activeemployeesAmbition is one of those words that provoke strong feelings. Is it a good thing? Is it a bad thing? When is it useful and when does it get in the way?

Some people applaud others who are ambitious and find them inspiring; some people feel jealous and intimidated and may try to undermine.

Pretty much everyone is born ambitious – it’s how we ‘get out’ in the first place and why we learn to express our wants. After that, it’s our upbringing that determines how healthy our relationship is with our inbuilt ambition. I won’t go into the psychology of it all; suffice it to say that for many the natural ambitious impulse is often minimised, muted or outright squeezed out of us. That’s why, in adulthood, many people don’t actually know how to channel their ambitions or manage other people’s reactions to them.

How many of you have either heard, been the recipient of or even said any of the following:

“He’s too big for his boots.”
“The higher they go the harder they fall.”
“Who does she think she is?”
“He doesn’t deserve the promotion any more than I do.”
“She must be sleeping with the boss.”
“She’ll stop at nothing to get what she wants.”
“He must know where the skeletons are buried.”
“I wonder who he had to step on to get to the top?”
“He only got the job because his wife knows the Chairman.”

And so on.

When I first moved to the UK over thirty years ago I was told in no uncertain terms that not only was I too ambitious for my own good but that if I showed how hard I was trying I’d look like a Head Girl. In my naivety I didn’t realise that was a bad thing!

Those attitudes are what ambitious people are up against and therefore maintaining the balance between wanting to succeed and wanting to be accepted by colleagues can be a tricky thing indeed. Not all ambitious people particularly care what their peers think or feel and plough their own furrow, as it were, without thinking twice about the impact their desire to get ahead is having. Others worry too much about alienating their colleagues and hide their ambitions or make light of them.

Neither is a particularly healthy place to be; far better to tread the middle ground where you don’t hide who you are and what you want but at the same time don’t ignore the affect you may be having.

The first thing to ask is how focused are you in your ambitions? Do you have goals that others will understand? Naked or blind ambition can provoke the kind of responses included above. Those who have a clear vision of what they want to achieve have more of a chance of bringing others along with their enthusiasm and commitment.

Let people know your plans and how they might fit into them. Even if your colleagues aren’t directly involved, people like to be in the know; sharing your ambitions is a way of including others. I don’t mean giving every detail about everything you want to achieve. More, it’s about preventing you from becoming isolated because of your ambitions.

As a matter of fact, becoming isolated can become a bit of a vicious circle: you don’t make others aware of what you want and they see your actions and interpret them as you setting yourself apart. They may even feel you don’t think they ‘deserve’ to know, and in turn they steer clear of you, which, of course, adds to your isolation. Not only that, this vicious circle leads directly to gossip – who do you think you are? – and the circle gets bigger and bigger.

Far better is to be a role model for ambition: that it isn’t cut-throat; that everyone can at least have a go at achieving their ambitions; that nice guys can even finish first.

Avoid diminishing your aspirations in order to make it OK for others. I did that when I was training as a therapist. I got terrific feedback from my tutors about my skills, insights and ability to work one to one and I ‘shielded’ my peers from all this positive feedback. I automatically assumed they would be resentful of my success, but really, I was shielding myself from the deeper assumption they would react negatively to me. I didn’t want to have to deal with the feelings I thought they would have.

Playing down what you want may also backfire if you do realise your ambitions because it will look as though you are calculating, underhand and two-faced. Far better to be up front about where you’d like to get to; it’s less confusing to yourself (“who did I tell what?”) and to others.

Although you can’t be responsible for how others feel about your ambitious aspirations, you can influence what people ‘do’ with them. In other words, if you find that a colleague is resentful or uneasy about your behaviour, you can ignore his or her feelings, you can confront the person or you can begin a dialogue so it’s out in the open and less subject to misinterpretation.

Give credit where credit is due. There is something very attractive when ambitious people mention those who have inspired them, those who have supported their journey, those who have shaped their ambitions. If you do this regularly you come across as more ‘human’, more real, more approachable because you haven’t sprung fully formed from Zeus’s head, but have been and continue to be influenced by others.

Finally, my experience is that even where there is a touch of envy in others, if you make an effort to be inclusive, to be honest about what you want and to role model good behaviour, then other people will be far more open to cheering you on rather than throwing brickbats.

About the Author

Jo Ellen Grzyb is a Founder Director of Impact Factory, a soft-skills training company specialising in Professional Personal Development.