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Stop Living for Approval at Work

Take steps to change your mindset.

I recently read a memorable quote that I sent along to many friends and colleagues: “If you live for others approval, you will die from their rejection.” The statement couldn’t be more true in your job, career, or in life, where praise can seem fleeting.

Unfortunately, employees spend 19 hours each week worrying what their bosses say or do (see study)—and if you’re like many, you fall prey to this dynamic. Rather than let acceptance consume you at work, however, take steps to avoid following the same patterns.

A Liberating Anecdote

A colleague of mine, let’s call her Joanne, was quite unhappy at her banking job, but wasn’t ready to throw in the towel. She loved the firm, her co-workers and was proud of her achievements—but like many, she was struggling with a bad boss. Her manager, let’s call him Phil, had an ever-changing personality. Most of the time, he was rarely available, seemed aloof, sometimes rude and didn’t give her credit for her great ideas.

Other days, he’d act like they were best friends. He never hinted of letting her go. Joanne would constantly second-guess herself and spend far too much time interpreting his 100 character e-mails and texts. She often wondered why he couldn’t see that being motivational to her would greatly improve her performance. I then asked Joanne how much she needed his approval. She was silent.

It’s natural to want acceptance and acknowledgment from managers. But if you focus continually on that goal, you’ll find yourself unhappy for as long as you do so. As you climb the ladder at work, praise becomes even more elusive. I suggested to Joanne that she observe her boss’s interactions with others co-workers. Bingo. Joanne noticed that she wasn’t being singled out. In fact, she began to witness more exaggerated behavior, bordering on antagonistic, with some of her co-workers.

While this opened her eyes, she realized she still had work to do in order to place less importance on his approval, and even that of others. She needed to find other ways to gain self-fulfillment in an otherwise perfect job.

Her Solutions

Joanne took several steps. She focused more on mentoring others in the department; posted reminders on her desk of projects successfully completed; and joined a networking group where she felt proud of her achievements. She found new ways to detect what approval really looked like. It rarely came in the form of a “thank you” or “great job,” although she saved the few that she received. Soon Joanne decided that having relatively smooth meetings and being given more responsibility was her new form of receiving accolades.

She also reduced her expectations for having a huge “fan base” at work. When she would complete a major achievement, she would treat herself and oftentimes others to a special lunch. She also created other meaningful rewards for herself. Joanne typed a document including all her major accomplishments in the last year. She was surprised how long it ran. She reviewed and updated it weekly.

Joanne kept her boss updated in writing on all her achievements, but in a short amount of time, she no longer counted the hours for a reply. She began to genuinely take stock of her contributions and believe in herself.

When you’re truly objective about your contributions, you'll find the one form of approval that is unwavering and most fulfilling: your own.

When Lack of Praise Becomes Destructive

There is a fine line between the need for praise (which starts at age two and stops in our elder years), and feeling empty or useless without kudos. Unfortunately, too many workers get so focused on getting recognition, that without it, their work suffers and stress builds.

Ready for New Challenges

There’s more to the anecdote. A couple months later, once Joanne’s confidence had risen significantly, she took on a new challenge. She decided to find out what makes Phil tick, since she had wasted so many months being frustrated by him. Her mission was not to get his approval, but to “manage up” with him to make their relationship more tenable, and her work-life more pleasant. She felt that if she was even mildly successful, her job could become a virtual dream job.

Joanne dug into her own time to find out more from her colleagues about Phil’s known primary pet project. She researched the area and reached out to colleagues in the industry. Joanne finally shared her thoughts with Phil about his favorite project during one routine meeting. Within a week, Phil put Joanne on the special project.

Phil is still not considered a charmer in the department by any means, but now he cracks a smile more often when passing by Joanne. She now has greater responsibility, but is not resting on her laurels. She's still constantly refining her ability to manage him, viewing it as a worthy challenge. She now sees past many of Phil’s shortcomings, too.

Perhaps most importantly, Joanne no longer spends hours hoping for that elusive elixir—Phil’s approval.