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Your Team Is Not Lazy – Redefining Hard Work in a Healthy Ambition Era

Ambition is not a problem; having too much or too little is.

By Gustavo Razzetti

February 2, 2023

A reduced sense of ambition is creating a divide at work  - rather than assuming that people are people becoming lazier, leaders should rethink what ambition means in today’s world.

Bernie Marcus, co-founder of Home Depot, recently went viral when he declared to the Financial Times that “nobody works, nobody gives a damn.” The billionaire blames socialism for making people ‘too lazy’ and ‘too stupid’ to work.

The debate shows how polarized society is. People reacted by attacking Home Depot for not paying fair wages or benefits to their employees. Many executives sided with Marcus and reiterated that people are lazy.

This debate is not only unproductive but also wrong. We can’t judge people without considering the more significant changes in society and the workplace. We all crave something to look forward to – we like being challenged. However, people don’t want to work hard at all costs; they desire healthy ambition.

Many factors are shaping our relationship with ambition.

For starters, we live in a more comfortable world – and it will become worse.

Additionally, life expectancy has a lot to do with how we think about responsibilities – work included. Research shows that teens are in no hurry to embrace adulthood. Welcome to an extended adolescence era: 25 is the new 18.

The workplace ain’t what it used to be, either.

The effects of the pandemic are anything but fading and continue to reshape our lives. People aren't as passionate as they used to be about their jobs. 36% of people said their career ambitions had decreased. A recent survey shows that 52% of workers said their professional ambition isn’t tied to being part of a company. Balance is becoming more important: 56% say spending time with family is more important than building wealth.

This reduced ambition can create the false impression that people don’t want to work hard – or at all. But there’s more to the story.

The Bright and Dark Sides of Ambition

The word ambition derives from the Latin ambitio, which means “to go around.” That’s precisely what Roman politicians did: they went around the city trying to convince citizens to vote for them. Since this behavior was driven by the desire for influence, recognition, and wealth, the word ambition evolved into “the desire for honor or power.”

Ambition is considered one of the most crucial traits of successful leaders and teams. We correlate the size of our accomplishments with the size of our ambition. However, this idea encourages people to do anything to get what they desire. Too much ambition can become a problem.

“We want to make sure that our ambition is being directed in ways that we care about,” says Richard Ryan, the pioneer of Self-Determination Theory. “Striving is only healthy if we do it in ways that don’t spoil the rest of our lives.”

Having no ambition can be just as damaging as having too much.

We have a narrow view of what constitutes healthy ambition, as author Ron Carucci explains in this HBR article. Too little ambition can make a person look unmotivated, mediocre, and lazy. On the other hand, too much ambition damages relationships, reputation, and trust, leading to catastrophic long-term effects.

The notion of ambition is rapidly changing.

A survey conducted by SHRM found that only 32% of employees in the United States feel highly engaged in their jobs. This is a significant decrease from previous years, suggesting that many workers are not motivated or driven in their careers.

Making money isn't the top priority for many Gen-Zers. According to a study by Wunderman Thompson, 70% of Gen-Zers would rather do something meaningful than make a lot of money. Additionally, a survey by the Conference Board found that only 44% of workers in the United States are highly engaged in their jobs, down from 49%.

Further research explains that reduced ambition is more the result of our natural life patterns than an aversion to work itself. People peak in happiness at ages 18 and 82 and hit the bottom of unhappiness at age 46 – the mid-life crisis.

However, challenging the “work hard and get promoted” narrative ¬is easier said than done.

People are trying to make peace with feeling less ambitious. The pandemic has challenged our priorities and all-time high stress is adding more fuel to the fire. Professionals want to scale back their career ambitions. “But the desire to downshift is often accompanied with feelings of ambivalence or even shame,” as author Dorie Clark wrote.

What Do Leaders Talk About When They Talk About Ambition?

Often leaders encourage their team to work harder, thinking that effort alone will fix all problems.

Unfortunately, hard work isn't always the answer. It promotes a culture of doing and burnout instead of thinking and well-being. Most importantly, intense hard work is not sustainable.

But is abandoning ambition the solution? Not necessarily.

Instead, try a healthy dose of ambition.

Research suggests that exclusively chasing external goals sabotages mental health. Pursuing external values such as power, money, and possessions leads to anxiety and depression.

The key is employing your ambition to achieve a bigger purpose. Your ambition should serve you and help you grow, not just achieve more.

Leaders need to encourage healthy ambition rather than greed – the unhealthy expression of it.

Here’s a framework I use with my clients to help their teams understand what ambition means to them – and promote a healthy version. Its purpose is to spark debate and drive deep alignment.

My framework considers both input and outcome, as well as what drives your team and what they prioritize. At the top, core values shape how decisions are made and purpose defines the impact you want to create – both shape what drives you and your team. The lower level includes the effort (focus) you put in and the achievements (your goals).  

Core Values

Values play a crucial role in shaping healthy ambition. Values serve as guiding principles that provide a framework of what to say “yes” and “no” to. Unfortunately, most company values are empty words and have lost all meaning.

When used intentionally, core values positively impact behavior, engagement, and retention. They foster healthy ambition to protect the organization from being too greedy.

Being too ambitious forces organizations to betray their values.

Enron's overambitious pursuit of profit led to widespread accounting fraud. Betraying its values of integrity and customer trust was the line Wells Fargo crossed to meet aggressive sales goals – it involved creating millions of fake accounts. Theranos and Volkswagen joined followed suit and suffered similar consequences.

By engaging in unethical behaviors, all these companies harmed their reputation, lost public trust, and faced expensive legal repercussions.

Review your team's core values. Draw a clear line. Turn your words into actions by defining the behaviors you reward and punish.

What’s non-negotiable for your team?


What drives your ambition may have a substantial impact on your mental health.

Studies have consistently shown that people motivated by extrinsic markers of success, such as wealth, status, or popularity, aren’t as psychologically fulfilled as those fueled by intrinsic motivators, such as purpose, mastery, and autonomy.

Self-determination research suggests that ambition is positive when it fulfills our need to do meaningful work and leave the world better than we found it.

An unhealthy ambition is driven by the desire to please others, not our purpose. Acclaimed French chef Bernard Loiseau killed himself because of rumors that he would lose his third Michelin star.

Another French chef, Sébastien Bras, was under similar pressure, knowing that any of the 500 meals from his kitchen could be judged by an anonymous inspector on any given day. Fortunately, he made a healthier choice than his colleague. Bras decided to give up his three Michelin stars in search of a calmer, more meaningful life. “Maybe I will be less famous, but I accept that,” he told The Guardian.

Bras will continue delighting customers with his dishes to satisfy his purpose, not Michelin judges.

Having a shared collective ambition brings teams members together, rather than letting individual ambitions dictate priorities and behaviors, will make sure everyone pulls in the same direction.

Discuss your team purpose: what you do, who you serve, and your impact.

What’s the positive impact that drives your team’s ambition?


Leaders have an unhealthy relationship with productivity.

They’re so obsessed with performance that they focus on input rather than output. It’s not a surprise, then, that virtual presenteeism is on the rise. The need to control is driving remote employees to put more effort into not producing more, but pretending they’re working more.

Not all effort is made equal.

The most ambitious goals are usually the hardest. Putting in all the effort when climbing a hill drives burnout. Instead, do the opposite of what feels normal: work hard when the task is easy and scale back when it’s hard. The Law of Equal Effort states that our effort must be regulated to avoid running out of energy too early in the race.

Steady pacing will ensure you reach the finish line.


Leaders that expect their team to be always-on cause burnout and harm long-term productivity.

We believe high-performing employees are incredibly active, consistently focused, and work crazy-long hours. Being lazy has a bad rap at work, especially when the productivity narrative rewards busyness.

However, we've got it all wrong, according to science.

It’s not the amount of effort that counts, but its quality. Research shows that lazy people tend to have a high IQ and get bored quickly, leading to being more engaged in thought. They are likely to be smarter, more successful, and better employees – and Bill Gates agrees.

Critical thinkers engage in activities that provide mental stimulation, such as puzzles, debates, and even video games. Though they might seem like a waste of time to an outsider, they require a fair amount of thinking and problem-solving.

So-called lazy people have a “need for cognition.” Their aversity to wasteful actions make them come up with smart shortcuts, ways to save time, and solutions to eliminate problems.  

All team members must share the same work ethic. The workload and effort should be evenly distributed to avoid favoritism and disparities. Discuss with your team what the ‘effort’ standard should be.

What’s a healthy level of effort?


Your team’s ambition can positively influence the likelihood of completing business goals and other achievements.

However, it’s not a direct correlation. Other factors, such as skills, resources, and strategy, are also vital to success.

Research on the role of ambition in the workplace produced inconsistent and often difficult-to-interpret results. Although some studies suggest that ambition promotes objective career attainment, meta-analytic results didn’t find a significant correlation between ambition and promotions or career satisfaction.

Ambition can provide drive and focus but does not guarantee the achievement of specific goals. “Reaching an extrinsic goal may briefly satisfy you, but it’s not long--lasting,” says Tim Kasser, a professor at Knox ¬College.

Achievement is about the quality of an end goal. To succeed, you need focus and clear priorities. Make sure you have an effective culture, not just ambition.

What are you willing to sacrifice (prioritize) to achieve what matters to your team the most?

Define a Healthy Ambition for Your Team

Is this the end of ambition or the beginning of a more equitable relationship with work?

Perhaps it's not that people have become lazy but simply that they don't want to put all their ambition in one basket.

Discuss with your team what ambition means to them – personally and as a team. Align on goals but also expectations about work ethics. Be ambitious enough that your goals are hard to reach but not so ambitious that it will become impossible to achieve them - or worse, force people to betray their values.

Ambition is not a problem; having too much or too little is.

Healthy ambition is a more sustainable – and attainable – proposition.

Article by Gustavo Razzetti, CEO of Fearless Culture

Gustavo facilitates courageous conversations that drive culture transformation. He is a sought-after speaker, culture consultant, and best-selling author of the book Remote, Not Distant.

Razzetti is also the creator of the Culture Design Canvas – a visual and practical method for intentionally designing workplace culture. His insights were featured in Psychology Today, The New York Times, Forbes, and BBC.

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