Why External Validation Holds Us Back at Work–And What to Do About It
“What do people think about me?”
If you’ve ever asked yourself this distracting, unhelpful, and oh-so-common question, this post is for you.
A coaching client recently shared a story about her experience in a staff meeting. In the meeting, she and other senior leaders were asked to give brief presentations about their respective business areas.
My client shared that she was incredibly nervous and preoccupied with the reactions of people in the room as she was speaking. How she described her performance in this meeting and how she interpreted the people around her made me think of an Olympic athlete waiting for judges to put up their numbers.
After she completed her update, she sat down as the next leader got up to speak. She told me that she immediately tuned out and then realized something BIG. If she wasn't hanging on the presenter's every word and judging his every move, why should she assume her colleagues were doing that to her?
My client's valuable ah-ha moment made me think of something a therapist had told me when I was in my 20s and suffering from social anxiety. With great kindness, my therapist said, “Kim, you are the center of your universe; you are not the center of the universe. No one thinks about you as much as you think they do.”
What a liberating idea.
And yet, this preoccupation with what others think is familiar to many high achievers.
Why We Get Stuck Thinking About What Others Think—And How It Holds Us Back
According to the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, humans tend to overestimate the impact of our failures and shortcomings. In other words, you likely assume that even the most minor missteps cause others to think poorly of you when, in reality, their impressions are rarely as negative as you think.
The American educational system reinforces this tendency with its emphasis on evaluation. In academia, you got used to being scrutinized and judged based on your output, whether that output was a paper, a research presentation, or a dissertation talk. If you're used to being academically successful, you may have even grown to enjoy being tested!
But after years of being conditioned to seek that external validation, something changes in the workplace. When you transition from school to career, the markers of success that you have grown used to become far less helpful.
Instead of waiting for an instructor to grade your paper, you find yourself distracted during your presentation because Steve yawned. Suddenly you're thinking, "Am I not engaging?" When realistically, Steve is probably just stressed about his own workload or tired from a late night up with his kids.
The idea that everyone is evaluating your every word, idea, and output is not grounded in reality. Beyond that, it wastes energy, steals focus, and makes you second-guess yourself and play small out of fear.
How to get unstuck from this unhelpful mindset
While it’s unrealistic to never worry about what others are thinking, worrying less will give you back a lot of mental energy and peace. Here are a few strategies that I recommend to reframe these thoughts.
1) Remember, people aren’t actually thinking about you.
Borrow my old therapist’s advice! Everyone has plenty going on in their own lives and minds. Unless you have said or done something that directly relates to or reflects upon a colleague, there is little chance they are going home thinking about the slide deck snafu you had in your morning meeting.
2) Abandon the desire to be seen as the (capital “E”) Expert and approach your work with a service mindset.
You’ll never know everything. So, abandon the unreachable goal of perfectionism and instead focus on being of service. By approaching situations with a service mindset, you relieve yourself of the pressure of being the expert. Work is a team sport. Your job is not to know all; it’s to connect what you know and do well to what others know and do well to achieve organizational goals.
3) Embrace the humanity that comes along with imperfection.
Being less than perfect is inevitable, but beyond that, it can be an opportunity for connection. When you are perfect, it makes others feel like they have to be perfect, and that holds everyone back. Being comfortable showing your humanity builds trust and helps others relate to and root for you.
Remember, your self-worth does not need to be tied to others' opinions. In fact, every time you flub a word or misquote a figure and survive it, it's an opportunity to build resilience!
Are you interested in diving deeper into how this issue surfaces in your work life?
Learn about individual leadership coaching.