The problem with people-pleasing at work

The problem with people-pleasing at work

By the SEEK content team 

Saying “yes” to everything might actually be harming your career more than helping it. 

Although perceived as being sunny on the surface, people-pleasing can, according to Psychologist Sabina Read, often lead to resentment by other people. 

“Generally, when you’re a people-pleaser, you do it because you can’t tolerate conflict or the idea that you might disappoint someone or let them down,” Read says. “Patterns like this are often rewarded, especially in workplaces. People thank you for your help, they tell you you’re lovely, they tell you they love having you on board. It becomes difficult to tease apart the behaviours that are serving you well, and the ones that aren’t.” 

Reputational damage 

Sabina explains that people-pleasing stems from a behaviour people learn in their younger years to help them cope with difficult situations. However, as people get older, it might have the opposite effect: if they keep trying to please every person in their personal and professional lives, it can start doing more harm than good. 

“What I’ve found over the years in professional coaching is that often, people-pleasing comes at a real personal brand and confidence cost. It erodes self-esteem,” says Sue Parker, a personal branding expert at Dare Group Australia.  

“My advice is to check the motivation,” says Parker. “There’s nothing wrong with wanting to do the right thing by others and deliver on your promises, but when it crosses over the line for your own mental health, you have an issue.” 

Setting boundaries 

One of the best ways to overcome destructive people-pleasing is to start setting boundaries. 

“Setting boundaries is something we hear ad nauseam, but if we sit on that feeling too long without setting boundaries, we can become resentful, and that’s a good indicator it’s not serving us well,” says Read. 

A good place to start is by asking what’s the worst that could happen if you impose a healthy boundary. What do you fear the most? Is it being rejected? Will setting a boundary lead to people thinking you’re lazy? Will it get you fired or demoted?  

Read says the most important thing is to avoid saying too much, over-apologising for yourself or playing small. The trick is to own your decisions and hold your space. 

“You might say, ‘I’m sorry I can’t do this report for you today, but I’ve got a sick dog and I need to take the dog to the vet’,” she says. “Too much information doesn’t help – in fact, it can be irritating to the person on the other side – and you can’t do that every time. You’re apologising for yourself, dialling yourself down, invalidating your needs. As long as you use warmth and respectful language when you’re asking for what you need, people get it – they can work with that. They won’t think less of you, they’ll just get on with the show.” 

Reframing the word “no” 

Shelley Johnson, a HR consultant at Boldside, says people-pleasing is a huge challenge for many employees, because it can give them short-term wins but isn’t viable in the long term. Boundaries are crucial to making high performance sustainable and avoiding burnout.  

“I think what bothers a lot of people-pleasers is the idea of saying ‘no’, so we need to reframe that,” she says. “You might say, ‘Yes, I can do that, but these are the things I’ll need to drop to make it happen’. It’s about explaining that in language the other person will understand – usually in these cases it presents as hours.” 

For example, you might have to add another 10 hours onto your workload in a week to get it done. Rather than just sucking it up and chipping away at it after hours, you can explain that to your manager. 

“Leading with honesty is really important when it comes to your workload,” she says. “Having the conversation upfront can really help you avoid saying a hard no. When you frame it a different way, it’s not as much of a fear-driven response, and it won’t come as a surprise when your workload maxes out.” 

Prioritising your needs 

People-pleasing can be a life-long challenge that affects people in all walks of life. According to Read, it’s important to remember that your needs matter. It doesn’t serve you to dial them down to please everyone else, even if the other people are more senior or more powerful than you are. Because inevitably, you will fall short. 

“You might think you are who you are, that you’re hard-wired to please, that you like it when people feel good in your presence,” Read says. “There can be an addictive quality to it. But when it impacts your ability to function, your satisfaction at work, your capacity to do your job, then it becomes a big deal.” 

Once you address the fears that are holding you back, you can start making choices that will serve you better. This will allow you to be healthier and happier at work – not to mention in life – while simultaneously achieving your goals. 

*This article first appeared on the website

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