Company culture is often defined as the set of behaviours, values, and beliefs prevalent within an organisation. While work atmosphere, communication style, organisational structure, and decision-making methods play a huge role, emotional validation is the ingredient that takes your culture to the next level. It’s a factor known to increase morale, participation, and collaboration, and a means of showing respect. According to Ryan Armstrong, postdoctoral researcher at Universitat de Barcelona, leaders who validate well tend to positively influence their work culture, and reduce turnover and burnout.
“A positive company culture is a result of respect. Among other things, employees feel respected when they’re emotionally validated. The key is to communicate this regularly to your employees” says Armstrong, who also worked in hospitality before his career in academia.
Whether you are a hospitality business owner or leader, you’ll benefit from learning what validation is, and how to validate employees in this article. Then, we will cover how invalidation affects employees, what it feels like when someone invalidates us, and what to watch out for. Ready to dive in?
What is Emotional Validation, and Why Does it Matter?
Simply put, emotional validation means understanding and communicating that you accept someone’s feelings, perspectives or situation (1). It’s a communication strategy originally proposed by Marsha Linehan, Ph.D., the creator of Dialectical Behaviour Therapy. Validation includes the following elements:
- Finding the fragments of truth in another person’s perspective or situation.
- Verifying the facts of a situation.
- Not necessarily agreeing with the other person.
- Not validating what is actually invalid.(2)
Validation shows we are listening and that we understand. It reduces the pressure to prove who is right, negative reactivity, and anger, making problem solving, closeness and support possible.
This communication strategy is especially important in times of conflict, and when we don’t necessarily agree with the person’s behaviour at that time. “My research on change management has illustrated that workplace dysfunction is caused by failures in relatively basic aspects of human behaviour, which I call micro-skills. The irony is that we tend to act most unskillfully in stressful situations, when we need skills the most. Validation is the micro-skill that is in the shortest supply” says Armstrong.
😟→Worried that your employees could be suffering from burnout? Learn what you can do about it in this article!
Why is Emotional Validation an Important Leadership Skill?
Good leaders know how to listen to, inspire, motivate, and influence those around them. Listening and validating tend to go hand-in-hand: validation can make your employees feel heard, understood and valued. When you validate someone, you increase their self-esteem, which contributes to their work satisfaction and productivity. To deeply understand validation, however, it helps to grasp what invalidation is, and what its effects are.
What is Emotional Invalidation, and How Does it Affect Employees?
Invalidation is when what someone says, feels or has gone through is misread, misinterpreted, or when the facts are ignored. When an employee says something like “I'm having difficulty concentrating” to you as a leader, be careful. Responses like “Oh, you're just tired'' or “You're always making things up”, are typical examples of invalidation.
This type of invalidation hurts, and has been correlated with increased turnover in the software development and research sectors, for example. Signs of emotional invalidation can include resentment, a reduced sense of self-esteem, and remarks that signal self-deprecation.
“It’s a frustrating experience when someone denies what you're feeling or experiencing, or when no one believes you, even though you’re telling the truth. The hospitality environment can be particularly invalidating because of the nature of the work.
Signals from the environment, such as difficult clients or managers, can make employees feel like they don’t matter or that their actions don't fit. "Invalidation can hurt our emotional experience depending on how it’s delivered. Leaders play a big role in this because employees look up to them for guidance and support,” states Armstrong.
"When an employee says something like “I'm having difficulty concentrating” to you as a leader, be careful. Responses like “Oh, you're just tired'' or “You're always making things up”, are typical examples of invalidation."
Examples of Emotional Invalidation
Although there are countless examples of what can be considered invalidating, here are some common ones:
- Ignoring someone
- Repeatedly misreading, misinterpreting or misunderstanding their statements
- Trivialising their experience
- Asking someone to move on from or get over something (without acknowledging what they are going through in the first place).
At work e.g., evaluating someone’s performance in a way that feels unfair to them is also a type of invalidation. Think about unrealistic KPIs or rating scales for annual reviews. This doesn't mean ignoring employee performance altogether: creating work environments where everyone can correct each other is vital for your business. You can achieve this without the need to invalidate someone's emotions, however.
“Right now, businesses are offering highly increased methods to track employee and company performance. (3) But this increased capacity to track performance actually increases invalidation, unless leaders make significant efforts. These could look like: allowing employees to help design the performance evaluation methods, providing space to discuss them, and considering nuance in evaluation, in short, by validating” states Armstrong.
The 6 Levels of Emotional Validation
The simplest and most effective way to validate someone is by illustrating that their perspectives and opinions matter. As a leader, this can mean asking employees for feedback, implementing their suggestions, and publicly recognising your employees’ efforts.
Marsha Linehan has identified the following 6 levels of validation, which you can use to improve your workplace culture by making employees feel respected:
- Pay attention: this includes listening, being present and observing. Be sure to make eye contact, stay focused and nod every now and then. Don’t multitask.
- Reflect back: summarise and repeat what the employee has just told you, with the intent of truly understanding the experience. The idea is not to judge their statement e.g., “So you are unhappy with the way this project went. Did I get it right?” Just naming another’s emotion significantly reduces distress after stressful events”. (4)
- Read minds: people will show you how they feel. So, pay attention to their body language, facial expressions, and what you know about them already. Illustrate that you understand them through words or actions. If someone slumps down when you ask them to complete another task e.g., you could say “I’m guessing you have a lot on your plate. (When) would it be possible for you to take on this task?” Be prepared to have it wrong: if the person corrects you, accepting their correction is the most validating thing you can do.
- Understand: try to understand someone’s behaviour based on their history, state of mind and current events. All of these influence a person’s emotional reactions. Here, validation could sound like: "I completely understand that you don't prefer working with this supplier, given what happened at the previous event you organised".
- Acknowledge the valid: illustrate that the person’s thoughts, feelings, or actions are valid, based on the current reality and facts. Act as if the person’s behaviour is valid e.g., If you're criticised for something you didn’t do but are responsible for, admit that it’s your responsibility and perform it nevertheless. If people present a problem, help them solve it (unless they just want a listening ear). Always acknowledge the effort a person is making.
- Demonstrate equality: avoid acting superior or inferior to the person. Treat them as an equal instead of making them feel fragile or incompetent, and be willing to admit your mistakes. Validation at this level could be: If someone speaks to you on a first-name basis, do the same with them. Ask other people for their opinions, and give up being defensive. Don’t give unsolicited advice or tell someone what to do. Remember you could be wrong even when you’re asked for advice.
😅→Do you know how to spot a high-potential employee quickly, and how to keep investing in them? Find out which tools and techniques can help you in this article!
Validation and Invalidation: What Should You Keep in Mind?
It’s important to remember that both emotional validation and invalidation have a place. Some minor invalidation is inevitable and even a healthy part of growth. It can be helpful to:
- Correct important mistakes (when your facts are wrong, for example).
- Stimulate intellectual and personal growth (even when it hurts!)
Validation, on the other hand, doesn’t mean agreeing to something, nor does it mean that you like it. The best thing you can do as a leader is to verify the facts. See if your responses are valid or invalid. Check them out with someone you can trust to acknowledge when your responses don’t make sense and aren’t valid.
Work to change invalid thinking, comments, or actions. Last but not least, don’t blame people. It almost always backfires.
Get to Know the Expert Better
Ryan Armstrong, Ph.D., both researches and facilitates change in organisations. He explores practical ways of achieving positive, sustainable learning in complex environments. Since 2014, he has focused on achieving well-being and productivity in the workplace. Ryan currently facilitates workshops and training on validation and other micro-skills through www.OtuLabs.com
- Shamay-Tsoory, S.G. and Levy-Gigi, E. (2021) You Name It: Interpersonal Affect Labeling Diminishes Distress in Romantic Couples. Behavior Therapy Vol. 52 No. 2 pp. 455-464.
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