Managing People with Low Ambition

Motivating People Who Don't Want Advancement

Managing Low-Ambition People

Some people won't have a desire to progress their careers.

© iStockphoto/ravzan

Your boss has just assigned you to lead a team with a mix of full-time, part-time, and temporary staff.

You're feeling unsure about this new team, because you sense that some of its members have no real desire to advance their careers.

You soon realize that the management strategies you've used in the past aren't going to work here. After all, you won't be able to motivate these people in the same way as team members who want to advance their careers. And you can't keep dangling a raise in front of them - your department would go broke!

So how do you manage and motivate people who have no interest in learning new skills, or advancing their careers?

In this article we'll explore strategies and tips that you can use when managing and motivating people with low ambition. We'll look at various scenarios, and we'll cover management and motivational strategies that you can use with these people.

Defining "Low Ambition"

When we use the term "low ambition" in this article, we're using the term in a broad sense. We don't necessarily mean that these people aren't ambitious - just that they don't wish to learn new skills or advance their careers right now.

For instance, you might be managing a busy parent who's working in a part-time, entry-level role, and simply wants the opportunity to earn a small wage and have regular social interaction. All of his spare "emotional energy" is focused on supporting his family.

Or, you might have a person on your team who considers her role as just a short-term job, while she waits for a convenient time to return to college to continue her education.

Even people in highly-skilled roles may be happy where they are in their careers - they've learned the skills needed to do their jobs well, and they don't wish to add to their responsibilities by climbing further up the corporate ladder.

In fact, when many of us think about the people in our teams, it's unlikely that everyone will be looking to learn new skills and advance their careers.

Common Challenges

The most important challenge when managing people with low ambition involves motivation. These people may not be motivated by learning opportunities, greater responsibility, or challenging projects; so you need to have a strategy in place to ensure that they stay motivated to deliver high quality work.

Another common challenge involves loyalty and retention. If people have no ambition to build their careers, or to progress through an organization, then they're more likely to jump ship if they're not enjoying their work. This is especially relevant to people in low-skilled roles, who have little to lose by changing job.

Management Strategies

Start by examining your own assumptions about your team members, because your perception affects the way that you behave.

For instance, if you believe that someone is simply coming to work to earn a paycheck, then you may unconsciously adopt an authoritarian management style with them. Our article on Theory X and Theory Y   will help you identify your unconscious assumptions about your team members' motivations, so that you can apply the right management style for the situation.

You can also use Path Goal Theory   to identify the most effective leadership style to apply in different situations. This model is helpful, because it helps you to choose the best leadership style to adopt, depending on your people's needs, as well as the environment they're in and the task that they're working on.

Another approach is to work on your emotional intelligence   – this will help you build better relationships with your people.


Our Book Insight on Dale Carnegie's classic book How to Win Friends and Influence People includes further strategies on building good relationships.

Motivational Strategies

Motivation is probably your biggest challenge when it comes to managing people with low-ambition. Without an effective strategy in place, your team members will not be as productive, satisfied, and loyal as they could be.

The following strategies will help.

Get to Know Your Team

It's important to get to know the individuals within your team. The more you know about their personal lives and goals, the better you'll be able to structure rewards that keep them motivated.

For instance, a good way to motivate single parents who work part-time might be to offer them flexible working hours, or on-site daycare usually reserved for full-time workers.


Our article on Coaching to Explore Beliefs and Motives   can help you better understand what drives your people.

Identify People's Needs

You can also use models such as Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs   to identify people's fundamental needs. This will allow you customize your motivational approach for maximum impact.

For instance, doing what you can to boost people's confidence can be a great motivator, and can lead to significantly increased productivity.

Increase Job Satisfaction

Use strategies from our article on Herzberg's Motivators and Hygiene Factors   to eliminate any elements that might be leading to job dissatisfaction.

A good example of this would be to get rid of an oppressive company policy such as banning the taking of personal calls at work. Trusting employees by removing these negative elements can build team trust   and create loyalty.

Also, ensure that you provide a fair and safe environment, one in which people can have great working relationships with co-workers, and one where people are given proper recognition for their achievement. You can find out more about doing this with our article on Sirota's Three-Factor Theory  

Further Motivational Strategies

  • Try to make the work environment as pleasant as possible for your team, especially for those in low-skilled or monotonous roles. Make sure that it's clean, well-lit, and comfortable.
  • According to McClelland's Human Motivation Theory  , people have different dominant motivators, whether these are the needs for achievement, affiliation or power. Learn which dominant motivators work for individual members of your team, so that you can structure rewards and praise effectively.
  • Reward your team   by simply saying "thank you" - recognition and appreciation for a job well done can be an incredible motivator.
  • If you're finding it difficult to get your team motivated then use principles from Expectancy Theory  . This helps you motivate people by linking their effort with the outcome of the project.
  • People with low ambition are often responsible for doing work which everyone else in the organization considers "low status." If this is the case in your team, make sure that they are treated equally, especially when it comes to company perks like holiday parties or leaving early on Fridays.
  • Having control over what we do is a major source of job satisfaction for most people. Whenever possible, give your workers the opportunity to choose their tasks and projects. The more control they have over their work, the more they'll own, and take responsibility for, their tasks.


To assess how well you motivate your team currently, take our How Good Are Your Motivation Skills?   quiz. This interactive quiz will help you uncover your motivational strengths and weakness, so that you can become an exceptional motivator of people.

Key Points

People with no ambition to progress their careers can have special management needs. Applying the same strategies you use with other people in your team won't be as productive or effective with these team members.

Start by identifying what truly motivates every individual on your team. Next, use this insight to tailor your motivation and rewards so that their job is meaningful and effective.

It's also important to modify your leadership style with these people. Use tools like Path Goal Theory to help you identify the best style to use with these team members.

This site teaches you the skills you need for a happy and successful career; and this is just one of many tools and resources that you'll find here at Mind Tools. Subscribe to our free newsletter, or join the Mind Tools Club and really supercharge your career!

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Comments (5)
  • Yolande wrote Over a month ago
    We're glad that you liked the article and that you found it useful.
  • Targetperception wrote Over a month ago
    I loved this article, it takes both a practical and empathetic approach to managing people with low ambition in a way that works out for both parties.
  • Yolande wrote Over a month ago
    Hi Fred

    Welcome to the forums - its great to see you posting! We're glad that you found the article useful. Being given guidance with regards to tools and having it all in one place is something that really makes MindTools a great site to use.

    Fred, please let me know if you need any help around here. We look forward to 'seeing' you round often!

    Kind regards
  • fkyama wrote Over a month ago
    Hi folks,
    This is a great article it gives a good summary of all relevant motivational tools one can use. In most cases it is very difficult to figure all these out in a short while.

    Thank you

  • Yolande wrote Over a month ago
    Hi all

    This article is a good reminder about the fact that even though people's level of motivation isn't the same, they should still be treated well. Indeed there are many tools that can be put to good use with such employees. Knowing your employees well and knowing what their circumstances are like can also help you understanding where they are in terms of ambition - and it's not to say that they will remain there forever. Treating them fairly and respectfully may be just the boost they need, even if we do get impatient and frustrated with them at times (especially if we can see potential in them that they don't see!).

    Kind regards

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