Workplace Culture

The Age of the Less-Ambitious Employee

By Staff Report

Dec. 19, 2011

Here’s another casualty of the anemic economy: employee ambition.

Thanks to stock market gyrations and more-difficult management jobs, employees today care less about climbing the corporate ladder.

In 2006, career opportunities ranked as the sixth-most important factor (out of 38 possibilities) in terms of promoting employee engagement, according to advisory firm the Corporate Executive Board Co. By 2011, career opportunities had fallen to 12th place.

Brian Kropp, a managing director at the Corporate Executive Board, says a major reason for the declining aspiration is that workers see top positions don’t necessarily come with a great financial payoff. A roller coaster stock market in recent years has made stock and stock option packages hard to count on. Employees also see that management jobs have gotten more challenging given cuts to the ranks of middle management, Kropp says.

The bottom line is that a corner office—with all its demands—is less appealing. Here’s how Kropp describes a common mindset today: “The headache isn’t worth it. I’d rather be able to spend time with the kids.”

It’s possible a broader social shift away from materialism also is at work here. “People are returning to old-fashioned values to build new lives of purpose and connection,” authors John Gerzema and Michael D’Antonio wrote earlier this year (registration required) based on extensive consumer research.

This isn’t to say workers are slacking. In fact, all indications are that employees have been putting in extra hours in what we’ve dubbed the “work-more economy.”

But workers are apparently less interested in gunning for that next job title. So what does this mean for employers? To some extent, a less-driven workforce may be a good thing. It might lead to employees who avoid stress overloads that undermine performance.

But companies also may want to rethink the way they court people for management posts. Cash compensation, rather than unstable stock awards, may be a more important part of the mix. And firms might want to consider rewards that go beyond dollars and cents. A more inspiring company purpose could help persuade someone to seek a higher, more-difficult office—the payoff is partly in accomplishing a meaningful mission.

Also worth considering: less rigid schedules and executive posts that are less all-consuming. Kropp says flexible work hours can encourage top employees to continue pursuing promotions.

“What they’re saying is: ‘If I can work the way I want to work, I’ll do it,’ ” he says. “Just a little bit of flexibility around work does wonders.”

It’s really no wonder that talented employees would opt out of a rat race where the finish line is an 80- to 100-hour-a-week job and stock options whose worth plunges every other week.

There’s another risk connected with employees stepping off the company ladder: The ones who go after and get the top posts may be less well-rounded. If leaders don’t have a life, are they really the right ones to help the firm survive and thrive?

Tricky issues, these. Corporate America, welcome to the age of the less-ambitious employee.

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