Wanting validation is normal. It’s part of our genetic and societal make-up. Children seek praise from parents and teachers. Teens seek approval from peers. Even such basic day-to-day utterances like “thank you” are tiny validations – you’ve done something for me, now here I am acknowledging it.
Adults seek validation in the workplace.
There are scales of validation. From the polite “thank you”, to a senior figure or colleague offering praise for work you’ve done, to a higher salary or promotion, everything is a way of saying “we recognise what you’re doing and approve of it”.
But overreliance on validation is detrimental. Especially if that validation is external.
The many faces of validation
The need for validation comes in all shapes and sizes. It affects successful people and unsuccessful people alike. One problem is that people tie their self-worth to validation – if they are being praised, they are worthy, if they are not, they are worthless. The negative effects of such an outlook are obvious. A criticism of your report becomes a criticism of you. Work becomes personal. That makes it difficult for you and those around you, who are soon forced to tread on eggshells rather than being able to offer honest, constructive feedback.
An overreliance on validation also impairs decision making. When push comes to shove, are you going to make the call that feels right to you or the one that you think will earn you the most external respect? One can get tied up in knots trying to act in accordance with their perceptions of what will earn them praise.
For a leader, too, reliance on validation is a slippery slope. Employees want decisive leadership. Leaders should of course listen to and empathise with their workers, but if they are allowing their judgement to be clouded by a desire for approval from their staff then the business will suffer, and the staff they were so keen to please in the first place along with it.
The most painful thing that can happen to someone who relies on validation is failure. Failure is painful to anyone, of course, but many people are at least partially able to view failures with an air of objectivity that helps dilute the blow.
If you don’t get a job, it hurts, especially at first, but after a few hours, days or weeks, most people are able to step back and see that it’s not the end of the world. There will be other jobs. Things (sometimes) happen for a reason. You could have been up against better suited candidates or just a wrong fit for the role, in which case you likely dodged a bullet.
For some people though, such outlooks don’t appear. They didn’t not get a job. They were rejected, everything about them – and it was all about them. This personalisation of the professional realm helps nobody.
“Separating your career from who you are as a person and your mental and emotional well-being is essential,” writes personal branding expert and digital strategist Goldie Chan in Forbes .
“Seeking external validation sets you up for failure because having a permanent career is not guaranteed. You can go to bed and wake up unemployed in the morning. Then what? Are you going to crumble because you no longer have a job? Losing your ability to sustain yourself financially is difficult, but losing your identity is even harder.”
The reason many people fall into the trap of taking failures personally is they take successes personally too. They achieve something they wanted and are rewarded with accolades or praise that reinforce their understanding of themselves. The accolades align with their internal narratives: I’m smart, I work hard, I gave this piece of work my all, as such it’s only natural I receive praise for it.
Except sometimes you don’t get praise. Sometimes the work is not what the client or your boss wanted, no matter how much effort you put in. Do such instances change whether or not you’re smart? Whether or not you work hard? Whether or not you gave that piece of work your all? Of course not. But those who base their sense of self-worth only on the validation of others will think it does, then duly spiral.
It doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t allow oneself to celebrate successes – they are not guaranteed in life and should be duly welcomed and enjoyed on the occasions they arrive. But celebrating a success and defining yourself by it are two different things. A man can be happy he got a good haircut, but if he makes his hair his defining characteristic then all it takes is nature’s vengeance in the form of male pattern baldness for him to come undone. Enjoy the haircut while you have it. But accept one day that it will go, and that that’s fine too.
Validation as a disruptive force
Many of us recognise that we have some kind of relationship with validation but probably don’t think of the effect that relationship has on others. It can be easy to read about the perils involved in validating oneself based on praise and achievement and think, “So what? We all have shortcomings and this is mine. If this is how I get my work done or handle my life and it works for me in its own flawed way then what’s the problem?”
The problem is that one person’s need for validation can have a significant effect on those around them, at both ends of the scale.
For a worker, the need for validation can impact their colleagues and managers. Put yourself in the manager’s shoes. Do you not think it would be difficult to deal with an employee who needs constant reassurance, who requires that every piece of work they do or every idea they propose is praised and validated or else they’ll take it as an affront or as a personal critique?
Managers should be empathetic to their employees and adjust how they treat each one according to that employee’s specific traits. They should not dismiss an employee who feels criticised. But if this behaviour is regular or extreme, to the point where a manager feels they can’t be honest with their employee for fear it will trigger a negative reaction, then that affects the work.
In such scenarios, the manager should take the time to talk to the employee privately to ensure all is okay and come to a solution that works for all. But if you are the type of worker who takes any feedback poorly or personally, it is worth assessing how this affects those around you and whether your reaction is fair – you received criticism that was indeed overly harsh or skewed to the personal – or whether you are receiving it in ways it wasn’t intended.
For managers afflicted with the need for validation, it is their underlings who suffer. Oftentimes such managers are unable to provide clear direction or feedback for fear of upsetting an employee or coming across as harsh. Maybe they just want to be popular – the David Brent/Michael Scott approach to management, which I think we can all agree is not the ideal.
Being a boss means taking decisions whether they’re popular or not. As much as a boss may have kind intentions in not telling their staff what they really think of their work, actually this approach hurts not just the company but the employee too. Employees want to progress, they want to improve – feedback is critical to that. And most employees will appreciate firm but fair feedback that offers clear direction for future drafts far more than being told they’re doing well when in truth their work is inadequate. Communication and honesty are vital for any team to thrive.
Some techniques that can help unlatch one from an overdependence on validation, according to Melody Wilding, author of Trust Yourself: Stop Overthinking and Channel Your Emotions for Success at Work, are to focus on effort rather than outcome, to take regular gut checks, to try the “so what” test and to give your thoughts 24 hours to stew .
The shift from focusing on effort rather than outcome means that you can still measure progress but do so along fairer metrics that aren’t at the mercy of someone else’s bad day. Goldie Chan notes that, “when you focus on effort, you move from external validation to internal growth”  You cease to see setbacks as failures, rather as stepping stones. Focus on what you can control. At the end of the day, it’s all you have.
Taking regular gut checks doesn’t mean dropping in at your local clinic. It’s about assessing that deep-seated barometer that exists in all of us. As Wilding writes, “A gut check serves as a pause – a pattern interrupter to analyse whether your automatic responses are truly reflective of what’s best for the team and organisation, rather than on a desire to be liked. This introspection also helps differentiate between internal drivers (like personal values, ethics, or genuine interest) and external drivers (like the desire for praise, fear of negative judgment, or the need to fit in)” .
The “so what” test is especially useful for leaders. If you find yourself hesitating on a decision based on your preoccupations as to the thoughts of others, ask yourself: So what if this decision isn’t universally popular? So what if it doesn’t meet every expectation? So what if I have to change course later?
This exercise lets you step back and form a more objective view of the situation in front of you.
Taking 24 hours (in the circumstances where you have that luxury) gives your mind time to settle and move away from the in-the-moment trappings of “What will people think of this?” and “Is this criticism personal?” Time offers perspective. Take it when you can.
Craving validation is normal. Most of us nurse insecurities of some degree or other and external praise and accolades can be a way to silence negative internal chatter. But to become overly reliant on the thoughts of others is a dangerous game that can adversely impact self-worth and performance, for bosses and employees, successful and unsuccessful, alike.
Placing value in your efforts rather than achievements, asking “so what”, and taking time to check your gut feeling or re-assess impulsive first thoughts can mitigate dependence on validation. You are not your job. You are not your salary. You are not your successes or your failures. The sooner you see that, the freer you will be to bring the best of yourself to everything you do.
More on Failure
Bouncing Back from Professional Failure
More on Feedback and Criticism
Performing Under Pressure with Hendrie Weisenger– Podcast
The Courage to be Disliked
Leadership in Focus: Foundations and the Path Forward
 https://www.forbes.com/sites/goldiechan/2023/12/12/how-to-take-career-failures-professionally-and-not-personally/?sh=671cde0c4f9b  https://hbr.org/2023/12/overcoming-your-need-for-constant-validation-at-work