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Ambition in the US Workforce: Comprehensive Study [2020]

How ambitious are American workers in 2020? Is ambition beneficial to organizations or can it lead to conflicts and burnout? Here’s what our study revealed.

Ambition in the US Workforce: Comprehensive Study [2020]

ambition in the workplace

Type “motivational quotes” into a search engine, and you’ll get thousands of Instagram-filtered stock photos typed over in Helvetica, all of which could be summarized by “BE AMBITIOUS.”

But what does ambition, in essence, mean to us today?

A brilliant 2013 qualitative study by the Radboud University Nijmegen analyzed focus groups’ narratives centered around ambition and suggested that the key interpretations of it are associated with:

  • Personal development or mastery of a skillset,
  • Upward career mobility.

In our study, we wanted to see if there was another, purely competitive approach to ambition. More importantly, we wanted to identify the best way for organizations to make the most of an ambitious workforce.

We surveyed 947 working Americans to find out all that. Read on to see executive summaries of our findings on our infographics and a more detailed breakdown below them.

What does ambition mean to today’s workforce?

what is ambition

At first, we wanted to confront existing research with reality and see if ambition, as a trait, is focused on outperforming others, rather than bettering oneself. Turns out, not so much.

According to our respondents, ambition can be most accurately defined as:

  • Striving for an achievement, distinction, or power (53%)
  • A desire to develop and grow (43%)
  • The will to be better than others around you (4%).

Whatever your personal interpretation of the trait, it seemed safe to assume that ambition is perceived positively. The results of our survey confirmed that: 80% of Americans said they thought ambition was good, 18% were neutral about it, only 1.5% thought it was negative.

Makes sense, right? But—

Then, we asked what people thought about having ambitious colleagues. Only 53% thought ambition was a desirable trait in their co-workers!

In other words: we think ambition, in general, is good. But we’re less enthusiastic about working with people who display it. Either due to fear of competition or because being overly ambitious makes people less likeable. As one of our respondents phrased it:

At a point in my career, I was trying to show my superiority over my peers so much that it made me completely unlikable (I'd hate myself, too). It got me the promotion I was after but the chemistry within the team was never the same.

The industry in which having ambitious colleagues was perceived most favorably was Education (62%). People working in Healthcare were least enthusiastic about working with ambitious peers (47%).

So we’re not as keen on ambitious colleagues as we are on the very notion of ambition. Do we show that in any way, though?

Turns out, 46% of Americans have, at some point of their lives, felt hostility towards a colleague for displaying ambitious behavior. There were no major differences between genders and age groups, yet the size of one’s organization seems to matter: 

  • People in firms of 51 to 200 people are most likely to feel antagonistic towards ambitious colleagues (54%). 
  • It is least common in largest organizations employing 1000+ workers (27%).

In other words, when you work for a big organization, you have no reason to worry about overly ambitious peers—they’re unlikely to undermine you or hamper your promotion chances because promotions are strictly related to your professional results.

However, the data presented above stands in stark contrast to the results we got in our survey. When asked if their companies have transparent rules regarding promoting top-performing employees, those employed in the largest organizations were least likely to agree:

  • 71% of people employed in organizations of 1–10 people said their companies were transparent about their promotion policies.
  • 68% employed in organizations of 11–50 people said so,
  • 83% in organizations of 51–200,
  • 65% in organizations of 201–500,
  • 66% in organizations of 501–1000,
  • Only 50% in organizations of 1000+.

We then went a step further and asked our respondents if they have ever purposefully refused to help a colleague in order to undermine them or secure their own position: 29% of Americans said they have.

  • It was most common amongst those employed in Business and Finance (42%).
  • Least common in Healthcare (17%).

And it’s quite reassuring, isn’t it? Healthcare workers seem less likely to go for dirty tricks in internal organizational politics because, after all, human life is at stake.

Interestingly, Americans don’t associate ambition with professional life only. In fact, 63% of our respondents thought that being ambitious had more influence over one’s personal success than professional success. 

However, we found significant differences between people with different levels of experience. In short, the more years of work history you have behind your belt, the less likely you are to believe ambition brings more value to your personal than professional life:

  • 78% of those with <2 years of experience thought ambition was more important for personal success.
  • 67% with 3–5 years of experience.
  • 65% with 6–10 years of experience.
  • 55% with 10+ years of experience.

How can ambition contribute to organizational success?

ambition in organizations

So far, we’ve learned that ambition, overall, is perceived as a “positive” trait. Cool, but that’s still fairly intuitive. What good can it actually bring, then?

When asked about how exactly organizations can benefit from employing ambitious individuals, Americans highlighted those aspects:

  • A productive resource: 46%
  • An inspiration for others: 25%
  • A clear choice for promotions: 20%
  • An opportunity to demand larger outputs: 9%

Turns out, the most common answer focused on the very instrumental aspect of ambition: the fact that it makes you work hard, thus, increasing your productivity. Simple as that.

There is another study, published by The Tavistock Institute in 2013, that very much confirms our survey’s results. When discussing their own ambition, participants of the study highlighted individual development, mastery of the task, and career achievements. However, when discussing ambition in others, they focused on the value of “ambition as a resource.”


Do Americans think they’re ambitious?

A whooping 74% of respondents thought they were, indeed. The group least likely to self-describe as ambitious were the self-employed (62%). Full-time workers were more likely than part-time workers to think of themselves as ambitious: 77% vs. 66%. 

There were no significant differences between genders and age groups, yet some interesting discrepancies across different industries:

  • 89% employed in Manufacturing self-evaluate as ambitious,
  • 82% in Healthcare,
  • 78% in Education,
  • 76% in Business and Finance,
  • 73% in Software/IT.

We then asked our respondents if they think they currently deserve a promotion. 78% said they do. Interestingly, again, there were no differences between genders and age groups.

Similarly to the general question about ambition, fewer part-time workers compared to full-time workers believed they deserved a promotion: 62% vs. 83%.

If almost 4 out of 5 active members of the US workforce think they deserve a promotion, what’s stopping them from getting it immediately?

According to our respondent’s self-report, the following obstacles are most likely to hinder their career advancement:

  • Managers: 28%
  • Own unrealistic ambitions: 22%
  • The industry they work in: 20%
  • The level of education: 14%
  • Colleagues: 8%
  • The results they achieve: 7%

Interestingly, out of “internal” factors, own unrealistic ambitions scored highest—significantly higher than insufficient education and the actual outputs. In other words, the feeling of not achieving one’s desired career advancement is most likely to stem from setting oneself unrealistic expectations—and Americans don’t shy away from admitting that.

Another noteworthy finding is that, even though Americans point to their managers as the most likely obstacle they’ll face in upward career mobility, most feel that their managers do help them grow:

  • 48% of respondents said their managers aided their professional growth sufficiently,
  • 41% said their managers helped them grow “somewhat”
  • Only 11% didn’t feel their managers helped them in this area at all.

More experienced employees were more likely to say their bosses didn’t help with their growth:

  • 5% of people with <5 years of experience said their managers didn’t support their growth,
  • 7% of people with 6–10 years of experience,
  • 17% of people with 11–20 years of experience,
  • 20% of people with 20+ years of experience.

This, however, might be explained by the fact that the more advanced the stage of your career, the fewer opportunities to get promoted you might get. After all, it’s easier to go from associate to senior than it is to crack into the C-suite.

Gendering ambition

ambition vs. gender

Finally, we wanted to address the elephant in the room. The infamous gender “ambition gap,” that has been presented by some as the primary reason for gender-related inequalities in pay and C-level representation.

We asked our respondents if they thought ambition was a masculine trait. 39% agreed, including 34% of women and 44% of men.

Industries in which the view was most prevalent are Manufacturing (55% of respondents agreed) and Business and Finance (51%). On the other side of the spectrum, we found Education (40%) and Healthcare (28%).

Interestingly, associating masculinity with ambition was most strongly correlated with years of experience. In short: the more experienced you are, the less likely you will think ambition is related to masculinity. 53% of respondents with less than 5 years of experience thought so, compared to 49% of people with 6–10 workforce years under their belts, 29% of people with 11–20 years of experience, and only 18% of people who’ve worked for over 20 years (the least amongst all kinds of demographics).

Turns out, those who have had more time to witness their female and male coworkers’ performance know better… Because the stereotype has been proven time and time again to be false.

For the final word: a few cautionary tales

We all get it. Ambition is good. Yet… you can have too much of a good thing. To conclude our study, let us cite a few stories from our respondents about the time when ambition backfired. Just to keep in mind so as not to get burned out, unhealthily obsessed or just douchebag-y.

I had a co-worker at the bank I worked at who was so eager to make sales that he started exaggerating the features of the products in order to tell people what they wanted to hear. Ultimately, he got so many complaints that he got fired.
I attempted to write a novel a few years back, a goal that I had set for myself many years ago. It was going to be a lengthy novel, one that I had hoped to turn into a trilogy. I ended up losing steam and reaching a standstill, and I never completed it. So, not really “backfiring,” it just felt like such a waste of time and effort.
I was extremely ambitious chasing a promotion, and ended up getting promoted too early, before I was prepared. It took several months for me to reach decent competency in my new role, and I still struggle to some degree. I wish I would have been a little less ambitious and allowed myself time to grow.

No, we’re not telling you to be lazy, but… Make of it what you will.


Methodology and Limitations 

For this study, we collected answers from 947 American respondents via Amazon's Mechanical Turk. Respondents consisted of 53% males and 47% females. 5% of respondents were 24 or younger, 55% aged 25–38, 33% aged 39–54, and 7% 55 or older. Given the gender and age makeup of our large sample, the study can be generalized to the entire population. 

To help ensure that respondents took our survey seriously, all respondents were required to identify and correctly answer attention check questions. We used a reCAPTCHA and an IP check to make sure that the survey was answered by real humans, living in the US.

This self-report study investigated Americans’ attitude towards ambitious behaviors in the workplace and their overall view of ambition as a character trait. Respondents were asked 5 scale-based questions, 15 close-ended questions and 1 open-ended question.

Some questions and responses have been rephrased or condensed for clarity and ease of understanding for readers. In some cases, the percentages presented may not add up to 100 percent; depending on the case, this is either due to rounding or due to responses of “neither/uncertain/unknown” not being presented.

As experience is subjective, we understand that some participants and their answers might be affected by recency, attribution, exaggeration, self-selection, non-response, or voluntary response bias. 

Fair Use Statement

Feel free to share our study! The graphics and content found here are available for noncommercial reuse. Just make sure to link back to this page to give the authors proper credit.

About Us

ResumeLab aims to help you find a job that will meet your ambitions. Our resume builder and a cover letter generator will help you build a successful job application that no HR manager can resist.

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Michael Tomaszewski, CPRW

With vast expertise in interview strategies and career development, Michael is a job expert with a focus on writing perfect resumes, acing interviews, and improving employability skills. His mission is to help you tell the story behind your career and reinforce your professional brand by coaching you to create outstanding job application documents. More than one million readers read his career advice every month. For ResumeLab, Michael uses his connections to help you thrive in your career. From fellow career experts and insiders from all industries—LinkedIn strategists, communications consultants, scientists, entrepreneurs, digital nomads, or even FBI agents—to share their unique insights and help you make the most of your career. Michael has a degree in Liberal Arts and specializes in personal and professional storytelling.

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