How to stop being a ‘people pleaser’ at work

Being a people pleaser is a nice, safe place to be because you will never run out of people wanting to be pleased and it avoids the scary vulnerability of being your authentic self. At work, it is an easy behaviour to sink into – but people-pleasing isn’t always a positive trait, and it might be damaging your mental health.

What are people pleasers?

In 1975, Taibi Kahler postulated that there are five common drivers that motivate us. These drivers are born in our subconscious and can lead to some very positive as well as destructive behaviours.

  • be perfect
  • be strong
  • hurry up
  • try hard
  • please others

‘Please others’ are incredibly pleasant to have around because they are so understanding. They use intuition a lot and will notice body language and other signals that others may overlook. They are often the mortar that holds a team together. 

Unfortunately, they may worry so much about earning approval that they are reluctant to challenge anyone’s ideas, even when they know they are wrong. Because they’re reluctant to say no, they often let people interrupt them instead of concentrating on their own priorities. They are often seen to be lacking assertiveness, critical skills, and lacking courage in their convictions. When criticised by others, they may take it personally and get upset, even when the comments are worded constructively.

Individuals with this driver preference are identifiable by: 

  • Always testing that people are happy and satisfied. 
  • Smiling and always having a friendly expression. 
  • Frames everything as a question that invites approval. 
  • Apologetic. Will say ‘sorry’ for almost anything and even just to fill space. 

‘Please others’ are often also well-liked and good company, as well as being sympathetic and concerned about others.

4 ways to stop being a people pleaser

Here are four key ideas to change the pattern that you may have become trapped in:

  1. Focus on what is important for you, in life and at work. Reflect on what your core values are and how well fulfilled they are at work. If there is a significant mismatch, you either need to change your work or how you are presenting at work.
  2. Get some large sheets of paper and coloured pens. Draw two pictures, the first representing life for you right now and the second representing life as you would like it to be in the future. Examine both and see what is different about them. Where does work fit into both pictures? Next, work out what needs to happen to get you from your current state to your desired future state. Once you’ve done this, you’re ready to take the first step.
  3. Look at your other drivers; which of these feels the authentic you and what would give you a better balance? Work on nourishing these.
  4. You may also ask trusted colleagues and managers for help. It may be that they can support you to accept certain types of criticism, as well as encouraging you to become more self-sufficient.

People pleasing and the impact on mental health

If you’re naturally a people pleaser and feel relaxed in that persona, boundaries need to be maintained otherwise you may be taken advantage of at work by managers and colleagues. You may become someone that will be ‘dumped on’ because you’ll never complain. Over time, you may realise that this is unfair but, as a people pleaser, you find it hard to express this and will get caught in a spiral of doing more, expecting validation.

If you’re not normally a people pleaser and your work persona is markedly different from the authentic you, this can be very stressful. It will use a lot of emotional energy in maintaining those different personas and will also create dissonance as the ‘real you’ will subconsciously leak out.

In a work environment, we need to have:

  • Communication: to be listened to and be able to express our feelings.
  • Connection: to feel an important part of the organisation.
  • Commitment: to be working to a shared purpose.
  • Fun: to be able to have fun together.
  • Growth: to continually develop to be even better.
  • Trust: to be able to predict what our colleagues and managers will do and feel safe.

Without these, it will be an unfulfilling relationship and will move to a transactional role where it is being ‘put up with’ for the money. This can create a diminution of energy and a shrinking sense of self.

To achieve self-actualisation, we need to be working in a role that gives us autonomy, mastery and purpose, and in an environment where we can be our authentic selves and be validated by our colleagues. Anything less than this is selling ourselves short.

By working with a coach, you can understand more about your goals and aspirations and where in life you want to make improvements or changes. It’s behaviours – like people-pleasing – that we often don’t realise are hindering our potential. A coach can help us to identify what is holding us back, and how to overcome any obstacles. 

If you’re ready to connect with a coach, simply browse profiles until you find a person you resonate with and send them an email. 

Neil Wilkie is a relationship expert, business leader, psychotherapist, author and creator of online couples therapy programme, The Relationship Paradigm®.

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Written by Neil Wilkie
Neil Wilkie is a relationship expert, business leader, psychotherapist, author of the Relationship Paradigm book series and creator of online couples therapy programme, The Relationship Paradigm®.
Written by Neil Wilkie
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