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Published on Friday, 17 May 2013
James Ash
Photo: Nora Tam
Illustration: Bay Leung

Beware the drawbacks of an overambitious employee

An employee with strong ambition is a double-edged sword. It can be to the company’s advantage to hire ambitious people who work very hard for success. It can also, however, introduce unhealthy competition among staff, create gossip, undermine colleagues and disrupt teamwork.

“I want to hire highly ambitious people, as it is best for business,” says James Ash, chief operating officer of appropriately named recruiters Ambition. “Ambition is a magnificent thing if channelled properly, but ambitious and successful people can be harder to manage. That can be the price you have to pay for more output and for the business to do better. But it’s a small price.”

Ash advises that if after hiring the energetic self-starter and independent go-getter you advertised for, you discover their ambition is overwhelming the team, you should look for practical signs to see if they do anything that is counterproductive to the business and address the problem quickly.

The manager has to look at several factors. Is this healthy ambition, which can be used to push and motivate the whole team? Is it expressed professionally? Is it due to the culture of the incumbent’s previous company, where they had to shout to be heard? Is it a generational difference or simple immaturity? Is it arrogance that creates a toxic work environment and undermines colleagues’ efforts?

“It’s important to be rationally analytical when assessing what needs improving,” says Miranda Kaur, director and trainer of Practical Workshops. “Does the employee need to be counselled by the human-resources or talent-development manager? On the other hand, if a situation pushes our hot buttons then that’s when we need to turn our gaze inwards – what is it about this situation that makes you uneasy, uncomfortable or fearful?”

She advises managers to keep a record of every action they take so that they are able to demonstrate competence and loyalty to the company if needed.

The next step is to have a conversation with the problematic staff member. Ash warns that what will really undermine the manager is not the employee’s behaviour, but that the manager doesn’t deal with it for a long time. “Address the problem early on, until the individual gets it,” he says.

The manager should find out what the employee would like to achieve and be open and up front in offering a clear business framework about where they are at the moment and how they can take the next step.

Overly ambitious staff may have an inflated view of themselves and how they are performing, so this is the time to make clear any gap that exists between what they think of themselves and what the management thinks.

Within the framework of career development and presenting clear expectations from the company, the manager can bring up the bad behaviour in question as an example of how it is counterproductive to the employee’s objectives. It should also be pointed out that if other employees don’t like to work with this member of staff, they won’t co-operate when that person needs them.

Avoid simply making an example of the bad behaviour as this is likely to add an emotional factor and accusations of “you did this and that”. Setting out the roadmap and agreeing on parameters should involve a more formal conversation, which should be supported by relaxed and informal talking conversations to get to know the employees better and understand what motivates them. These initial openings should be followed by regular conversations.

“The issue is whether you are having the conversation with these people early enough and setting expectations without having the stress and emotion of specific issues,” Ash says. “Very few businesses have that conversation. The problem of not having that conversation is exacerbated with ambitious individuals.”

He adds that businesses could do more to help managers by offering a framework and roadmap for staff and career development. If the situation is difficult, it may be helpful to involve others early, such as someone from human resources, to give advice and feedback.

Both Kaur and Ash agree that the problem is most prominent in middle management. Ash believes the transition is difficult as mid-level managers do some tasks themselves while delegating and managing others.

Kaur says: “The tone of office culture and its moral compass needs to be set and modelled at the top with senior management, because it trickles down from there to all levels of the organisation.”


Dealing with overambitious employees

  • Talk to the employee early on – don’t let the situation deteriorate
  • Ask for input and support from peers and bosses
  • Make the roadmap to career development clear and firmly mark the place of the ambitious employee on it. This will clear up any misunderstandings about their contribution to the company
  • Do not complain about single incidents of bad behaviour, but point out how counterproductive these are to career development.
  • Make it clear that colleagues will not be helpful it the employee is not nice to work with
  • Maintain conversations to get to know staff better

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