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Dealing with low ambition

What to do when someone in your team is not motivated or ambitious enough

Daniel Jarjoura

At critical moments in time, you can raise the aspirations of other people significantly, especially when they are relatively young, simply by suggesting they do something better or more ambitious than what they might have in mind. It costs you relatively little to do this, but the benefit to them, and to the broader world, may be enormous.” - Tyler Cowen

I recently came across this quote from economist Tyler Cowen, and it made me think a lot about my favourite practice as a professor and a coach: raising the ambition bar. In 99% of the cases, the person I have in front of me, whether she is an engineering student, an aspiring entrepreneur or a seasoned engineering manager, has their ambition constrained by what she thinks she can achieve, not her actual abilities. When you unlock someone’s ambition, they can end up achieving much more than what you would have thought, like these former students of mine, who went from having built a cool app to making it a serious business and becoming millionaires before graduating.

In the office, managers can also use their team members’ ambition as a lever for skills development and personal growth. But when someone is unwilling to change their ambition level or has no ambition at all, what do you do? And if you’re a manager and that person is in your team, how do you motivate them?

Theory X and Theory Y

When dealing with team members with low ambition or motivation, the main danger for a manager is to fall into a “Theory X” type of thinking. Defined by MIT management professor Douglas McGregor in the 1960s, Theory X and Theory Y are theories of human work motivation and management. According to McGregor, Theory X managers believe their employees are less intelligent, lazier, and work solely for a sustainable income. Because they don’t believe team members can achieve more than just showing up at work, Theory X managers will have a hands-on management approach (the infamous micromanagement). They will give them tasks to complete and verify the work. Theory Y managers instead have an optimistic opinion of their team members. They have a growth mindset and believe anyone can improve given the appropriate motivators (and without psychological blockers). Money is the most common motivator, but is it?

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

Several studies done in the early 2000s had found that the traditional reward system (higher pay and bonuses) resulted in better performance only when the task consisted of mechanical skills. But when it involved cognitive skills, decision-making, creativity, or higher-order thinking, higher pay resulted in lower performance. How can that be? In his now-famous 1943 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation”, psychologist Abraham Maslow defined a hierarchy of needs consisting of physiological needs (lowest level), safety needs, love needs, esteem needs, and self-actualisation (highest level). According to Maslow, a human is motivated by the level they have not yet reached. So you can’t start working on self-actualisation unless you fulfil all of the lower levels. For Daniel Pink, the author of Drive, when you pay people enough “to take the issue of money off the table”, this is when they can concentrate on higher needs in the Maslow hierarchy.

So if someone has no ambition anymore, it might mean that they’ve achieved all their psychological needs (or what they think/they’ve been told should be their needs). If this is indeed the case, a good starting point for the conversation is to understand why they think they’ve “made it”.

Sometimes fear (of failure, disappointment or embarrassment) can unconsciously lower our bar. Sometimes it’s linked to our education. If we grow up with someone (a parent, a teacher) telling us that we’re losers or we can’t make it, we’ll end believing it (also called the illusory truth effect). Sometimes it can just be the lack of knowledge, especially for minorities. If you don’t know anyone who achieved great things and looks like you (a role model), you might not think you can do it. Through tactful questioning, you will be able to understand what’s blocking them and start working on a plan to create new motivation levels.

Futile motivational care

When it comes to motivation, both the manager and the team member have to be committed. As a manager, you can’t raise someone’s bar if you don’t believe they can do it. It’s the initial condition. But, most importantly, you cannot instil ambition in someone who is quite content with their situation or doesn’t believe they can make it. When you come across a case of motivational anosognosia, like a doctor facing futile medical care, you also have to take the right decision for your team. While you can’t raise everyone’s bar, you definitely shouldn’t lower your overall expectations for the team.


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  • Everyone has motivational triggers above basic money needs; you just need to find them
  • When someone is not motivated, they might be blocked by fear, false beliefs about themselves or just lack of knowledge of what they could achieve
  • You can’t motivate someone against their will

Reading List

[BOOK] Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us - Daniel H. Pink

[ESSAY] The high-return activity of raising others’ aspirations - Tyler Cowen

[VIDEO] Bonuses don't motivate employees - Dan Ariely

People Management