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Don’t Mind the Ambition Gap


Most leaders see workplace trends like “quiet quitting” and “lazy girl jobs” as a threat. Here’s why it’s worth another look

Teams, Leadership, Strategy, Human Resources, Recruitment, Career Development, Organizational Life, Management

Four years into the Covid-sparked “new normal,” workplaces around the world are confronting a motivation situation.

While employee engagement levels aren’t as brutally low as at the peak of the pandemic, several studies indicate that the overall mood among workers is far from gung-ho. Fewer employees are feeling connected to their organization’s mission and purpose, which means they are less likely to — as Ben Wigert of Gallup writes in an article detailing key workplace trends for 2024 — “go above and beyond basic job demands and push toward excellence.” Gen Z and millennials now consider work/life balance the most admirable trait in their peers, ahead of (among other things) ambition to learn new skills and passion for work.

These related phenomena have coalesced into a raft of snappy, hashtag-friendly labels: first “languishing,” then “quiet quitting” and more recently “lazy girl jobs.” These terms might seem reductive or gratingly cutesy, but there’s no denying they’ve struck a lot of nerves, sparking millions of posts and reposts on social media and dominating much of the discourse surrounding the state of post-pandemic work. As a 2022 Time headline provoked: Ambition is out.

“A lot of employees are tired,” explains Tara Parry, a Queen’s University graduate who — as director of permanent services at human resources consulting firm Robert Half — is attuned to sentiment trends in workplaces across the country. “They’re tired of feeling like they do a lot of work for not a lot of return. And they’re tired of feeling that in order to get ahead, they have to commit themselves to more than what has been asked of them in their job description.” The result? Employees are showing up (or logging on) and doing what’s required of them — no more and no less. In other words, they’re putting the “meh” in “perfor-meh-nce.”

The first instinct of many leaders and managers is to see this as a problem. Quiet quitting was the top concern of managers who responded to a late 2023 poll in Belgium, ahead of such organizational imperatives as recruiting for skilled roles, tending to employee well-being, and advancing diversity, equity and inclusion. More than 80 per cent of executives who participated in another recent survey fretted about losing top performers who are disengaged.

Most leaders are, themselves, ambitious people. Since hustling hard worked out pretty well for them, they’re inclined to feel a bit uneasy around folks with a more indifferent approach to careerism, experts say.

But a bit of employee impassivity isn’t such a bad thing, and there’s no need to panic if some folks on your team don’t share your drive and zeal. Here are three reasons why.

Keeners have always been a minority

The buzz around quiet quitting et al., might suggest that we’re in a uniquely unambitious moment. It’s undeniably true that chatter about the matter is louder than ever, thanks in large part to social media. It’s also true that the pandemic recalibrated many people’s career outlooks. “In prior years, a lot of us defined ourselves by our work,” says Barry Cross, Distinguished Faculty Fellow of Operations Strategy at Smith School of Business. “That’s less of a thing now. I think more people are realizing there are other elements to who they are, and they want to be able to capitalize on those other elements in the time they have available.”

But it’s important to understand that the phenomenon of career indifference is far from new.

In fact, workers who feel hyper-energized and excited about their work have always been a minority. Gallup data going back 10 years pegs the percentage of Canadian workers who are actively engaged” at around 20 per cent. At the other end of the spectrum, a small share — never more than 14 per cent — are actively disengaged. But most people — two-thirds, by latest count — are somewhere in the middle. Put another way, the majority of people working in Canada simply aren’t fired up one way or another by what they do to earn a living — and they haven’t been for a long time. The issue might be getting more attention now, but it is not as if the supply of high achievers is dwindling.

No firm can function with only A players

When leaders are recruiting, they tend to seek exceptionality. They say they want A players, the best of the best, the cream of the crop. Indeed, it’s often appropriate and advantageous to stack a team with overachievers. But not always, and not in all roles.

“People in leadership roles tend to have the expectation that everyone should want to be driving forward in their careers, that everyone should also have aspirations to be a CEO or a CFO or an executive,” Parry says.

Not only is that assumption unrealistic, she explains, but it can also create situations that are not particularly productive. Highly ambitious employees tend to take a lot of their bosses’ attention. They require more mentorship, feedback, professional development and career planning than most. Few managers have the bandwidth to provide such support for more than a few of their direct reports. In addition, not many firms can offer the volume of senior advancement opportunities a team of go-getters needs. There simply aren’t that many executive jobs to go around.

“As employers, we have to recognize that different professionals bring a variety of benefits to a company,” Parry explains. “People who are highly ambitious and want to go above and beyond can help drive things forward and reach new heights, and people who do the job they were hired to do and perform their roles as required bring consistency and reliability. Both are valuable.”

B players are more valuable than you think

Less-ambitious workers can also play an important and often underappreciated role in team dynamics — especially during times of innovation and change. “The best creative teams are cross-functional,” explains Cross. “We tend to think of a good cross-functional team in terms of diversity of skills and expertise, but we need diverse personalities, too.” Any group working to solve a problem needs people who can see things as they really are, he continues — people who can identify missing elements, who can reflect the real needs of people affected, and who aren’t blinded by enthusiasm. “I certainly don’t want to fill the room with Type A's.”

The point should not be for employers to discourage ambition in those who have it, Cross points out, nor to set a standard of mediocrity: “Every once in a while, you need to be able to ask your team for something exceptional,” he says. “That’s what helps organizations evolve.” Rather, leaders should strive to better understand the contributions of those with more neutral attitudes towards work — even if it is hard to comprehend.

“For stability’s sake — and to be able to manage some of your own time and resources as a leader — you need to get comfortable with the idea that it’s OK to have people who might be moving a bit more slowly along their career paths, who might not want to go above and beyond all the time,” Cross says. “In fact, it’s healthy for an organization.”

Employers across all industries could do a better job of appreciating the value of less-eager team members, Parry adds. Many firms reinforce expectations that standards are to be exceeded at all times — and, implicitly, that those who don’t go the extra mile aren’t measuring up. That does a disservice to the huge category of workers who show up, do their jobs and don’t cause trouble, according to Parry.

“We, as a culture, really manifest this idea that if you’re not climbing the ladder, you’re not going anywhere, and I think that puts unfair expectations on a lot of people,” she says. “Not everybody’s cut out for that, and that’s OK. We need to celebrate those people as much as we celebrate the high achievers.”