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When leaders fall into the approval trap

Read on to identify if you’re in it, the impact if you choose to stay in it and some simple, proven strategies to escape it.

Leadership is a balancing act, and if you’re a leader who craves approval, you’ll be trying to balance people’s expectations, emotions, criticisms and performance, and I’m pretty sure you’re equal parts exhausted, dismissed, targeted, judged, trivialised and occasionally … very occasionally, celebrated.

But here’s the really important thing to know – there’s a VERY high chance your staff are feeling the same way.

It’s ok though, the need to be liked is something that drives us all to some degree, it’s a very big human need, but when you’re a leader, that quest for approval massively impacts on the decisions you make and the people you (often misguidedly) prioritise.  Wanting to be liked and approved of isn’t inherently bad, in fact it’s driven by a desire for connection and acceptance, but when you are in a position of leadership it compromises your ability to lead, because in the act of chasing approval you, by default, avoid responsibility.

I know, right?  Ouch!!

Thankfully (but scarily) if you are trapped in the ‘approval trap’, you’re probably totally oblivious – because it’s all you’ve ever known.

Until now!

So, here’s a few of the “tells”, you’ll be experiencing if this pattern has gripped you good.


Now, as humans, none of us really get excited about argy bargy, but if you’re avoiding the issues that matter, just so you can prioritise the ones that don’t, then that’s a big tick on the ‘could I be an approval seeker’ checklist.  

What does that even mean?  It means (you might want to sit down to read this bit), you may be tolerating poor behaviour from those who have clout in your ‘approval ranking’, but pulling rank and maybe even being overly harsh on those who don’t.

So, what do you do if this is the case? 

Pay attention to who’s poor behaviour you’re letting go through to the keeper and how this could be perceived by those around you. Setting behavioural boundaries, when done well, will NOT create enemies, but WILL create a lot more respect and commitment from your team.


You know that feedback is important, and you especially love the kind that’s good. It’s an instant boost, a little hit of dopamine, a temporary top up of the “I’m ok” tank. 

If the compliments aren’t offered though, you might sing your own praises, just in case people need a reminder of the great stuff you’re doing.  The bitey feedback, however, may feel like an attack to you though – as it does to us all – but what you DO with it is the important thing.

If the shutters come down and your perception of the person providing the feedback changes, then you might have just missed another, open-minded opportunity for glorious personal growth. 

So, what do you do if this is the case? 

Pay attention to whether the person is delivering feedback on YOU or on your performance, because this is the key.  Emotionally intelligent people will critique behaviour, but those with compromised EQ will critique people. 

Additional opportunity for growth – think back to the last challenging feedback you delivered, or conversation you had about someone – did you focus on the behaviour, or did you talk about the character of the person?

I’m just going to leave that there and move on.


If you’re in the approval trap, you’ll probably find that shiny, social things get your attention, while the important, albeit mundane, operational tasks get benched. This may not be the case for you, but you’ll know if it is, if you’re not responding to emails, if your staff are pulling their hair out trying to wrangle you, and if you’re not fully present in the meetings that matter (because you may believe that they don’t).

So, what do you do if this is the case? 

You acknowledge that the *yawn* processes are not ticket holders in your happy place, but that you are being paid the big bucks for a reason. As leaders, our job is so much easier when we our teams are working to their strengths, but that will never happen … if you’re not.

Additional opportunity for growth – do a mental stocktake of the time you spend avoiding, versus the time you spend doing the things you’re avoiding.  If Team Avoidance is in the lead, explore ways to make the stuff you’re dodging, more doable.

And hey, I feel your pain. I have tasks that make an armpit of fleas seem like a favourable option, but I have learned that these ‘chores’ can be made less painful if we do them in smaller pockets of time. I personally, have an app on my phone called Forrest. It allows me to choose a tree and a block of time, then, once I hit ‘start’ the tree begins to grow. If I move my phone or deviate from the task, the tree dies. OMG! The shame!!! Fun fact – I have used it hundreds of times and have never lost a tree yet. But, the pint I am making here, is that knowing I am growing a tree (don’t roll your eyes and tell me it’s make-believe) makes it much easier for my brain to focus in, while still enjoying ‘a spot of mental gardening’.


If you’re thinking that if people like you, it means they think you’re a good leader, or if you think you need to be liked to know you’re doing a good job, then I hate to break it to you, but often the opposite is true.

Sure, we all want to be liked and let’s face it, our life is a lot easier when we are, but some of the people who like you, may have very little respect for you, just as some of the people who don’t really like you, may have bucketloads of respect for you.

How is this so?

Well … how do I say this nicely?

When you are neck deep in the ‘approval trap’ you are easily exploited. 

People will know how to get you onside, how to win you over and how to upcycle their fake allegiance for you, into favours from you.

So, what do you do if you think this might be the case? 

You just need to be aware that your need for approval can compromise your objectivity.   

Take some time to reflect on whether you treat those who you like, differently to those you like less. 

Are you more likely to seek (and value) the impartial feedback of those in your corner, more than the impartial and WAY more beneficial feedback of those on the outskirts?

Before you spiral down into the “who can I trust” cycle, remind yourself that it all comes back to one thing – impartiality.  When you treat people equally, you remove the currency from your position, and replace it with integrity (from you and toward you) and your relationships go from being superficial to sincere.


Let’s not sugarcoat it – the constant quest for approval is mentally and emotionally draining.

The stress of trying to stay in favour can lead to anxiety, burnout, and a loss of self-confidence, not only in you, but also in your team. It’s a vicious cycle: the more you seek approval, the more stressed you become, and the less effective you are as a leader.

So, what do you do if you think this might be the case? 

You simply acknowledge that the need for approval is a normal part of this thing we call humaning, but when it becomes your primary driver, nobody wins – including you.

Start making decisions based on what’s right, not what’s popular, which doesn’t mean disregarding other people’s opinions, but rather weighing them against the bigger picture and your organisation’s core values.

Instead of avoiding criticism, learn how to handle it constructively – and that starts will getting rid of the need to even call it criticism and see it for what it is – your people valuing you enough to call you out.

When people don’t care, they just stay quiet, or leave – but when they do care, they’ll speak up. 

Resilience isn’t just about bouncing back, it’s about bouncing back better, and it’s feedback that helps you do this.  Seek out constructive feedback and use it as a tool for improvement. This not only helps you grow as a leader but also demonstrates that you value your team’s input, and value respect over approval.

Being respected is more important than being liked.

Respect is earned through consistency, fairness, and courage. When your team respects you, they’re more likely to support your decisions and follow your lead, even when they don’t necessarily agree with you.

In conclusion, the need for approval is a common, and you are human after all, but it’s a pattern that can compromise your leadership unnecessarily.

If you’re ready for education and science-based strategies that will help you improve your resilience and ability to respond to challenges with confidence, clarity and objectivity, then our six-month coaching program Emotionally Intelligent Leadership is worth looking into.

These are the outcomes you can expect from the program:

Improved Self-Awareness: You’ll have a better understanding of your own emotions and how they impact your thoughts and behaviours, enabling more effective self-management.

Improved Focus: You’ll improve your ability to manage distractions and concentrate on priorities that align with KPIs.

Improved Conflict Resolution: You’ll develop the skills navigate, resolve and prevent conflict constructively, so disruptions are minimised, and all parties play a role in contributing to a positive, respectful outcome, without the lengthy resolution process.

Increased Resilience: You’ll get strategies that will help you become more adaptable and bounce back from setbacks and challenges, with a positive and proactive attitude.

Improved Stress Management: You will learn simple, logical techniques that will help you manage stress and maintain composure in high-pressure situations, without getting up in your head afterwards, replaying and regretting.

Improved Mental Health: You’ll learn how to support your own mental health and overall well-being which in turn reduces the risk of burnout, anxiety, and depression.

Improved Ability to Lead by Example: You will learn how to demonstrate emotionally intelligent behaviours in your leadership style and set a positive example for your team to follow. A fish rots at the head first, so as a leader, you have the power to transform your entire organisation.

If you’d like that transformation to be a positive one, take the first step here, and together, we’ll take it from there.

Leanne Shaw
Senior Coach/Trainer
Leanne Shaw

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