Managing People With Low Ambition

Motivating Team Members Who Don't Want Advancement

Managing People With Low Ambition - Using Different Motivational Strategies

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Think carefully about how you can motivate team members with low ambition.

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 developing their careers?

In this article, we'll explore strategies and tips that you can use when managing and motivating people with low ambition.

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 improve 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 their spare "emotional energy" is focused on supporting their family.

Or, you might have a person on your team who considers their role as just a short-term job, while they wait for a convenient time to continue their education or move on to greener pastures.

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 the "next step."

Common Challenges Low Ambition Poses

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.

Beware Your Unconscious Assumptions

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.

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.

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, 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 team members.


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 to Try

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 or 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 to 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 factors that could be contributing 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.

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Also, ensure that you provide a fair and safe environment in which people can have great working relationships with co-workers, and one where people are given proper recognition for their achievements. 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.
  • 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 strengths and weakness, so that you can become an exceptional motivator.

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 for people with low or no ambition. Use tools like Path Goal Theory to help you identify the best style to use with each team member.

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 (9)
  • Over a month ago BillT wrote
    Hi Shant,

    Thank you for your question.

    I would suggest that most managers would want you to work to your full potential. If your full potential is continuing in the role you currently occupy, then so be it. Other than ensuring a satisfactory evaluation, I'm not sure what else you or your manager would need to consider.

    Mind Tools Team
  • Over a month ago Shant wrote
    So how do you manage a person who is happy with where they are and what they do? I guess I would be classified as a low ambition employee. I work in the IT field, and I get great enjoyment working as a Desktop Support Specialist. I've been offered leadership positions in the past, and my response is always the same, "I've seen the boss' job and I don't want it."

    The problem with moving up is you move farther and farther away from what you enjoy. (in my case)

    Being an IT manager/ Team lead / Project manager / etc is not my idea of a fulfilling job.

    I'm a hands on person, I like to be in the trenches where the action is.

    I'm curious how a manager would manage someone like me if I'm quite simply happy where I am and what I do.
  • Over a month ago Michele wrote
    Hi Arnoldas,

    Managing people with low ambition is challenging. As a manager myself, I have certainly had to navigate through a few situations. For me, the first step is to really get to know the person. What is it that they really want from their career? Are they happy with where they are? Some people do not want to advance or take on new work and this is OK, as long as the performance of the team is not disadvantaged or the skills and the work that they do is still needed and relevant.

    Mind Tools Team
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