My clients are nice people.
That’s not a bad thing.
As long as they’re not too nice.
I was talking with one client recently who wanted help learning how to manage what seemed to them like an abundance of toxic situations in the different jobs they’d had over the years. What could be done to avoid, or at least deal with, these situations?
In exploring the circumstances, we uncovered a very simple, very key point: my client is a people-pleaser. Not unusual, of course; many of us are people-pleasers to one extent or another.
But people-pleasing is not leadership. It inevitably results in fuzzy – or even non-existent – boundaries and, as my client reported, feeling taken advantage of and increasingly untrusting of people. And the more severe your people-pleasing tendencies, the more likely you are to feel resentful, overworked, unappreciated, and generally walked all over – even by the people who work for you.
You become the office doormat; everyone knows you’ll never say “no.”
What can you do?
Consider the source
No, not the source of the requests you’ve always accepted, or the promises that were broken, or the disrespect you’ve experienced.
The source of your people-pleasing.
I’m not a therapist, and I don’t play one on Zoom. I’m a trainer and a coach. But I do know that people-pleasing isn’t an innate characteristic; it’s something we learn early in life as a way to keep ourselves safe in difficult situations.
When I mentioned that to my client, there was a real “aha” moment of recognition.
Times change; things are different
What kept us safe in the past – usually in childhood – are often behaviors that do the exact opposite as adults. Weird, perhaps, but true.
Being a people-pleaser as an adult usually means a life of resentment, overwork and burnout, frustration, and feeling disrespected and unappreciated – just to name a few of the unhappy results!
It’s not easy to shed a long-ingrained pattern of behavior, but sometimes seeing it is enough to start moving from it.
Being a strong, fair leader means sometimes giving negative feedback, saying “no” to what someone wants, and helping your people face challenges they may not feel ready to face.
What’s okay? What’s not okay?
The “B” word – “boundaries” – is hard for a lot of people to really wrap their head – and then their behavior – around.
I like to frame it as: what’s okay? and what’s not okay?
Looking back at my own corporate career, I can see any number of ways that I allowed what was not okay to be my reality. Accepting responsibility for a client project that was going badly, even though I wasn’t part of the project and hadn’t been involved in planning it or in the implementation meant, in my people-pleasing world at the time, turning down invitations (from others on the project!) to go to lunch, and staying late night after night in order to make progress. And that’s just one example.
If you think you might be a people-pleaser, consider specific situations where you could have done something differently. Think about what would have been okay for you in that situation, and what wasn’t okay. And then define standards for yourself based on those scenarios.
For me, it might have been, “It’s okay to put in extra effort when necessary. It’s not okay to jeopardize my personal life and wellbeing. It’s okay to be generous in assisting my teammates and co-workers. It’s not okay to take on more than my fair share.”
Get on your own side
It’s absolutely the case that we will all meet people who are willing to take advantage of us, whether we’re people-pleasers or not.
And it’s also the case that sometimes we need to do more than we’d prefer to do – and, conversely, that sometimes we’ll do things, taking a stand for our values and for our understanding of what’s right, that others don’t appreciate. Similarly, as I mentioned above, there will be times when we need to show a firm hand in our leadership – which isn’t exactly a people-pleasing behavior!
Recognize your signs of resentment and frustration. Explore the ways in which you might have been taught that it’s safer to be a people-pleaser. And then consider whether this is helpful in your world today, and think about what you can do differently.
It’s remarkably rewarding and freeing to take the stance of being on your own side instead of on the side of other people who want things from you that you may not want to give, and which shouldn’t reasonably be expected of you.
Wondering if you’re people-pleasing too much? As I said, I’m not a therapist, so you may want to consult one to understand the root causes of your people-pleasing patterns.
But if you’d like to explore defining your own “what’s okay / what’s not okay” boundaries, we should talk. Contact me to learn more.