Last week I wrote an article about the advantages of just being nice in the workplace, especially for business owners and senior leaders. Treating people well, being courteous and generally believing that doing the right thing is its own reward (and usually ends up being rewarded in the long run as well) all lead to peace of mind and better relationships – at least in my experience. Unfortunately, all good things taken to an extreme, misused or twisted for personal gain have a shadow side. I see ‘people-pleasing’ as one particularly pernicious shadow side of ‘just being nice’.
When I say people pleasing, I don’t mean people who are being deliberately manipulative or phony, that’s a whole different kettle of nasty. People-pleasers, in this context, are people who are usually highly intelligent, caring people who are chronically afraid of hurting other people’s feelings and – especially – of not being liked. Usually the ones most hurt by the people pleasing behaviors are the pleasers themselves but believe me, there is other fallout.
Now, wanting to be liked and not wanting to hurt people’s feelings are NOT bad things at all, don’t get me wrong. Where it can become destructive is the point where you do not tell the truth, share useful information, make a meaningful contribution or preserve an important boundary because of fear of not being liked.
I have seen this in the workplace from an HR perspective countless times. It takes various forms. Sometimes it’s the extremely bright employee with great ideas who doesn’t share them for fear of being wrong. Sometimes it’s the person in my office who just wants to ‘vent’ that her boss has been saying sexually inappropriate things for six months but she doesn’t want to offend him by telling him to stop. One time it was the Project Manager who knew the project was going down the tubes and what it would take to fix it, but was afraid to tell his Director (who was part of the problem)
Sometimes there is good reason to fear the wrath of one’s boss, but sometimes, a desire to be liked become pathological. The downside to pleasing is not only a continual erosion of self-confidence and identity, it can also lead to exactly the outcome the pleaser is trying to avoid! By never saying ‘no’ to colleagues, the pleaser inevitably overcommits him or herself and does indeed let people down. After continually going above and beyond for friends and family, many pleasers develop expectations of reciprocation that, when not forthcoming, gives birth to serious and long-lasting resentments.
When I have coached chronic people pleasers it can sometimes be so bad that the pleasers don’t even know their own opinions or boundaries, so there needs to be some exploration. There can be so much guilt and fear associated with being true to oneself that it can take a very long time. I have not yet encountered a reformed pleaser who went so far the other way as to become a jerk, although I am sure it happens. Usually, learning to be authentic and speak one’s truth adds depth and character to genuinely nice people and makes them even more lovable.