It’s Time to Stop Vilifying Ambition

The concept of ambition has a bad reputation in popular culture. The textbook definition – a strong desire to achieve something, typically through determination and hard work – seems innocuous, but the word is often associated with destructive consequences. Napoleon, Stalin, and Hitler were ambitious, and that cost the world millions of lives. On a smaller scale, it’s easy to picture ambitious businesspeople who put their careers ahead of the wellbeing of their employees or family. But at Hogan, we think about ambition in more positive terms, and believe that to ignore ambition is to miss a crucial component of human personality.

For many years, psychological science has ignored, and even vilified ambition. Freud decreed ambitious people to be neurotic and potential father murderers, and Jung felt that ambitious people suffer from a “regressive restoration of the persona” which blocks their potential for personal growth. Even during the development of modern personality assessment, ambition has been ignored. Neither the well-known Five-Factor Model nor the six-factor HEXACO personality inventory assess ambition, and both of these models claim to be comprehensive.

Recently, psychologists have started to take ambition more seriously. The school of proactive personality asserts a disposition to take proactive action to change one’s environment predicts leadership and personal achievement. “Grit,” a measure of perseverance in long-term goals, has taken pop psychology by storm. Though both proactive action and grit overlap with ambition, they don’t fully align with ambition either.

Robert Hogan, founder of Hogan Assessments, Ryne Sherman, Hogan’s Chief Science Officer, and Bell Jones of Florida Atlantic University, recently examined how ambition was assessed by prominent factor models of personality, specifically HEXACO and NEO-PI-R personality inventory. Their paper, Where is ambition in factor models of personality?, concluded that these models can predict ambition, but in an indirect and  inefficient manner—by combining facets relating to energy level, social dominance, achievement motivation, and self-control.

Hogan Assessments has always stressed the role of ambition for predicting career success. Socioanalytic Theory, the foundation for all our assessments, tells us that all people are motivated to get along and to get ahead. Ambition describes the degree to which people want to get ahead. Over the course of human evolutionary history, people with higher status enjoyed better food, mates, and living conditions; conversely, people feared and suffered from the loss of status.

Of course, there is good news and bad news about high and low scores on the Ambition scale. Highly ambitious people are productive, energetic, and driven, but are also competitive, pushy, and domineering. Their less ambitious counterparts, on the other hand, seem considerate, cooperative, and good team players, but also lacking motivation.

One of our three core assessments, the Hogan Personality Inventory, features Ambition as one of its seven scales. Research shows that people with high Ambition scores can be energetic and competitive, though also restless and forceful. Low Ambition indicates good teamwork, and complacency and lack of initiative.

Although people are beginning to understand how personality impacts career success, Hogan Assessments remains unique in its understanding of the way ambition impacts peoples’ ability to achieve their life goals.