I used to need a lot of approval during my career-building days, which was amplified when I became a director and even more so when I was headhunted to the board of another firm.

These big steps felt like they happened overnight.

But that wasn’t true. I had spent years leading the teams, which is why I got promoted and offered new positions.

So why couldn’t I believe my career progression was, in itself, proof that I deserved something better?

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 alone. Positive feedback from the boss feels like the only way to get a motivational approval for the persistence required to succeed.

A New ‘Professionals Disorder’

For me, that first promotion to the board woke up an insatiable appetite for positive feedback that felt more like some kind of new, professional’s disorder.

I was driven by my need for confirmation but felt too uncomfortable to ask for feedback. The six-month probationary period would cover that…eventually. Asking earlier would undermine their view of me. Wouldn’t it?

So, I manipulated conversations to entice positive comments like some kind of covert ops, except I wouldn’t make a good undercover agent and what little feedback I gleaned that way felt so contrived it didn’t help calm the voice telling me I didn’t belong here.

My addiction to 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 or how they appreciated and valued my work. Only then I would relax,

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 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. I was even able to offer stability and comfort to others.

Approval is Overrated

I realised four important things by accident. I share them with you, on purpose:

  1. I clearly used to live very far from balanced. Now I won’t settle for the myth of the work-life balance. Here’s why: Balance is about juggling time for competing priorities – with work demands almost always taking the win, which means work is interfering with what matters in life and we accept that without really exploring what we are giving up. 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 what you desire, without conflict.
  2. 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 so somebody else’s boundaries do not represent your space.
  3. Approval is overrated. If you wait with bated breath for your boss to reassure you that you’re good at what you do, you’ve abdicated too much power to someone else – someone less important than you are to yourself.
  4. You can bolster your own confidence through self-affirmations and recognizing your own wins. Your inner-alarm will still dial down so be the boss of you.

How train yourself to be confident and congruent

When I looked into the psychology behind seeking approval at work, everything clicked.

Acceptance and approval go hand in hand. In a business, acceptance communicates our worth and autonomy and the support we receive stems from that.

Approval is how bosses accentuate the positives they perceive – acknowledging effort but also identifying strengths. But approval is overrated when it is based on what matters to the other person, and not yourself.

Recognising my natural skill (and calling) to optimise my people skills when times were tough revealed that discrepancy. Self-approval identified which strength mattered more to me and applying that signature strength became vital 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.

In the end, it didn’t matter to me what others thought. I took back control back of my own confidence by giving myself the approval I needed.

Helen Hanison is an executive coach. She helps professionals at a career crossroads to make a plan aligning work that they love with the life they want to lead. Then act on it. If you feel ready to talk first steps, email her here. She can also be found online at on her blog and on Facebook. Discovering your natural strengths (then identifying which matter most to you) are the important first steps to creating synergy between who you are and what you do. Because it doesn’t matter what others think when you can boss yourself to confidence and congruence instead. Grab your free PDF guide here.

Image courtesy of ROOM.