Whether it’s a boss’s praise, a book or song hitting a bestseller list, or a ranking in sport or chess, we humans crave external validation. As a social species, this is part of our hardwiring. The more liked and valued we are, the more protection we get from the community, and the easier it is to find a mate; both of which enhance our chances of passing on our DNA, which is all that evolution cares about. But we no longer live on the Savannah, and we tend to think of ourselves as a bit more enlightened than our earliest ancestors. Yet for so many of us, it is still a struggle to shake off our attachment to external validation. At best it’s a distraction. At worst, it creates an emotional roller coaster that can control our lives.
Here’s something that I’ve observed in myself and others. When three key psychosocial elements are in place, we tend not to care so much about our places, rankings, or public reputations.
- Autonomy: some sense of control over how we spend our time and our energy
- Mastery: tangible progress that can be traced back to oneself
- Belonging: a strong sense of connection to other people, places, or traditions
When these three elements are not firmly in place, we tend to substitute chasing external validation in a frantic attempt to fulfill us. (Spoiler alert: it never does.) This is precisely why so many people who don’t prioritize community and belonging are so obsessed with social media likes and retweets and comments and all of that. (It’s also ironic how social media and even email has a way of eating at your autonomy, as it comes to own you instead of you owning it.)
In a conventional workplace where everyone has autonomy, mastery, and belonging, there generally isn’t a lot of petty office politics, because people are satisfied and fulfilled. When autonomy, mastery, and belonging are lacking, however, office politics tend to take over, if for no other reason than it gives people something to do.
Sure, it’s a simple heuristic, but the importance of mastery, autonomy, and belonging isn’t just supported by my observations. Far more importantly, it’s supported by four decades of serious scientific research.
They key take-aways are twofold:
- If you find yourself in a position where you care deeply about something and there is a strong external pull—for example: shipping a creative product, gunning for a promotion, or competing in the Olympics—be sure to prioritize autonomy, mastery, and belonging. Doing so will help keep you centered and sane, regardless of where the chips fall.
- If you are in a leadership position, be sure to make autonomy, mastery, and belonging accessible to everyone. Your organization’s long-term success and health might very well depend on it.
All of this stuff is simple. But simple doesn’t mean easy, especially in the 21st century where personality lives on a marketplace, cheap thrills and distractions are abundant, and little hits of dopamine can be found just about anywhere.
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