I hate to admit this, but recently I have been finding myself caring more and more how people think of me at work. It’s natural for humans to seek others’ approvals. But the level to which I seek approvals has increased so much that it becomes counter-productive and bothers me.
Leading a big project contributes to this change. To lead the project effectively, I need to pay close attention to how each stakeholder of the project feels about the project — not only the team working on the project but also other people invested in the project in one way or another.
Since I have the tendency to confuse my work with my own identity, I confuse “how people feel about the project” with “how people feel about me”. As a result, making sure people feel good about the project gradually becomes seeking people’s approvals.
This post is based on my personal experience. But the metal trap of taking work personally and seeking external approvals is common. I hope my experience might help others avoid or get out of this mental trap. To make the most out of this retrospection, I will try to be as transparent as possible.
Why I seek approvals
1. I feel the need to defend myself
I don’t believe that simply doing great work is enough. I don’t subscribe to the philosophy of doing great work and trusting the system will recognize and reward you automatically.
On the contrary, I find that “you are your own best hype person and you need to advocate for yourself” is closer to reality. In other words, I believe I need to not only do great work but also make sure the relevant people are aware of my contribution.
The other side of being one’s own advocator is being one’s defender. One recurring pattern I notice is when someone suggests A when A is part of my plan all along, I feel the urge to make it clear that A is already part of my plan — I try to make it clear that I am not a step behind.
2. My Ego
I originally thought the previous point, feeling the need to defend myself, was motivated by the desire for career growth. After taking a closer look at my thoughts, I realize that’s not the complete picture. A big part of wanting to defend myself is driven by my ego. In the essence of the urge to declare that I have thought of A is my way of saying “I’m steps ahead, not behind.”1
3. The habit of finding confirmation from others, especially the ones I respect.
This is a common trait all humans share to some degree. Back in the days when we lived in tribes, others’ approvals and support were crucial to our survival. Although it’s not as true anymore, it’s something that got wired into our brains from the past. But that doesn’t mean we have to be controlled by it. More on that later.
How seeking external approvals exhausts me
1. I wast energy and emotion on “counting” if I get recognized or appreciated correctly
2. I become overly-defensive, which also consumes energy.
3. My judgment and performance are negatively impacted.
The first two points should be self-evident. I want to provide more context on the last point.
As I mentioned in the beginning of the post, I have the tendency to confuse my work with my own identity. I'm lacking have a healthy distance between my work and myself. In other words, my brain sometimes thinks of my work and my identity as one.
As a result, whenever an issue that may have a negative impact on my project comes up, my brain treats it as a threat to my identity. My brain forms this short-circuited response: discovers an unexpected issue related to the project -> immediately thinks the project might not get done on time -> (unconsciously) equals it as a threat to my identity -> gets alarmed, frozen, and overwhelmed.
Two things made me notice this pattern. The first one is that I realize I often felt overwhelmed when things come up. The second one is I saw how my manager investigated an unexpected issue quickly which turned out to be not as a big deal as I thought.
I asked myself why my manager was able to make progress so much quicker than I did when we had the same information. Looking back, I found that way before starting the investigation, I was already in the frozen and overwhelmed stage. No one can perform normally in that stage.
The ironic thing is my brain jumps from discovering an unexpected issue to concluding it’s a big deal in no time, which then triggers the whole reaction chain putting me on the frozen and overwhelmed stage.
I think it’s because as humans, we over-index on things that link to our identity. We have a much stronger emotion association to words linking to ourselves, like “I”, “me”, and “my” than other words such as “table”, “sky”, and “water”. “My apple” sounds much different than “an apple”. Similarly, “my problem” immediately seems to be a bigger deal than “a problem“.
When I can't separate myself from work, any problem related to the project becomes my problem. That’s how my judgment and performance are negatively impacted.
What might help
This close examination of the underlying reasons helps me come up with a few ideas.
A) Combating being overly-defensive
1. Better communication.
In the case of me defending myself and explaining “A is my plan all along”, it’s also a symptom of communication gaps. If I communicated ahead of time about what’s coming up, my teammates wouldn’t have to guess.
2. Recognize the urge and pausing before reacting to it.
Simply recognizing the urge and pausing to ask myself if I do want to follow it will help me be intentional of my action and its impact. Often times, I find my self-defense does nothing besides feeding my own ego.
3. Look for internal affirmations, not external ones.
I should shift my focus from external affirmations to internal ones. External affirmations, by definition, are out of my control. I won’t be able to keep my motivation and productivity steady if they depend on external affirmation.
4. Remember the big picture matters more.
I discussed this with my manager. He reminded me that people don’t actually remember these small individual events I got so caught up on. The questions that actually matter are: are the people working on it onboard and happy and does the project eventually get done.
B) A fight with ego
I ran into this ego issue a few years back. Reading The Ego Is The Enemy helped me a lot back then. Now seems to be a good time to revisit the book to tame the beast.
C) Breaking the short circuit
To refresh our memories, the short circuit my brain forms is: discovers an unexpected issue related to the project -> immediately thinks the project might not get done on time -> (unconsciously) equals it as a threat to my identity -> gets alarmed, frozen, and overwhelmed.
1. Don’t automatically think of every surprise as a big deal.
I can break the short circuit by breaking the first link of the chain: discovers an unexpected issue related to the project -> immediately thinks the project might not get done on time.
Instead of treating every surprise as a big deal, I should calmly do an investigation on the issue first.
2. Create better distance between me and my work.
The second link of the chain, immediately thinks the project might not get done on time -> (unconsciously) equals it as a threat to my identity, won’t exist if I maintain a healthy separation between myself and my work.
I don’t have any good ideas besides reminding myself “I’m not my work” regularly and “issues on my work are not affecting who I am” when stressful issues come up at work.
3. Don’t get overwhelmed.
Dah! This sounds a bit silly. If I can un-overwhelm myself, why would I get overwhelmed in the first place? But I think it can be powerful to simply acknowledge that I get overwhelmed and remind myself that doesn’t help the case besides slowing me down.
Writing this post and examining the issue closely is a somewhat painful but educational and rewarding process. Obviously, I’m no expert in this. I would love to hear about your experience and advice!
 To be honest, this section is a bit hard to write, as the ego does not like to get exposed. >_<
My career plan for the year is to grow into a tech lead. I’m excited about all the learnings ahead and would love to share this journey with you in a brutally honest fashion. I will be sharing my weekly learning on the blog.
In the next few months, I will focus on growing in the following areas. You can expect to see posts related to them:
- focusing on the big picture of the project instead of near-term implementation details;
- balancing my efforts between leading projects and coding;
- work-life balance for long-term productivity;
- the human side of software development: making sure everyone riding with me enjoys the ride and feels fulfilled and inspired.