An Overlooked Practice For Motivating Employees

Much has been written about the need to motivate your workforce. Today’s workers are skilled, versatile, risk-seeking, and mobile. You have to motivate the A-players to want to stay, or they’ll leave for greener pastures. How?

Quite a bit of research in recent years has shown that money should not be your primary tool. Instead, companies tout their culture, their sense of purpose, their investment in L&D, their google-ish perks, their work-life balance and flexibility, etc. (See Dan Pink’s brilliant presentation on Purpose, Mastery, and Autonomy.) And all of these are important (some more than others). Yet, I believe there is a vital aspect of motivation missing from this list above, and that is validation.

Validation is the act of giving formal confirmation of something’s legitimacy. Validating another person is giving confirmation that you recognize in them what they’re trying to get you to recognize. This is so important. We all want to be validated for being the sort of person we are trying to be. Just think of how much time and energy we spend on trying to look worthy, good, smart, pretty, tough, skilled, rich, funny, kind, cool, etc.!  It’s human nature to want to be a certain version of yourself, and to want others to acknowledge that you’re being that person.

In fact, I would argue that most demotivating aspects at work come down to people feeling invalidated –feeling like others are not seeing me for the person I am trying to be. Don’t believe me? Think of the last 10 instances you’ve witnessed when someone was really demotivated in his/her job. Sure, some of those were probably because people were working too hard, or bored with what they were doing. But how many were because someone wasn’t feeling validated by someone else in the company?

  • “He’s an arrogant jerk who thinks he knows everything!” (i.e., who doesn’t think I’m smart)
  • “She controlling and a micromanager!” (i.e., doesn’t respect my competence to deliver)
  • “He’s clueless and doesn’t pay attention to what it takes to get the job done!” (i.e., doesn’t acknowledge how hard I’m working)
  • “She jumps to conclusions and doesn’t give me the benefit of the doubt!” (i.e., doesn’t think I’m honest)

These are all common complaints, and they all have one thing in common: they express the frustrations of someone not being seen for how he/she wants to be seen (e.g., smart, competent, hard-working, honest). And that can be really demotivating.

So I submit to you: a vital part of motivating your employees is to build validation into the leadership toolkit. How do you do this? Follow the steps below and you’ll be on your way:

  • Find out who your people want to be: You can’t exactly validate them if you don’t know what they are hoping will be validated. Find out their values and core identity themes—find out what it is they’re trying to be. How? Try this:
    1. Ask them what they admire in other people. Chances are they admire others who are recognized for the attributes they are trying to be recognized for.
    2. Ask them what they’re most proud of, or about a time they felt fully fulfilled at work. Chances are they will describe a time when they were acknowledged for being the sort of person they are trying to be.
    3. Ask them how they want to be seen by leadership in 3 years. Here, they’ll probably give you a laundry list of 10 attributes, but pay attention to the first 3. These are more important to them than the rest.

Do this during goal setting and make a note of it—this is what’s important to your people and one of the keys to motivating them!

  • Do it credibly.
    1. Don’t exaggerate. People will see through that. You think someone wants to be validated for being smart? Don’t tell them they’re Einstein. Tell/show them that you notice how smart they actually are.
    2. Don’t do it too much. Even if you aren’t exaggerating, don’t point it out too much – it will lose its punch. I have an employee who impresses me daily with her intelligence, but if I told her every day, she’d stop hearing it.
    3. Point it out with examples. Most of us are at least a little insecure—that’s why most of us want others to validate who we are trying to be. Since we’re insecure, we will be tempted to dismiss your validation as “just another person I’ve been able to fool into thinking I’m… .” So get past this with examples. Instead of “you’re honest” say “that time you pointed out we overpaid you in your expense report demonstrated what integrity you have. I really appreciated that.”
    4. Point out when it’s not happening. If you want to be credible when you’re validating someone, you have to prove that you’re willing to give them constructive feedback when they aren’t doing as well. This way they’ll know you’re serious when you validate their positive attributes.
  • Don’t sound surprised. Ever try to compliment someone only to wind up accidentally insulting them? Often, these compliments start with “Wow—I was really surprised that you were so (smart, hard-working, empathetic, authentic, honest, caring).” People are trying to be seen for these attributes, so they don’t want to hear that you were surprised to see those attributes make a rare appearance.
  • Look for opportunities to let them show it off.
    1. I’m not all that creative, but I am quite analytical, and I’m proud of my analytical skills (and I appreciate being validated for them). On the rare event that I do something creative, I don’t get all that excited when people validate me for it. I chalk it up to a lucky fluke. But when I crack an analytical problem, I come alive! I get really motivated when people acknowledge me for that. So give me analytical problems to solve every now and then—it will motivate me!
  • Ask them to teach others this attribute. A great way to validate people is to ask them to teach others how to be so (insert attribute here). Boy will they feel seen and acknowledged!

What other tools and techniques do you have to validate people? What are some of the watchouts? Would love to hear your advice and reactions in the comments below.

FOT Background Check

Ben Olds
Ben works in HR/OD at Merrimack Pharmaceuticals, a Cambridge company dedicated to the simple goal of trying to cure cancer… no big deal! Ben’s on his second career, having spent his first in business/strategy consulting, mostly with Bain & Co and Monitor Group, which basically just means he relies on MS Excel to solve virtually any problem he faces. If he’s not coaching or working with colleagues on their approach to leadership, he’s helping teams create effective dynamics or planning a recognition program to motivate employees. And sometimes, he’s chasing his wife around the ice hockey rink in his weekly pick-up game, or playing tennis, squash, skiing, hiking, mountain biking, or anything else to expend his nervous energy!


  1. Anna says:

    I couldn’t agree more with this article. Validation is the missing link. I’ve made it a priority to make sure that my employees feel validated and that their opinions matter. Thank you for writing this article.

  2. Shawn Buxton says:

    This is all BS. This stuff sounds good but has nothing to do with motivation. If you have people in your organization that need this kind of coddling then you should seriously evaluate if you are cut out for leadership. It is impossible to motivate anyone long term. You can only inspire (which is temporary) and de-motivate your employees. This kind of team coddling is a cover up for leadership’s failure to hire and fire the right people who are/aren’t self motivated. It smacks of “everybody gets a ribbon” and if you expect ANYONE else to motivate you then feel free to schedule an Outlook meeting for a swift kick to the balls courtesy of the real world.

    • Daniel Puselj says:


      While I understand that motivation has to be intrinsic and you have to want to do a job to do it well, but I don’t entirely agree with your points on validation.

      I think this article mainly discusses the need for employees to be given credit where credit is due, and be criticised constructively when something isn’t going right to show an unbiased and respectful demeanour when it comes to their actions in the workplace. When an employee shows an attribute of theirs that benefits not only themselves but the organisation, some sort of validation would be motivating to an employee in my opinion.

      I think that expressing some validation to an employee and not expressing it shows the difference between a leader and a manager, where a leader would validate and a manager wouldn’t. Something that most “top of the hierarchy” people need to work on.

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