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No One Talks About This Crucial Leadership Skill (But You Should Be and It Will Make You a Better Leader)

Validation is the prerequisite to vulnerability, authenticity, and belonging. It makes psychological safety a possible reality. As you learn this essential skill, you can be the impactful leader you want to be.

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On the final episode of her TV show, Oprah declared: "I've talked to nearly 30,000 people on this show, and all 30,000 had one thing in common. They all wanted validation."

All humans share this innate need and intense desire. When we look at Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs, three out of five components are related to validation: safety, love and belonging and esteem.

Related: 5 Rock-Solid Leadership Strategies That Drive Success

But, what is validation really?

Validation is allowing and acknowledging someone's unique emotional experience, thoughts, values, dreams, beliefs, concerns and contributions.

Allowing: This happens through practicing silence and providing space for full expression.

Acknowledging: This means expressing that you recognize that what was shared is accurate, valid and important.

Validation is the feedback that sends the clear message: "You are seen, safe and supported."

Related: Your Employees Are Probably Feeling Triggered at Work

Why does validation matter?

Validation helps build stronger relationships because it helps people feel valued. Validation is essential to create a deep connection with another human being and is a necessary skill for leaders.

When we validate others, their needs of safety, love, belonging and esteem are met. These are the requirements for self-actualization. When someone feels invalidated, they cannot fulfill their potential — it may even stunt their growth.

Validation is so much more than rewarding extraordinary work with money, perks or verbal praise. It requires genuine care and an appreciation of the whole person — not just their accomplishments and efforts.

Even top performers stop growing when they don't feel validated or feel invalidated. Invalidation is the unspoken barrier to vulnerability, authenticity and belonging.

Related: The Pursuit of Happiness: Self-Actualization and Maslow's Mistake

Validation is the prerequisite for vulnerability

In recent years, we've all heard about the power of vulnerability and the need for authenticity in every aspect of our lives. I believe everyone understands the value of being vulnerable. And most of us want to be vulnerable. For many of us, it's a deep desire.

However, many of us are constantly invalidated, making us cautious or even close to attempting to be vulnerable again. We guard ourselves against people who invalidate our experiences.

For people to be vulnerable and authentic, they need a safe place. They need a safe person.

Validation is the prerequisite for vulnerability. When someone validates our experience after we've shared something vulnerable, we are likely to be vulnerable again with them. However, we become hesitant or resistant to open up when we are invalidated.

Related: The Benefits of Practicing Vulnerability in the Office

What is invalidation?

Many of us think of invalidation as saying something mean to another person when in reality, many of our invalidating responses actually come from a good place.

Invalidation can happen by denying, dismissing, or diminishing someone's experience.

Denying is overt invalidation. When you tell someone that what they perceive as true didn't happen or is not happening, it is evident that they will feel unseen, unsafe and unsupported. However, dismissing and diminishing is a more covert message often disguised as motivation. I call this "motivational shame."

Most leaders have been trained to motivate their teams. But motivation is not enough. Motivation can be detrimental when it invalidates someone, no matter how great your intentions might be. Invalidation happens when someone expresses concern, and you reply: "You'll be fine" or "You've got this!"

Invalidation looks like someone sharing an experience they consider painful and receiving the reply: "It's not such a big deal" or "It could be worse." Many people would go as far as to share those worst cases with them.

Even sharing solutions like a mantra or positive affirmation can be an invalidating experience because when people share their feelings, they are not necessarily seeking solutions. They are just seeking confirmation that they are not wrong or fundamentally flawed for feeling them.

Essentially, being invalidated is getting the message that we are not being rational in our feelings and that we shouldn't feel that way. This leaves us feeling worse and leads us to shut down, affecting our state, health and performance.

Validation helps create a safe culture where your psychological safety is a possible reality.

Fostering an inclusive environment

It's a great step to encourage your employees to be transparent, but saying phrases like "be your true self" or "bring your whole self to work" is not enough. Authenticity still feels daring and must be validated for that person to remain authentic.

Without validation, you cannot have a genuinely inclusive environment because inclusion is not a policy.

We feel included when we can be authentic and don't have to strive to fit in. When we are validated, we feel that we belong, just as we are.

Related: 4 Ways to Cultivate Inclusion and Compassion In the Workplace

How to validate those you lead

Validating is a critical leadership skill, even in self-leadership. I'm sharing some examples of validation in the workplace to illustrate how simple it can be:

Experience: "Wow, being a woman of color in this company sounds difficult."

Thoughts: "I really appreciate your willingness to share your ideas!"

Values: "Wow… I can see why that's important to you."

Dreams: "You sound so excited about this new goal, and with your work ethic, I'm sure you can do it!"

Beliefs: "Can you tell me more about that?"

Concerns: "I can understand why you feel that way. I'd be worried too!"

Contribution: "You've put so much into this project. I'm so happy for you. What an amazing accomplishment!"

Validating is an effective way to connect with those you lead because it communicates that you care about them. To make a difference in the people you lead, you must create an environment where they feel valued. I encourage you to think about how you might replace motivation with validation. As you do this, you can genuinely be the impactful leader you want to be.

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