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“In trying to please all, he had pleased none.” Aesop
Do you find yourself saying yes to things you have no time or energy to complete? Do you shy away from difficult conversations? Do you find it difficult to ask for help? You too could be a people pleaser.
Early in my career, my focus was on being the ‘nice’ manager, making sure my team was happy. In other words taking the path of least resistance. This is what makes a productive team, right? Wrong. After only a few short years, the warning signs were there. Conflict was rising, we were missing deadlines and I worked back most nights to get it all done. Then there was the time I had no staff because I’d said yes to everyone’s leave requests! But it didn’t really hit me until I heard someone describe me as ‘lovely, a nice person, but, well, useless really’. Ouch! Finally, my pride was screaming at me louder than my need to be liked. I knew I needed to change my people pleasing ways.
What are the traits of a people pleaser?
According to Dr. Beatrice Chestnut, author of The 9 Types of Leadership: Mastering the Art of People in the 21st Century Workplace, people pleasers (or befrienders) “tend to be friendly, upbeat, and generous (to a fault). Their focus of attention is on other people, on important relationships, and what other people think and feel about them. They pay a lot of attention to whether or not others like them and they strive to be indispensible and approved of in the eyes of others.”
In my career I’ve worked with, and coached, leaders with varying levels of the people pleasing gene. For me personally, I was never a doormat or a pushover, but I was a ‘version’ of myself, tailor made for whoever was in front of me at the time. Others I’ve worked with have taken it to the extreme, making their need to be liked and dodging difficult conversations look like a national sport.
As a leader, not everything about being a people pleaser is negative. When we can find balance between meeting our own needs, as well as those we lead, we bring some great qualities to the team. As a reformed people pleaser I have developed some great superpowers:
- Deep sense of empathy;
- Ability to foster genuine trust in a short space of time;
- Great at advocating on behalf of others;
- Seeing and harnessing the strengths and talents in others; and
- Somewhat surprisingly, I am good at managing conflict.
That last one came as a shock. I had avoided conflict for so long, when I finally started tackling it head on, I found I was good at it. In fact it became a significant part of my role as a HR Manager. Do I still get butterflies when I walk into a tense conversation? Absolutely. I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t. But now I am armed with an ability to understand the feelings and needs of others, and getting others to do the same.
I’ve seen first-hand the damage that can be done, at both the team level and business-wide, when a leader focuses too heavily on being liked. Here are some real life examples:
- The leader goes along with the subpar ideas of their team, even when s/he had a better solution. Deadlines on a key project got pushed out twice and in the end they lost a significant contract.
- By not standing up to the unreasonably demanding (and complaining) customer, the leader tried to downplay the concerns of his/her team and essentially threw them under the proverbial bus. Resignations and stress claims ensued.
- A leader somehow managed to avoid conflict within his/her team for 9 years! Not surprisingly his/her avoidance had caused the conflict to increase and escalate, to the point where it had become physical and two staff were seeking restraining orders.
- A leader didn’t want to ‘tell his/her staff what to do’, so s/he spent an incredible amount of time and energy on creating a great work environment to allow them to ‘self-manage’. The perks included: massages, long lunches, s/he would even do a coffee run on their way to work. While the team tended to stay, they were flat. Without clear expectations and direction, the team were demotivated. To make matters worse, because no-one knew where they stood, they began to compete and question each other.
What have I learnt?
It’s been a slow bumpy journey, changing the behaviours of a lifetime. But I can honestly say it is worth the effort. Not just for the boost it gave to my career, but all the times I’ve genuinely helped someone to become more self-aware, set their own boundaries or take on a new challenge.
We all have our own key behaviours we’d like to change. Here are the few that worked for me:
It’s perfectly normal and healthy to say ‘no’. For the past ten years I’ve worked part-time to manage my work, with my family and community commitments. I no longer have the luxury of working extra hours, so I’ve learnt to identify what is important and say ‘No’ to the rest. This means I’m also not committing my team to unmanageable workloads.
My door isn’t always open
I no longer feel the need to always be ‘available’, if being available means all my spare time between meetings is filled with satisfying other people’s needs. I’m no longer interested in writing reports or answering emails in the evening. When I had an office, I’d literally close the door. Now I block out chunks in my diary and my team know not to book in anything else.
Stop looking for consensus
There was a time when I’d run every major, ok and quite a few minor, decisions past the team. I was working on the belief that decisions made by consensus are always more moral, somehow more defensible. What I found was this became very time consuming and not uncommonly, resulted in a watered-down decision or no decision at all. For most issues, all people want is to be heard, then they are happy for someone to make the decision for the group.
Just Do It! Myself
If someone hadn’t done something right, rather than give that person feedback, I would just go in and fix it myself. Why I ever thought they wouldn’t know I’d made changes. So the end result was that they knew their work wasn’t right and assumed that I didn’t want to talk about it.
By avoiding this conversation, and any conversation that includes constructive feedback, I was making an assumption that they couldn’t handle the feedback. How patronising of me to not allow them to own their own behaviour or performance, and take away their opportunity to learn and grow.
Make the hard decisions
Most people don’t like change, even those of us who say we do. As leaders, sometimes we have to make unpopular decisions. If we focus on pleasing everyone, rather than doing what’s best for them, we limit our business’ ability to innovate, adapt and grow. At its worst, I’ve seen a lack of decision making lead to job loss and that is not what anyone wants.
Disappointment, frustration and anger are a normal part of life. Just like we can’t protect our kids from it, neither can we protect our staff. That means we can’t treat them like friends. They are looking for a leader, not a new BFF. They need direction and feedback to achieve and grow.
Do I get it right all of the time?
No. Occasionally I slip back into that mode of thinking it’s my job to make someone else happy. Then I remind myself that it is them, and them alone, who are responsible for their emotional state. In any given situation, my priority will always be the people first, I’m hardwired that way. But now rather than focusing on making them happy, my goal is to make them feel respected, valued and engaged.
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Claire Huntington has over 15 years’ experience in senior and executive level human resource management and strategic leadership positions. Claire learnt HR under the wings of great mentors and through trial and error. She has a very practical hands-on approach to HR and management, and isn’t afraid to look outside the box. Claire is also mum to three primary-school aged firecrackers and is an avid photographer in her spare time.
Disclaimer: The material contained in this publication is of a general nature only. It is not, nor is intended to be, legal advice. If you wish to act based on the content of this publication, we recommend that you seek professional advice.