerates and increasingly complex issues emerge, great leaders will rise to the top of their organizations. Younger employees with much less experience are dictating their professional paths in ways that traditional work models and hierarchies weren’t built to handle. Tomorrow’s workplace is one of personalization, driven by leaders who can keep broader business priorities on track while catering to individual needs.  

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Likewise, promotions into leadership roles will need to come on different terms. Far too often, individual contributors ascended into leadership positions because of their strong subject matter expertise or ability to get things done. Promotions often wrongfully equated subject matter expertise with leadership capability. But this is an increasingly costly misstep that organizations can no longer afford. The same goes for promoting those who burn bridges or excel at the expense of others. Teamwork and empathy are no longer optional, especially since team-oriented leaders are important catalysts for inspiring people to care about how they show up and not just why. 

The ambition reset has also placed a timely emphasis on company values. Many of today’s junior employees are looking for jobs that fulfill both personal and professional interests. Being able to identify how one’s work contributes to something bigger makes it easier to roll out of bed with enough motivation to last through the day. Employees are looking to their workplace to create meaning in their lives. The future of work will be determined by how well leaders meet this challenge. 

Meeting the ambition reset challenge

So, what does it take to meet the moment of the ambition reset? The answer lies in fostering a “want to” mentality. If engagement declines, the “have to” attitude that dominates non-negotiable responsibilities crowds out the “want to” urge to take on exciting new projects outside our normal scope. Effective leaders balance “have to” priorities with “want to” projects that keep employees engaged. This means helping employees create meaningful connections to their company by taking a concerted interest in what they care about. Remote work has blurred the line between the personal and the professional, giving us an opportunity to be open with colleagues and respond empathetically to their needs. Going the extra mile for others encourages them to do the same for you. 

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Building a “want to” culture is easier said than done. Creating space for valued employees to try new things can be logistically challenging. However, expanding a team’s horizons can help reignite that “want to” mentality and reinforce the commitment to them. The same can be said for celebrating success at every turn. It may take time and effort to elevate a success story, but the effect is powerful. For some, public recognition or a personal “thank you” makes them feel valued and validated, feeding the desire to continue performing well. Others may be inspired to strive for better results or think about their work from another angle. 

Less intuitively, leaders can foster a “want to” attitude by creating guidelines for saying “no.” Most of us are trained to accept every work-related request and struggle to say “no” because we want to be nice or helpful. But at the end of the day, saying “no” shouldn’t mean that you aren’t committed to your work. It should mean that you’re committed to high-quality priority projects. 

The goal in an ambition reset economy should be to create a culture that fosters company-wide collaboration and empowerment. For example, Starbucks directly engages its front-line baristas to help create solutions that continuously augment the customer experience. They have historically leveraged intrinsic desires to “nurture the human spirit—one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time.” In the past, Starbucks training and management programs have repeatedly produced ambitious employees who feel proud to deliver an exceptional in-store experience.  

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Re-evaluating the concept of ambition and its role in our current work environment can fuel unimaginable success, driven by people who feel genuinely connected to and respected by their company. It’s not too late for the resulting “want to” mindset to turn so-called anti-ambition into a leadership opportunity. 


Shaun Spearmon is a director at change management and strategy execution firm Kotter.


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