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Make More Money, Get Less Validation?

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Over the years, I've heard a number of highly employed (senior management and up) clients, friends, and (occasionally) coworkers complain about the lack of validation they get at work. It seems that senior managers are told, often repeatedly, about the need to give positive feedback to those in their charge. And it seems the people below them definitely appreciate the validation, becoming more loyal, working harder, etc. But the senior managers themselves rarely (if ever) receive similar encouragement.

Consider, for example, a close friend who recently left a high level, high paying job to work for a rival company. Over lunch she explained that even though she was taking a pay cut to make this move, she felt it was necessary for her long-term happiness. She said, "I'm just tired of cramming 60 hours of work into a 40-hour week with nobody ever saying thank you. I'd rather make less money but work for people who appreciate me." When I asked if she had voiced this complaint to her boss (the CEO), she said, "Yes, and the SOB told me, 'I think you're missing a fundamental piece of what it means to be upper level management. The fact that I've put you in this role should be all the validation you need.' And then he told me, 'Coming in here and telling me you'd like an occasional pat on the back just seems a little needy.'"

Ouch!

As stated earlier, I hear this type of story relatively often from clients, friends, and coworkers. So my question to you is this: Who is right, my friend who opted for less money with more emotional validation, or her CEO who thought responsibility and a giant paycheck should be enough?

Digging into this further, it is helpful to observe that within the fields of both child-rearing and business there are concepts of reward commonly referred to as "explicit validation" and "implicit validation." Interestingly, explicit validation means the same in both worlds, but implicit validation does not.

  • Explicit Validation (Childcare and Business Alike): This is the overt validation of what other people are thinking and feeling, and/or praise for their efforts. Explicit validation of thoughts and emotions is expressed through statements like, "I understand how you are feeling. I would feel the same way if I were in your shoes." Explicit validation for effort (not necessarily success, but effort) is given with statements like, "I really appreciate how hard you worked on this project. You should definitely be proud of that."

  • Implicit Validation (Childcare): Emotionally healthy children need implicit validation as much as they need explicit validation. With kids, this need appears most often with feelings. Implicit validation of their feelings is given when a parent or some other caregiver simply sits with a child, fully present, while the child experiences his or her emotions, whatever those emotions might be. In this way, the child implicitly learns that it is OK to have feelings, both good and bad.
  • Implicit Validation (Business): In the business world, implicit validation is given through responsibility and income. Usually, entry-level through middle-management workers receive implicit validation (modest responsibility and a paycheck) plus relatively constant explicit feedback, with higher ups thanking them and letting them know that they are appreciated. However, as workers climb the corporate ladder, the explicit kudos often disappear, with only the implicit validation (increased responsibility and a bigger paycheck) remaining. The thinking seems to be, "I trust you with lots of responsibility and I give you a really nice paycheck, so you shouldn't need me to also pat you on the back and say, 'Great job. You're fabulous. We couldn't do it without you.'"
  • In my opinion, human needs don't change much as we age and move forward with our lives. As children, we need both explicit and implicit validation of our feelings and actions. Together, the two forms of validation let us know that what we're thinking, feeling, and doing is OK. And we learn that if we're not getting both forms of the validation we need/desire, it's probably because we're doing something wrong and need to make some healthy changes (putting in more effort, not being a jerk, etc.) As adults, my analysis is exactly the same. We need both explicit and implicit validation of our feelings and actions, regardless of our station in life. And if/when we don't get both, we automatically think that it's probably because we're doing something wrong.

    Based on this idea, I asked my friend one final question about her decision to switch jobs: "Did the lack of explicit validation, even with all the implicit validation you were getting, make you feel as if you were underperforming?" And wow, did her face ever light up. "Yes, that's exactly it," she said. "I felt like I must be doing a crummy job because nobody ever told me I was doing well. And I carried that feeling around with me everywhere I went. I felt ashamed and not good enough all the time, and the paycheck just wasn't enough to overcome that feeling."

    So it seems clear to me that employers, like parents, need to both explicitly and implicitly validate their charges, and they need to do so at all levels of employment, because the effects on senior management will likely be the same as on everyone else -- happier, more loyal, harder working people. Conversely, equating explicit validation with success (increased responsibility and higher pay) may be as bad as no validation at all.

    Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is Senior VP of National Clinical Development for Elements Behavioral Health, creating and overseeing mental health treatment programs for more than a dozen facilities, including Promises Treatment Centers in Malibu, The Ranch in rural Tennessee, and The Right Step in Texas. He is the author of several highly regarded books. For more information please visit his website at robertweissmsw.com or follow him on Twitter, @RobWeissMSW.