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Mackenna Lee

Disembark, Grow, Illuminate.

Approval, a Messy Topic

Approval is a sticky, glue like mish-mosh that directs our thoughts, actions, and perspective on our world. I pursue approval everyday. Bosses, influencers, team members, friends, and family orchestrate my life.

Isn’t that crazy to think about?

Outsider opinion is the puppet’s hand, dictating not only what I do, but why and how I act. I expend hours catering to an audience. Remembering and presenting a narrative suitable for my listener eats up mental and physical energy.

With respect to this effort, we owe it to ourselves to calculate whether this goal is worthy. We run a race for approval, we cross a finish line, and then what? Do we reap a satisfying reward? Approval is fleeting. So often, when the race is done, we must immediately sprint around the track to yet another deadline.

Approval is not won unilaterally. In order to keep folks sprinting, approval can be surreptitiously deemed but never outwardly expressed. We run, and run, and run. And we keep circling the same track. And we end up going nowhere.

My Approval Marathon

Achieving approval from others is necessary for the majority of the population. We all have commitments, social structures, and desires that require approval. Analysis preempts decisions, whether it be at work or in life, and we raise the volume of our voice when we bring people along who agree.

Though, there is a danger to this. Conveniently, a recent experience taught me this.

I temporarily re-located across the country from my home to work on a project. In this unfamiliar small town, I was tasked with working underneath a manager touted as an expert in his field. My enthusiasm for this role grew with each passing day.

Days into this work, I smelled trouble.

The manager habitually would isolate me from my fellow team members to vent aggravation. The manager weaponized “feedback” and fought for strict dichotomy between our expected contributions to our work. Oddly, he would not deliver the same tone in the company of others. Exasperated, out of my element, and determined to deliver for this client, I marched on.

I played every persona in my toolkit at the time to make our relationship function. Sympathetic, “I understand my faults and want to be better.” Firm, “I am not getting what I need from you.” Desperate, “Tell me how you envision this working.” I sought to collaborate, knowing I had gaps that – in my mind – were his reason for being positioned as the expert.

I sought to collaborate. We never agreed on what that entailed.

This manager’s long-standing ties with our boss, who I had only recently met, quieted me. Social capital earned him a pass, so I thought.

I worked tirelessly, and though I admit human fallibility, this manager squeezed lemons without investing in cultivation. Each day I rose before the sun and left long after it set. I stretched to meet his ever-rising frustration, eager to earn a single “thank you” that never came. Dear friends counseled me, recommending I log records of his censure, appalled at my censored retellings, which left out his most offensive comments.

Meanwhile, stubbornness hammered down on how lucky I was to be in a position where I could sleep under a roof. Where I could lean on a social circle. Worst of all, I cherished the chance to learn from him. I did learn from him, but not in the way I had planned.

I appealed to my tormentor. I expressed how a change within our relationship dynamic could better advance our common goals. I begged the manager to see my side.

For personal and professional circumstances, he never yielded.

You cannot win them all. There are days I wish I had given up on him earlier, but similarly there are days I wish I never did give up. With distance, seeing the big picture is easy. In the moment, it was not. I focus now on the friends, coworkers, and family who were there for me, rather than one troublesome manager.

Thus solidified my journey. I continually craft the right coping mechanisms to adopt constructive feedback and combat internal erosion.

What can we do?

Start with Ourselves

The best way to enact change is to start with that which is in our control. Where am I withholding my endorsement? Where do I add superfluous tasks and implicitly request analysis? Where am I closing off communication to leave disapproval up for interpretation?

When people request my approval, I want to be clear. My approval is won with earnestness and sound moral judgment.

Others should leave my company confident in how to meet my approval, even when I am not present. Relationships grounded in mutual safety, where daring proliferates because we trust one another, cures all missteps along the way.

When approval is clear, we worry much less about it.

What about others?

Make a list. In a given week, which people generously donate their approval to you? How does that impact you – in your thoughts, actions, and behaviors?

Among those you speak to weekly, which people tightly hold their approval, dangling it like a toy for you to chase? Does the hunt for approval foster development or deteriorate self-confidence?

Even when we find ourselves stretched, bent, and overworked, we cannot remove ourselves from blame. These situations can be crucibles. My manager tried to shrink through myriad unadvisable tactics. I eventually concluded that his narrow definition of competence is not something I need to strive for. I didn’t need his approval, because he didn’t have mine.

We give them power. But we possess the wherewithal to take it away as well.

Be mighty, and use your power for good.