A few years ago, one of my team members came to me. She was upset. Her manager on another project wasn’t valuing her input or her contributions, and he was also disrespectful. She’d tried everything. Nothing was working. She needed my help.
My first instinct (as is common with many leaders) was: okay, how do I fix THE PROBLEM?
I knew this employee’s manager quite well and to be frank: he was a jerk. The jerk who’s so successful that no one messes with him. So, I told this employee not to worry about it. She and I both knew she was making good contributions, even if he didn’t. I told her: ultimately, that’s his problem, not yours.
To be honest: my advice ended up being… really, really bad. Let me explain why.
Last week, we talked about Quiet Quitting and how it’s representative of the continued decrease in employee engagement. I shared the simple and easy tool of ACKNOWLEDGMENT that anyone can use to start to reengage an employee who may be lacking engagement. But that tool is just half of it. The other tool to increase engagement is VALIDATION. The act of supporting someone’s emotions doesn’t mean that you necessarily agree or disagree with their feelings or actions – but it does provide them a release of pent up energy. Acknowledging what someone says and then validating their feelings is a powerhouse move. It shows them you’re listening and you care. It’s an immediate engagement boost. It’s also a tool of influence mastered by the savviest of leaders.
Needless to say, I wasn’t as savvy then. Telling my team member “not to worry about it” was, not surprisingly, not working. I thought about calling her project manager to let him know that disrespecting my team member wasn’t welcome. Then a little lightbulb went off: instead of admonishing HIM, what if I empowered HER? I started my next conversation by acknowledging her and validating her feelings.
“You’re feeling frustrated because you believe that your contributions aren’t being valued. It’s understandable that you’d feel that way because you work very hard to make sure everything you do is meaningful and impactful.”
“Yes!” she said. “Exactly!”
It was like a weight was lifted off of her shoulders. After some brief discussion, she told me she knew how she wanted to handle it: she was going to do her job, and tell him that if he had any issue with it, they could sit down and talk about it respectfully, like adults. In the end, I didn’t have to jump in and FIX anything. She came to her own conclusion about how she wanted to handle it, because she was acknowledged and validated. It didn’t make the problem go away like some magic spell, but it did empower her to begin to seek solutions on her own. I just had to give her the space to find what worked for her… and it did.
So, how can you apply the tool of validation to your own leadership experiences?
First rule of thumb: Do not say, “I know how you feel”. You do not know how anyone feels.
Instead, try something like:
“No wonder you’re feeling X because…”
“It makes perfect sense that you’d be feeling X because…”
“That’s normal. It can be very hard when X happens…”
Now, put them together.
Acknowledge AND Validate!
Consider YOUR feelings for a moment. Think about times when you’ve felt shut down, unheard or unsupported. How might your experience have changed if someone acknowledged what you said and validated how you felt?
I hear some of you out there: this sounds like a waste of my time as a leader… employees these days need to toughen up.
But here’s the reality: It’s a two-sentence detour from the straight line, and it may actually get you to your destination smoother and with continued wind at your back.