Seeking Out Approval at Work and How to Stop It

Seeking out approval was everything in my career-building days. Which amplified when I became a director.  And later when I was headhunted to the board of another firm. Because these felt like big steps overnight.

They weren’t. I’d spent years consolidating and was already leading the teams and business I was responsible for. Which is why I got promoted and offered new positions.  

So why couldn’t I be happy my career progression was in itself seeking out approval?

Because starting an elevated position or establishing yourself in a new corporate landscape is challenging.  It requires enormous self-efficacy and emotional resilience. Instead, we feel tentative, pressured and without our new network in place… yet. Positive feedback from the boss feels like the only way to get a motivational top-up for the persistence required to succeed.

A New ‘Professionals Disorder’ 

For me, that first promotion to the board woke up an insatiable appetite for the positive feedback that felt more like some kind of new, professionals disorder.  I was driven by my need for approval but felt too uncomfortable to, you know, ask for feedback…the 6-month probationary period would cover that…eventually. Asking earlier would undermine their view of me. Wouldn’t it?

So, I manipulated conversations for seeking out approval like some kind of covert op’s. Except I wouldn’t make a good undercover agent and what little feedback I gleaned that way, felt contrived so didn’t help.

My addiction to seeking out approval grew with every promotion and new role until it was all-consuming. I felt like I couldn’t exhale until the official meeting where Important Others told me, in some detail, what they were pleased with, appreciated and valued about my work.  Then I would relax into it.

I eventually got more self-confidence – by accident. Years later. I traded down to consult for a smaller firm after I had become a mum. I was experimenting with work-life balance. I resisted offers to become an employee (although had the same responsibility!).  I went part-time. I was open about my motivations for that and clear about my priority. Protecting work-life balance (a term that irritates now). 

And for the first time in my career, I didn’t feel my approval addiction wake up. I felt liberated. I enjoyed my work. I nurtured my team. Acquisitions were made around me. Instability followed as it does. But I was ok within it all. And offered stability to others. We kept focus on deliverables but the piece that mattered was the team, the people – my people. And making a difference to them.

Seeking out Approval is Overrated

So I realized these 4 important things by accident. I share them with you, on purpose:

1. Balance

I clearly used to live very far from balanced. Now I won’t settle for balance. Here’s why. Balance is about juggling time for competing priorities –with our need to work demanding that priority wins (not the personal priority held more central). Which means work is interfering with what matters in life. And we accept that.

Synergy is what I’ve sought ever since.  Synergy is about integrating what matters most to you and creating a way to do work that expresses that, without conflict. The ideal.

2. We need to control our environment so it’s a good fit.

I enjoyed living within the lines between consulting and mothering because I drew them. Autonomy matters. We need to control our environment so it’s a good fit. Because we all draw lines in a different place.

3. Seeking out approval is overrated. 

If you wait with baited breath for your boss to reassure you you’re good at what you do, you’ve abdicated too much power to someone else. Who you are less important to.

4. Be the BOSS of YOU

You can bolster your own confidence through self-affirmations. Your inner-alarm will still dial down. So be the boss of you. 

Those corporate days were my career 1. While they belong in the past, I integrate the wisdom I accrued – commercially and emotionally – into my career 2.  Coaching others to achieve work-life synergy for themselves.  Without the wait!  

How to Boss Yourself To Confident and Congruent

When I looked into the psychology behind seeking out approval at work, everything clicked. Approval is still useful but understanding why will show you how to do it for yourself.

Acceptance and approval go hand in hand. In a business, acceptance communicates our worth and autonomy-support stems from that. That might be a part-time week. You might want to work within a ‘distributed’ culture. One size does not fit all, which is what makes autonomy and acceptance so critical.

Approval is how bosses accentuate the positives they perceive – acknowledging effort but crucially also identifying strengths. But seeking out approval is overrated when it works to someone else’s beat.  My boss affirmed my strong competencies with client attraction and running a profitable business. It didn’t match what mattered to me.

Recognizing my natural skill (and calling) to optimize my people when times were tough revealed that discrepancy. Self-approval had identified which strength mattered more. To me. And applying that signature strength became turn-key to doing the work I find fulfilling today.

Discovering your natural strengths (and how to use them) is the first step to creating synergy between who you are and what you do.  

I worked out in the end, it didn’t matter what others thought. I inadvertently took back control back of my own confidence, by giving myself the approval I needed.

Then wondered this…what if it could always have been this way? My career mattered to me.  And that is what mattered. My self-. 

In many ways, my story represents the hard way of working out that self-… is a prefix we should all use when it comes to the approval and confidence that bolster self-integrity when it feels fragile. And can get you all the way to self-congruent.

I have created a short (free) PDF explaining what I did next so you can too. Please click here if you would like to discover your strengths today.

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Helen Hanison

Helen is an executive coach. She helps professionals who feel stuck at a career crossroads make a plan realigning work that they love with a life they actually want to lead. Then act on it. If you feel ready to talk first steps, email her or visit her website, HelenHanison.com.

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