January 31, 2023

The perils of people pleasing

By Keith Casebolt

I am a confirmed people pleaser. I start to sweat when people disagree. I monitor people’s reactions to what I am saying and doing. And this has been a huge problem for me.

Are you a fellow people pleaser? Do you manage people pleasers? Here are some signs:

  • Conflict is avoided.
  • Sentences often start with, “they won’t like that.”
  • Expectations are not directly communicated. For instance, addressing something that one person is doing in a staff meeting. “I just want to remind everyone that when you are in the call group, you need to answer the phone every time.”
  • People pretend to agree when they don’t. Then the politicking begins afterward. “I can’t believe they want to try that again! Don’t you think that’s a bad idea?”
  • If poor performance is addressed, it goes from “you’re doing a great job” to “you’re fired” with not much in between. There is no documentation of progressive discipline.
  • Simmering disputes are never resolved.
  • The team feels stuck.
  • Eventually, turnover results.

A certain amount of people-pleasing is useful. Part of a leader’s job is persuasion, and this can be more effective when people like you. But if the desire to be liked is the sole, overriding motivation, effectiveness is diminished.

People pleasing starts with some basic assumptions:

  • Staff won’t do what I ask if they don’t like me.
  • Being liked is the most important thing.
  • Conflict is destructive. I should avoid or defuse it.
  • Other people are not competent to work out their differences.
  • I am not competent to work through a conflict, so avoiding it is best.
  • If I ignore conflict, maybe it will resolve on its own.
  • People who have conflicts are typically selfish, and sometimes abusive.

At its worst, you are hostage to others, dependent on them liking you. They can manipulate you by criticism or withholding praise. Constant vigilance results in high levels of stress. This is not the path to confident, authentic, or effective leadership.

Here are some strategies to try if you recognize a habit of people-pleasing:

  • Get feedback. Do others experience you as avoiding conflicts or people-pleasing too much? Ask for examples. Ask what they want from you instead.
    Own that you are working on this.
  • Notice what is true for you and say that. What do you see going on? What do you want to happen? Check in with yourself first and talk about that. Then begin to negotiate and problem-solve.
  • Learn the difference between constructive conflict and abusive conflict.
  • When you are tempted to quell a brewing conflict, notice the impulse, and do nothing.
  • Take 10 minutes each week to reflect by writing or with an “accountability buddy”: When were you tempted to people please?   What is this costing you? What are you gaining from it? This part is harder to see but critical. It helps to explore what you are trying to avoid. If you are not clear about why you are doing what you are doing, you will likely sabotage any effort to change.

Now a bit of bad news. While people may complain about your people pleasing, they are getting something out of it, or they would be calling you on it. So, when you make any change, you will hear these two statements:

“It’s about time!” and
“Change back now!”

If you are unprepared for this confounding but common feedback, you may revert to former habits.

Speaking of habits, people pleasing is just that: a set of learned behaviors and tendencies. They can be unlearned. Focus on changing your behaviors. Be gentle with yourself and learn from your mistakes. Take it one day at a time.

You may find that rather than people liking you for being overly agreeable, they now like you for other reasons. They like working for a boss who displays courage and tenacity in the face of differing opinions. They like participating in healthy conflict where problems get solved rather than papered over. They like working for a boss they respect. They like knowing where they stand.

Be that kind of leader.

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