7 Signs Your Ambition Is Getting the Best of You — And How to Redirect It

Ambition is essential to career success...but these 7 related actions can cause more harm than good.

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Taylor Tobin1.84k
July 20, 2024 at 7:12PM UTC

Now that we’re entering the third decade of the 21st century, women in the workplace are very well-acquainted with the constant cultural calls-to-arms involving ambition. We’re supposed to “lean in,” to “settle for more,” to take any and all necessary steps to get ourselves to where we want to be, both in our careers and in our personal lives. These phrases and initiatives contain plenty of merit; ambition launches careers and feeds the desire to build new skill sets and reach out for opportunities that workers in previous generations may have considered impossible dreams. 

Women and non-binary individuals should make full, unabashed use of their ambitions, but are there circumstances in which ambition can cloud our judgement and encourage us to take actions that we later regret? Read on to find seven ways of applying ambition that may work against you, along with suggestions for more productive methods of channeling that drive and momentum.

Can too much ambition be dangerous?

We’ll start with a simple and direct answer: No. “Too much ambition” is a phrase that’s highly coded with gender bias (think about it — have you ever heard anyone accuse a successful, professionally-assertive cisgendered man of having “too much ambition”?), and we at Fairygodboss don’t believe that working women (or non-binary folks... or even men, for that matter) should ever apologize for dreaming big and seeking out ways to achieve and surpass their goals.

That said, ambition can sometimes lead to choices and behaviors that counteract the end purpose of a rising career. Because personal relationships and professional reputations play a major role in promotions, raise considerations and future job applications, wielding your ambition in a way that benefits you without harming others is an essential skill to develop. If you find yourself partaking in these seven behaviors, it may be time to redirect your ambitions down more productive avenues.

7 signs that you’re misdirecting (or misapplying) your ambition:

1. You’re using dishonesty to get ahead.

It’s a common belief that a “little white lie” is universally harmless. And, to be sure, most bosses and coworkers aren’t going to freak out if you take a 15-minute afternoon break when you told them that you’ll only be gone for 10 minutes. But if you’re actively presenting your colleagues with misinformation for the purpose of making yourself look better, those choices will likely work to your detriment. Lies have a way of getting revealed, and if your supervisors come to view you as dishonest, then you’ll have a hard time convincing them to provide you with advancement opportunities. Sticking to the truth generates more workplace goodwill than creative embellishments ever will.

2. When you make mistakes, you unfairly scapegoat your coworkers.

Making mistakes at work can take a major toll on your confidence level, but it’s important to remember that we’re all human, and we all screw up from time to time. What really makes a difference is how you handle these slip-ups. If your desire to move up the career ladder inspires you to lay blame on your colleagues rather than to take responsibility for your own actions, that decision can wreak havoc on your professional image and hinder your progress. Admitting to your errors in a timely fashion and suggesting solutions displays accountability and maturity, both qualities that managers seek out when choosing employees to promote.

3. You subscribe to the “better to ask forgiveness than permission” school of thought.

Some short-sighted career advisors tell newcomers to the working world to “show gumption” by taking dramatic actions without asking for their managers’ OK. “It’s better to ask forgiveness than permission,” they’ll say, but, in truth, going behind your manager’s back and making a move that could potentially derail a project shows both disrespect and a total misunderstanding of workplace norms. Keep lines of communication open between yourself and your supervisor so that you can share your ideas while also keeping her abreast of how projects are proceeding and what steps you’re taking to complete your assignments. 

4. You hold yourself to a brutal (and unsustainable) work pace.

Do you believe that there are never enough hours in the day, and that you must accomplish your work tasks at break-neck speed in order to succeed at your job? That’s either a sign that you have a terrible manager or a sign that you’re holding yourself to an unrealistic standard. Managers want to promote and reward employees who understand their own limits and boundaries and succeed within them (and who let their supervisors know when they’re stretched too thin), and pushing yourself to the brink doesn’t communicate that necessary self-awareness. Determine what work pace makes sense for you in terms of both quality and quantity, and speak up if you’re feeling overwhelmed.

5. You become resentful of others who receive recognition and advancements that you think you “deserve.”

When your coworker receives a project assignment or a promotion that you really wanted, it’s natural to feel a bit disappointed. But if you allow those negative emotions to linger and fester until they turn into resentment, that attitude shift can irrevocably damage your relationships with your colleagues. Instead, try to translate your disappointment into forward momentum by figuring out how you can strengthen your own candidacy for future opportunities.

6. You focus on your career to the point of ignoring your friends and family.

All successful professionals know that busy periods and stressful happenings arise at work from time to time, and in those instances, it makes total sense to limit social get-togethers and log extra hours at the office. But if you find yourself consistently shoving your friends, relatives, hobbies and other non-work commitments into the background in order to focus entirely on your career, you’ll likely discover that that lack of balance can’t be maintained for very long without negatively impacting your emotional well-being. Work hard, but don’t forget to make time for the other important elements of your life. 

7. You lose sight of realistic timelines for your career growth.

Ambitious and career-driven people should always harbor high aspirations for their professional evolutions. But sometimes, ambition can derail logical expectations and cause the aforementioned (and very unproductive) resentment to settle in. For instance, your ambition may lead you to believe that you should work your way up to management level in a year, although you’ve never taken charge of a single project team and have no track record of leadership. However, if you can reconfigure your timeline and decide that you’ll head up three work projects over the next 12 months and produce excellent deliverables each time, then you’ll be well-poised to pursue the management goal when the next year rolls around. 

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