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You’re Ambitious!

  • 27th Aug'21

There’s a thin line between being ambitious and being aggressive. Well, not necessarily for you, but certainly for those people you encounter in your life journey … and who form perceptions about you. And, if you are female and/or a person of color, the line often is non-existent … which causes challenges if it also affects the way you think about yourself. But first, and stated most simply, one view of the difference:· Ambitious: someone intentionally attempting to reach personal goals by achieving tangible accomplishments that are beneficial to the larger organization.· Aggressive: someone who is overly confrontational and sees organizational goals through a personal lens. Here’s how it happens: People say to a woman or a minority, “you're ambitious” — and it’s not meant as a compliment. They are telling them to stop striving, stop working hard towards a goal … which is ridiculous. 


Perceptions as Hurdles

The Boston Consulting Group conducted an extensive study in 2017 to test what it calls the “stubborn theory that women are less aggressive than men.” The theory maintains that women:

· lower their career goals as they grow older and become mothers

· fail to achieve top roles at companies because they don’t want them … not because they can’t do them or because the opportunity is not there

The study was vast, analyzing employee survey data from two global BCG data sources and more than 200,000 respondents. “Our findings show clearly that women start their careers with just as much ambition as men,” write Katie Abouzahr, Matt Krentz, Claire Tracey, and Miki Tsusaka. “Ambition levels do vary, but they vary by company, not by family status. When companies create a positive culture and attitude regarding gender diversity, all women – mothers included – are eager to advance.”

In contrast, one of the findings of a global survey of 3,000 women commissioned earlier this year by American Express and The New York Women's Foundation is that there are women who start out being just as ambitious as men, but learn it’s not a good thing (for them) to be called ambitious. 

Think about this finding: The majority of women consider themselves to be ambitious, but only three in 10 (31%) overall say they are proud to call themselves “ambitious.” Their preferred euphemisms are motivated or confident.

Psychiatrist Anna Fels’ book, Necessary Dreams: Ambition in Women’s Changing Lives, is more than 15 years old, but still on the mark. 

“Even though girls’ and women’s achievements, particularly in the academic sphere, frequently outstrip those of their male peers, they routinely underestimate their abilities,” she writes in the Harvard Business Review. “Boys and men, by contrast, have repeatedly been shown to have an inflated estimation of their capabilities.”

“Paradoxically, these inaccurate self-ratings by both women and men seem to be accurate reflections of the praise and recognition they receive for their efforts.”

The impact, Fels concludes, is significant, especially in terms of the selection and pursuit of an ambition: “If you don’t think the chances are great that you will reach a career goal, you won’t attempt to reach it – even if the rewards are highly desirable.”

More recently, the debate about whether Joe Biden would select Kamala Harris as his running mate underscored perceptions about the California Senator’s “ambitions.”

“There will be a resistance to your ambition, there will be people who say to you, 'you are out of your lane’,” Harris told the Black Girls Lead 2020 conference. “They are burdened by only having the capacity to see what has always been instead of what can be. But don't you let that burden you.”


Overcome the Hurdles

Perceptions aren’t going to disappear overnight. And the thin line between ambitious and aggressive will continue to be a challenge. But there are steps you can take to not just walk the fine line, but begin to widen it for yourself and those behind you.

·      Tie your ambition to the organization’s ambition. Focus on the impact you can have – and make – on the organization’s objectives … both now and with broader responsibility. In your communication with others – at work and in all business encounters – clearly connect your ambitions to the collective goals

“Ambition is more than just personal,” writes Ashira Prossack. “There are two paths of ambition, and success is amplified when those paths converge. One is internal, where you’re striving for personal success. The other is external, where you’re striving for collective success. External ambition can be anything from helping other people reach their goals to implementing large-scale change within your organization.”

·      Develop your “servant leader” skills. Most traditional business leaders are transactional managers – that is, they are put into positions to oversee employees who are paid and provided benefits for performance. “Servant leaders,” meanwhile, believe that, by focusing on making team members successful, he or she will be successful. It’s all about “we” and lifting others.

“The servant-leader moves beyond the transactional aspects of management, and instead actively seeks to develop and align an employee's sense of purpose with the company mission,” writes Mark Tarallo on shrm.com. “Empowered staff will perform at a high, innovative level. Employees feel more engaged and purpose-driven, which in turn increases the organization's retention and lowers turnover costs. Well-trained and trusted staffers continue to develop as future leaders, thus helping to ensure the long-term viability of the organization.”

·      Excise the demon. “Impostor syndrome” is believing what an unjust society says about you. It is most common among girls and women, and especially women of color. It can hit anyone bright and ambitious and walking into unfamiliar territory. It presents as a feeling of unease, a lingering sense that you somehow don’t “deserve” your hard-earned accomplishments, that everyone else belongs except you. Some tips: embrace your feelings; tell yourself they are feelings, not reality; explain how you feel to someone and bring them into your situation; find mentors who can define success and failure for you; admit to yourself the things you don’t know and learn about them, and stop comparing yourself to others (or to idealized images). 

“The feelings of imposter syndrome can be deeply ingrained,” says Shelagh A. Mirgain of the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. “They may have developed long ago due, in part, to growing up in an environment where self-worth was tied to accomplishments. Or perhaps praise was often in the form of ‘helpful criticism,’ which could lead to a sense that nothing was ever quite good enough. The reality is that it will take time to overcome the feelings – but it is possible.”


The Journey

Ambitious people are happier and more satisfied over time. So don’t let naysayers around you silence your ambition. Yes, you are going to encounter roadblocks along the way. And misperceptions by others will take place. But, if your goals are real, you deserve to go forward with confidence in who you are and remain unapologetically ambitious.

Reference link - https://www.forbes.com/sites/shellyearchambeau/2020/09/11/youre-ambitious/#3063560b5574


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