Do those ‘Approval Seekers’ at work really need their egos stroked or confidence boosted… or are they just plain misunderstood?

Risk Management Flow ChartBill was a highly accomplished and effective risk manager of many years standing for a global company. He was thorough; he was methodical and he had a sixth sense for detecting potential risks in obscure transactions. You would describe Bill as being ‘on top of his game,’ so why did he always seem to need reassurance? Bill’s commitment to his role was total and he was diligent in ensuring that divisional managers throughout the organisation also understood their responsibilities with regard to risk assessment and risk mitigation. As a loyal and respected employee at the senior executive level, Bill had good reason to feel confident in his position and secure in the knowledge that he was making a valuable contribution. The Chief Financial Officer to whom Bill had reported over a long period of time, openly acknowledged the value that he brought to the company, so why did Bill still feel the need to ‘run things by the boss’ that didn’t really need his boss’s input or approval? Was it because he was just too over-cautious? (After all, he was the company’s head of risk management.) Or was it because he needed constant reassurance of his ability or his importance in the whole scheme of things?

Actually it was neither. This may be the judgment that others might have formed about Bill, but if they were to judge him in this way they would have been mistaken. The following information is what we shared with his boss, the CFO, in order to give him deeper insight into Bill and how best to lead him.

When we profiled Bill as part of a company-wide assessment into the underlying culture that was driving the business at the senior executive level, we discovered a couple of very interesting patterns that were prevailing as motivational drivers for him. Right off the scale as a strong driving pattern in terms of unconscious drivers for Bill, was a pattern called “External Reference.” This means that a person is likely to seek out the advice and opinions of others before making decisions. It also means they may want to use data or other external measures for input. People with a very high external frame of reference are motivated by positive feedback; they happily involve others when making decisions; and they use objective data to evaluate their personal performance.

As far as the use of external data and input was concerned, this style of approach is one of the unconscious drivers that made Bill so accomplished in his work, among other patterns of thinking he had…. such as being strongly focused on detail (crossing t’s and dotting i’s); being likely to see potential problems before most others would with any given project or operation; and always wanting to make sure his work was totally correct by double checking everything he did. ‘So what was the downside?’ you may well ask.

Well not only was Bill off the scale on the high side in terms of needing external input and data to support his risk assessments, his lowest pattern of decision making by a country mile at the other end of the scale was a pattern called “Individual Motives,” or having an internal frame of reference when making decisions, which is the direct opposite pattern to having an external frame of reference. (Someone who has a high Internal Frame of Reference is far less likely to be influenced by the input and opinions of others, because they are more comfortable in deciding for themselves, and confidently following their own criteria when making a decision. Bill was the total opposite to this.)

In fact the gap between the two patterns for Bill was even greater than you would normally see in someone because in his model of the world, both were polar opposites on the scale, with 46 other patterns of motivation separating them. I and my colleague had never seen such a huge gap between the two forms of decision-making before in one person, so we were very keen to spend some time with Bill and find out more about how he operated.

There were no surprises here either, because after every answer Bill gave to any question of ours about how he worked and what made him so effective in his role of risk management, he followed his answers up with these same type of responses… “How did I go?”…. “Is that the answer you were looking for?”…or… “Is this what you were wanting from me?” To the profiler, these are fairly strong indications that the results we had received from Bill’s quantitative testing, were being actively reinforced qualitatively by the manner in which Bill was responding ‘live’ in his discussions with us.

Risk Management SignpostWhen we debriefed Bill’s boss with our assessment of Bill’s patterns of motivation we were able to reassure him that all of the unconscious drivers that one would hope to see in a person whose role was high level, company-wide risk management, were there to support Bill and his effectiveness. Even the high External Frame of Reference was useful, it was just that it was also being displayed in the form of him constantly checking his decisions and actions against external criteria such as ‘running things by the boss.’

Where the CFO was previously concerned that Bill was not confident enough in his role and was therefore unable to adequately cope with its scope and level of responsibility, we were able to show him that this was part of Bill’s way of working. As a result, consideration was given to assisting Bill in two ways. One was to ensure that his support team had complementary motivational preferences to Bill, so that their department had a more balanced approach to decision making taking into account the strengths of both ways of thinking and working. The second suggestion was that Bill might be well served by some external executive coaching around these two specific patterns to help him also achieve a more balanced approach to decision-making personally, and his apparent need for constant external checks when it was not necessary.

You may be interested to know that the CFO appreciated these insights he had discovered about Bill, especially given he had been his leader for a long period of time and couldn’t quite understand up to this point why Bill, who was so accomplished in his eyes, still felt the need to ‘check in with him’ on a regular basis.

Being the type of boss that most of us would love to have due to his keenness to understand and draw out the best in his people, the CFO then went on to say… “Well in a few days I will sit down with Bill, and ask him where he would like to focus his energies in the future and how I can support him in that.

To which I and my colleague immediately responded with smiles on our faces… “That’s the one approach that may be less likely to work for Bill, than just about anyone else in your team. Remember, Bill prefers to receive input and direction first and foremost, so he can then get on with the job of compliance and risk management. Asking his opinion will probably boomerang straight back to you in the form of him needing to base his decisions on where you think he is best placed for the good of the company. If you don’t want to go around in circles with Bill, just set out your clear intentions for him so that he knows what’s on your mind, before seeking some input from him.”

It’s the same with my two young children in their approach to study. One always likes to check in with me or his mother first regarding any decision he makes or activity he embarks upon, while the other one will tell us exactly what she intends to do regardless of our input or suggestions. And it is not a male vs female thing going on either! (Special note to all of the males out there who might be saying… “Typical!”) As you can imagine, it makes for some very interesting discussions in our household balancing the needs of both children at different times.

People are such a kaleidoscope of nuances and motivations, that even the smallest of things like just two motivational patterns can tell us a lot about how to support them to be the best they can be at work.

Drop me an email to if you would like to know more about how to gain a deeper understanding of your key people in order to leverage their motivational make-up.  You’ll be surprised how quickly you can start to unlock the secrets to their success, with direct benefits for your business.

Note: For further information on these two opposing patterns of unconscious motivation you will find they were covered in a previous blog of mine a few weeks ago.

Until next time… Let’s seek to understand more and judge less.  Have a great week – Brian

Precision Profiling – What Makes You Tick?  Through ‘Motivational Fingerprinting’ we uncover what you do, how you do it and why you do it, and most importantly, the hidden patterns that lead to your success, and that of your staff.

About Brian Clark

Brian Clark is the principal director of Precision Profiling®.

He is a renowned practitioner, writer and speaker on building total customer cultures; values driven leadership and world best practice strategy and implementation.

He has been a guest lecturer on world best practice for the executive management programme at Monash University’s business college (Mt Eliza campus); an adviser to and key note speaker for the Singapore Productivity Association and a consultant to many major Australian and overseas corporations and government departments.

Read more about Brian Clark Here


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