In Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory, each of us has an innate desire to belong and to be loved. Once that need is met, an individual can move along their respective path to self-actualization.
While the desire to be loved is natural, managers desperate for their team’s approval will compromise their effectiveness and inflict harm on their teams. Perhaps, you can understand why; a manager who is driven by a need to be liked may shy away from delivering constructive feedback that could help an employee improve. A manager fearful of upsetting the apple cart may tolerate behavior that is harmful to the work environment and culture.
In his April 7, 2014 Harvard Business Review article, “The Problem with Being Too Nice,” Michael Fertik said “Few people want to be the bad guy. But leaders are also expected to make the tough decisions that serve the company or the team’s best interests. Being too nice can be lazy, inefficient, irresponsible, and harmful to individuals and the organization.”
For these reasons, leadership can be a solitary experience. When the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was alive, he earned many enemies as he was challenging the status quo and insisting on civil rights for African Americans. We lavish praise on him now, but were he dependent on the approval of others, he would not have championed racial and economic justice.
Leadership requires a willingness to do what one believes is right, even when “right” is unpopular. It also requires a willingness to make decisions independent of the approval of others.
A painful lesson from my own career underscores this point. I was leading a team of 8 communicators. I’d hired most of them personally and was extremely proud of what they each brought to the table; they were smart, outspoken, hardworking and cutting edge. To this day, they remain the team that leaves me beaming with pride. I desperately wanted to honor their accomplishments with bonuses and financial perks. I’d requested that two members of my team receive a pay increase; they were underpaid in my estimation and I knew we would pay more to replace them – there was no way we would get their level of talent, passion for the job, and experience in another candidate. I lobbied hard for pay increases for these two staffers and thought I was successful. Before the process was complete, I notified these staff members, and the rest of the team, that they would receive a pay increase. Imagine my horror when weeks later, I learned that while my own bosses were sympathetic to my request, they denied the increases. I was certain my immediate supervisor approved the increases but was somehow mistaken.
This process was riddled with mistakes; my mistakes. Rather than waiting until the review process was complete, I prematurely announced pay raises. I wanted to be celebrated by my team and I wanted them to know that I fought for them. My desire to be liked overshadowed common sense. I ultimately had to go back to the entire team, apologize profusely and notify them that there would be no pay increases for anyone. “Anger” does not begin to describe my team’s reaction. Days later, they ran an action on me and filed into my office, one by one, to explain how disappointed, hurt and angry they were. In that instance, I chose to listen, acknowledge my mistakes and work to regain their trust. As a leader, this was one of the lowest points in my career. By humbling myself, acknowledging my error and vowing to continue fighting to reward the team with pay increases, we somehow recovered. While the experience is long gone, this lesson is fresh.
Perhaps your approval-seeking behavior wasn’t in the same form as mine. But if you are driven by the affirmation of others, you will never be free to be your authentic, powerful self. I am increasingly asking the question, and encouraging clients to ask this as well, ‘How does what I am about to do or say, serve my team?’ This will enable you to power through difficult conversations or to withhold information that is unhelpful. This Psychology Today article includes helpful tips on overcoming the dependence of external validators, including identifying the advantages and disadvantages of seeking approval, identifying the underlying thoughts that drive one to seek external approval and examining the evidence and logic of one’s thoughts.
The need to be liked can drive managers to do quite foolish things. I am a witness.
Jennifer R. Farmer, aka The PR Whisperer, is an author, lecturer, public relations professional and strategic communicator for organizations, leaders and celebrities committed to social and racial justice. Follow her on IG/Twitter using @pr_whisperer.