Humans share an innate drive to connect with others. We’re evolutionarily wired to crave inclusion. Eons ago, this was linked with our survival; in pre-historic times, rejection triggered fear. If someone became isolated or was ousted from the group, his or her life would be at risk. Because the consequences of being rejected were so extreme, our brains and behavior adapted to avoid disapproval from others. In fact, research has shown that social rejection activates many of the same brain regions involved in physical pain, which helps explains why disapproval stings.
Today, we’re no longer cave people running around trying to spear dinner and dodge predators. But our aversion to rejection still runs deep. Sometimes, we have trouble thinking we’re successful or good enough unless we receive validation from others—and that’s especially true at work.
However, constantly seeking approval in the office can seriously derail your professional development in the long run. But trying to please your boss, clients, or co-workers—by working long hours or striving for nonstop perfection—can lead to burnout and unhappiness at work and in your personal life.
How do you know if your desire to be a productive, agreeable team player has gone too far and moved into approval-seeking territory?
•Change or downplay your point of view to appease your boss or agree with the rest of the team in meetings?
•Compliment colleagues’ work—even if you don’t mean it—so they’ll like you?
•Always say yes to requests for your time, even if it means compromising your professional boundaries?
•Fail to speak up if you’ve been treated unfairly by a co-worker or boss?
•Become upset or insulted when someone disagrees with you or heavily edits your work?
If any of these tendencies resonate with you, it’s time to take responsibility and shed your approval-seeking ways. Here are a few steps you can take to get there.
Step 1: Ask Where Your Need for Approval Comes From
In many cases, a tendency to seek approval at work stems from something in your past. For example, were you taught to respect authority growing up? If so, you may feel uncomfortable expressing disagreement in work contexts. Did you struggle to make friends in school and develop a fear of being rejected? This may now be driving you to do whatever if takes to feel included and liked by your co-workers.
Reflect on how your childhood or early development may be contributing to your current approval-seeking behavior.
Step 2: Make Friends With Rejection
Think back to a time when you failed to meet expectations or disappointed someone. Maybe your boss asked you to completely re-do a project, or perhaps you forgot an important deadline. How did you recover from that slip-up? What did you learn as a result? In most cases, you were probably able to turn the situation around—and it likely helped you grow as a professional.
When you break it down, disapproval is a form of feedback—information you can use to improve and make your next performance even stronger. It also helps to also re-frame rejection as something positive. It means you’re moving forward and pushing limits, rather than just staying in your comfort zone.
Step 3. Embrace a Growth Mindset
When you prioritize learning and constant improvement, you free yourself from needing approval from others. Psychologist Carol Dweck found that individuals who viewed skill and ability as something to be developed over time, rather than innate and unchangeable, were most likely to achieve their full potential. Those with this “growth mindset” were more likely to challenge themselves than those with “fixed mindsets,” who took feedback as a sign of disapproval and failure.
By understanding that there is abundant room for growth, improvement, and success, you can wean yourself from the constant need for validation.
Step 4: Focus on the Process, Not Outcomes
If you’re prone to approval-seeking, focus on improving processes, rather than achieving a particular outcome. When you focus too narrowly on one singular result, such as getting a promotion or raise, you attach your self-worth to external standards—which may be outside of your control.
For example, even if you’re performing well and hitting all your benchmarks, your company might not be doing as well and decide to put a salary freeze into effect. While this is completely outside of your control and doesn’t reflect on your value as an employee, if you’ve been banking on that raise, you’re bound to be disappointed.
However, if you instead concentrate on a process that you can control, you can reduce the power that approval has over you. For example, maybe you strive to become more organized, so you’re seen as more effective—and therefore, more deserving of a promotion.
At the end of the day, the only person you need to answer to is yourself. Your own self-approval is a crucial aspect of your integrity and will keep you happy and fulfilled in the long run. By working to free yourself from approval-seeking behaviors at work, you’re honoring yourself and your needs—and setting yourself up for long-term happiness.