The Office Blend Blog

Why We Shy Away From Ambition

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A dream without ambition is like a car without gas… you’re not going anywhere. – Sean Hampton

What do you think of when you hear of an individual described as ambitious? Do you think of someone who is motivated or competent? Someone who has worked through obstacles and barriers to achieve success? Possibly. Yet, it is just as likely that you entertained negative thoughts or even recoiled. Ambition — for better or worse — is a trait that is often associated with the need for power, rather than that of achievement. (You can see McClelland’s work here).

Why ambition is viewed in this manner begins with philosophical discourse. Over the centuries ambition has often been maligned in favor of more lofty, inspirational endeavors. The very process of envisioning and striving for goals and success, is often viewed a hollow and empty path. This is often evident in the stories that we share.

Consider the plight of Andrea, the young journalist in The Devil Wears Prada, as she embraces the opportunity to work as the assistant to the extremely powerful Miranda. While she may have progressed in her work life, the accompanying disappointment of her inner circle knew no bounds. (The situations she faced portrayed ambition in the most negative light possible.) Ultimately, she was forced to choose between those in her innermost circle or her future. In the end, she earned her place as a journalist. However, she did so at great cost. Her ambition was portrayed as ending in powerful loss.

I can’t help but wonder — is there a kinder, gentler version of ambition that we can all live with?

Ambition seems misunderstood.

In the world of work, the notion of personal ambition is either maligned, stifled or glorified. There is no in-between. No shades of gray, where we can meld our current work lives with the need to manifest that ambition. With the exception of the few that have openly discussed ambition (Hogan, for example), there isn’t a landslide of research to shed light on the topic. Ambition has largely been ignored. But why?

Occasionally, one encounters a concept that is pervasive yet, poorly understood. – Judge & Kammmeyer-Mueller, 2012

In fact, personal ambition is offered a very narrow lane. Only accepted for the likes of tech founders or CEOs. For the rest of us, the connotation is murky, often negative and rarely supported. Why? I would venture to say that a couple of reasons lead the pack.

#1: Stereotypes. For some reason we view ambitious people as unscrupulous or uncaring. However, if your think of the people you admire most, you’d likely characterize them as ambitious. Why? because you admire what they were actually doing, the end result.

#2: Fear. We might envision that manifesting ambition would catapult us into hand-wringing situations that we can’t handle. Situations where we must make choices that are overwhelming and wrought with risk. Yet, work life usually unfolds in stages. One step grows into the other, as we learn and progress.

Judge & Kammeyer-Mueller (2012) discuss in their article entitled On the Value of Aiming High: The Causes and Consequences of Ambition, that indeed ambition was related to positive career outcomes (best predicted by neuroticism, extraversion, and conscientiousness). They also muse that ambition is largely viewed negatively by authors and philosophers alike.

“Ambition is discussed by numerous philosophers, with those seeing it as virtuous (Santayana, Kaufmann) apparently outnumbered by those who perceive it as vicious (Aquinas, Locke, Rousseau). “

So, it seems we have a love-hate relationship with ambition, with no in-between. No version exists where we can blend our deeply valued goals with some fantastic version of the future. In fact, personal ambition is offered quite a narrow lane. (It seems only to be accepted for the likes of tech founders or CEOs.) For the rest of us however, the connotation is murky and often negative.

Yet, the act of ignoring ambition can also cause problems. We’ve all suffered through periods of time that we could label as a “crisis of contribution”. In many cases, what we envision to accomplish through the application of our strengths — doesn’t align or manifest within our work. This leaves us in a state of frustration or dissatisfaction.

I’m convinced it could be ambition grumbling to do more.

Waiting for its chance in the sun.

Ambition should be embraced, as it could provide the spark of so many great things.

It’s definition should be broadened to include not only power, but progress.

Moreover — I’m convinced it is not always blind.

Dr. Marla Gottschalk is an Industrial/Organizational Psychologist, where she currently serves as an Organizational Development Advisor at Gapingvoid. She is a charter member of the LinkedIn Influencer Program and her thoughts on work life have appeared in various outlets including Talent Zoo, Forbes, US News & World Report, Quartz and The World Economic Forum.

The Ask: What Would Help Your Work Life?

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Leadership Development is All About Layering

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Photo by Joel & Jasmin Førestbird on Unsplash

The challenge of developing leaders can loom as a daunting prospect.

Contributors aren’t prepared to lead others when the opportunity arises, and the cascading effects quickly compound. One reason that might explain the predicament, is an underlying belief that early career experiences and leadership roles are completely distinct entities. In reality, many of the skills required for success at various career levels, overlap and remain critical over time. If we could approach development as a “layered” phenomenon — building core strengths over a longer period of time — we could take a fresh approach to development.

Leadership readiness doesn’t materialize as the result of completing an inflexible, structured development program. Becoming a capable leader is an evolution — a co-mingling of training, coaching, and exposure to the types of challenge that offer the opportunity for both insight and growth.

As discussed in the research of Zenger/Folkman, we have made a habit of unwisely delaying when developing leaders. While we often begin managing others in our 30’s — focused leadership development may not begin in earnest until much later. This creates a precarious skill gap, which can leave an organization both under-powered and unprepared. In fact, we should begin nurturing future leaders much sooner, reinforcing key skills acquired along the way. This would address the “layering” of skills necessary to build a strong potential leader bench. Identifying potential leaders in this manner, has a number of key strategic advantages; the first of which is improved succession planning.

Additional research discussed at HBR, illustrates this layered dynamic quite clearly. Some of the skills required to progress through levels of management, may be more stable than previously considered. While specific skill emphasis may change with level — certain skill sets remain front and center for the long-haul. Thinking strategically, for example, is a perfect case in point as it is often associated with high level leaders. But, as discussed by the researchers, “…there are a set of skills that are critical to you throughout your career. And if you wait until you’re a top manager to develop strategic perspective, it will be too late.”

Testing developing capabilities with techniques such as stretch assignments (aligned with organizational initiatives and coupled with their current role) should also serve as an integral part in development. This offers opportunities test skills on the “open road”. However, within modern organizations, retaining talent longer-term, becomes a critical obstacle. Here, transparency and a mutual exchange agreement become crucial. We should consider making a commitment to those with considerable promise openly — offering the stability they need to hunker down and become emotionally invested.

Here are few other early development topics we could consider:

  • Delegating. Often a sticky subject, delegating confidently demands that we strike a delicate balance between time and control. If we don’t allow others the opportunity to handle the tasks at hand, we risk squelching motivation and our own potential to lead.
  • Persuasive Communication. Becoming an effective communicator remains a core skill set throughout our work lives. This becomes especially critical as we move toward leadership positions.
  • Conflict Management. The capability of facing difficult or uncomfortable challenges, head on — is critical. Developing this skill often takes time and mentored practice to master.
  • Awareness of Functional Links. Organizations are comprised of many moving parts. Becoming keenly aware of the inter-dependencies is a critical skill as we move toward a leadership roles.
  • Alliance Building. Leading is essentially knowing how to collaborate and build positive, lasting bonds with those that around you. If you cannot inspire energy toward a meaningful goal, your leadership “quotient” is limited, at best.
  • Global Awareness. In this day and age, leaders need to consider global reach. Developing a honed industry-wide perspective, is vital to move forward.
  • Idea Management and Intrapreneurship. Team contributors desire opportunities to explore their ideas and spread their wings. Having the ability to identify, evaluate, champion and execute the ideas of the team, is critical.

What are the challenges your organization faces with leader development?

Please note: This post previously appeared at LinkedIn. It was time to share this content here.

Dr. Marla Gottschalk is an Industrial/Organizational Psychologist. She is a charter member of the LinkedIn Influencer Program. Her thoughts on work life have appeared in various outlets including Talent Zoo, Forbes, Quartz and The Huffington Post.

Your Network Should Be a Community

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If you want to understand the difference between a network and a community, ask your Facebook friends to help paint your house. – Henry Minztberg

I have spent the last ten years working remotely. I have been fortunate. My interest in writing about work life has provided the opportunity to connect with a set of contributors that I only dreamed of. On the surface of things, you might think this solves every network-related issue that I would encounter. Yet, that would be a false assumption. When it comes time to hash out an idea, I often find myself in a quandary. Who might be willing to offer feedback? Who has the time?

Sadly, my living-large network begins to show signs of distress.

We’ve all heard the advice that a network is vital to work and career. Yet for most of us, the potential members of that network — and what they should bring is unclear. We all seem to have at the bare minimum, a loosely connected group of we might label as a “network”. That network may alert you to important developments in your line of work, events or even job opportunities relevant to your path. But, what if that network isn’t supplying what you need to grow and evolve as a contributor?

I believe the difference lies in the notion of a network vs. a community.

In the opening pages of Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell tells the story of a small town in Pennsylvania which on the face of things, had defied all medical odds. The presence of heart disease was nearly absent in its population under the age of 65 — something quite unusual — and no one was able to explain this peculiarity. Examining diet, exercise and genetics of Rosetans offered no clues. They smoked heavily and ingested a fat laden diet. Family members living in other areas did not enjoy the same health outcomes. What was going on?

The identified explanation was surprising, even shocking. However, in retrospect it is an element that should have been in the forefront all along. It was the protective environment — which influenced health and well being. It was the very culture of Roseto itself. The built community that supported its residents, that made all the difference.

Huh.

In light of this, you may need to re-evaluate that network, disassemble portions and include needed aspects of a community that will help you thrive.

You see a network — is not a community.

There are conditions that might alert you that your network is falling short.
Here are a just few:

  • Ideas are no longer central. There should be opportunities to not only learn new things, but the opportunity to present and evaluate your own ideas. If the latter element is missing, you are essentially standing still.
  • A lack of sensed commitment to your well-being. Social media might facilitate large career-focused networks. However, large networks do not guarantee a group of individuals that support you. While networks should be mutually beneficial, if the focus is exclusively “transactional”, an important quality is lost.
  • A safety net. Communities should offer a sense of psychologically safety. If safety isn’t present, it isn’t likely you’ll share the problems or challenges that make or break a career path.
  • A lack of honest feedback. None of us would find it easy to grow, without feedback or advice. Functioning in an echo chamber — with only our own thoughts and opinions — isn’t won’t suffice.
  • The belief criterion. It is imperative that you surround yourself with those that you feel truly feel believe in you. If you sense this is missing, consider altering your line-up. If not, you may hear their lack of confidence reflected in your own thoughts.

Look to your network to also serve as a community of advocates.

As human beings we need this.

It is not an unreasonable request.

Dr. Marla Gottschalk is an Industrial/Organizational Psychologist. She is a charter member of the LinkedIn Influencer Program. Her thoughts on work life have appeared in various outlets including Talent Zoo, Forbes, Quartz and The Huffington Post.

Fuel for Your Work Life: The Top Ten of 2018

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Photo by Nicate Lee on Unsplash

I’m more than a little obsessed with identifying reading (and listening) material, that can strengthen your work life. I also realize there is a lot out there. So, I thought you might find a curated list helpful.

Here are 10 of my absolute favorites from 2018:

  1. The 10X Lesson, Seth Godin.
  2. How to Identify and Tell Your Most Powerful Stories, Nancy Duarte.
  3. Belief is Your Next Wicked Leadership Problem. Here’s How to Solve It, Neil Bedwell.
  4. How to Find the Person to Help You Get Ahead at Work, Carla Harris, TED Talks.
  5. The Business Case for Engagement That All CEOs Must Read, Benjamin Schneider.
  6. Vacation is a Poor Substitute for Leisure, Paul Millerd.
  7. The Disrupt Yourself Podcast, Whitney Johnson.
  8. A Blinding Flash of the Obvious, Tom Peters, Insights by Stanford School of Business.
  9. How Winning Organizations Last 100 Years, Alex Hill, Liz Mellon & Jules Goddard.
  10. Resilience is About How We Recharge: Not How We Endure, Shaun Achor & Michelle Gielan.

Recommended book* pick of the month. Why this pick? You might think that marketing isn’t applicable to your work life, but you would be absolutely wrong! Seth Godin explains why — in no uncertain terms.

Dr. Marla Gottschalk is an Industrial/Organizational Psychologist. She is a charter member of the LinkedIn Influencer Program. Her thoughts on work life have appeared in various outlets including Talent Zoo, Forbes, Quartz and The Huffington Post.

You Should Answer These Work Life Questions Before 2019

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There are as many work life journeys — as there are contributors. All paths can be fulfilling for the right person. However, feeling comfortable with our work lives essentially boils down to one enduring dynamic: what we invest (time, stress, emotional investment) vs. the outcomes (pay, recognition, joy, feelings of accomplishment, sense of community) that emerge.

It is the exchange that is vital. If there isn’t balance, we might begin to feel exhausted. Drained of motivation. Frustrated. Fast forward and become completely disengaged. The beginning of the end.

So, I’ll pose the following questions:

Is the exchange agreement of your work life working for you?

If not, what needs to shift to bring some measure of balance?

What would you like to see more of in your work life in 2019?

Dr. Marla Gottschalk is an Industrial/Organizational Psychologist. She is a charter member of the LinkedIn Influencer Program. Her thoughts on work life have appeared in various outlets including Talent Zoo, Forbes, Quartz and The Huffington Post.

Managing a Team? Turn the Small Changes Into Small Wins

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I’m a huge fan of small wins when it comes to organizational change. (I believe Kotter is as well. Read his iconic article here). I’ve watched small wins reignite hope and forge forward progress.

I’m also a fan of Seth Godin. (If you know me well, this isn’t a much of a secret.) Not a professor of organization theory, or a psychologist — he has an uncanny ability to distill a semester’s worth of readings concerning organizational topics into a few profound paragraphs. I suspect he has an innate sense that allows him to fully understand human beings.

Here is an except from a recent blog post:

Chronic
The worst kind of problem is precisely the kind of problem we’re not spending time worrying about. It’s not the cataclysmic disaster, the urgent emergency or the five-alarm fire. No, the worst kinds of problems are chronic. They grow slowly over time and are more and more difficult to solve if we wait…Seth Godin

You see it is the small things — those micro-events that repeat over and over again — that define an organization. It is the small things that speak volumes about a brand, to clients, customers and employees. Conversely, it is the small things that can become chronic points of contention. They are the overlooked bad habits of your team or organization. The less than stellar experiences that leave your organization weakened.

It is also the small things that offer us a tremendous opportunity to build trust and devotion among our customers & clients. These seemingly small events, can offer the possibility of growth and connection. They allow an organization to build a more worthy foundation. A stronger future.

My opinion concerning the smalls things isn’t random. It developed after years of observing the repeated ineffectiveness of top-down organizational change efforts. There are clear reasons that 70% of transformation efforts fail. Deeply connecting people to change is one looming abyss that we must consider. Why should they invest — if they feel they aren’t a part of the solution?

The small things are not a detached, heavily engineered project that must be monitored, poked and prodded, to affect change. They are simple. They are owned by your team. Those that know the work.

These small things are a gift.

These small things — can become the small wins that matter.

The wins that drive positive change.

I challenge you (your team, your department) to identify 5 “small things” that would make a huge difference to your customers, your employees, your patients. Find a way to transact these opportunities into a re-imagined reality.

Build that new habit, which changes the entire game.

You see, the small things — really aren’t small at all.

Have you applied this technique? Share your experience with our community.

Dr. Marla Gottschalk is an Industrial/Organizational Psychologist. She is a charter member of the LinkedIn Influencer Program. Her thoughts on work life have appeared in various outlets including Talent Zoo, Forbes, Quartz and The Huffington Post.