Hooked on ‘people pleasing’ at work? Here’s how to stop

“Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves, even when we risk disappointing others. We can’t base our own worthiness on others’ approval (and this is coming from someone who spent years trying to please everyone!). Only when we believe, deep down, that we are enough can we say ‘Enough!’” Brene Brown.

Brene Brown isn’t the only one who used to struggle with saying ‘no’, something that can affect even the most successful of us. US chat show superstar Oprah Winfrey calls it the ‘disease to please’, and she didn’t manage to overcome the impulse to say ‘yes’ to everything until she hit forty. Others have defined it as an ‘unhealthy focus on others’ rather than yourself.

Do you find yourself unable to say ‘no’ to projects you don’t have time for or settling on unrealistic deadlines, turning up at meetings you don’t really need to be at or accepting every request for support that comes your way? Being honest, is it working for you or working to your detriment?

The impact of being a people pleaser can be quite serious. You might come across as happier and more positive than most people but inside you’re struggling. Your physical health can suffer, you feel powerless and overwhelmed, become prone to procrastination, and lose your sense of personal control. Feeling this frustrated, resentful and anxious, you’re on the road to burnout.

The work context makes it harder to cope with because we have our work hats on. We’re expected to be consummate professionals but the constant need to come to consensus and reach agreement makes it tricky to get the right balance – and the balance is pretty fine. There’s a thin line between people-pleasing and healthy workplace behaviour.

Like so much in life it’s about balance. While helping others is a positive thing, it can go too far. Running yourself ragged in an effort to please absolutely everyone at work is exhausting. And at the end of the day, impossible! You might intend to become someone everyone can count on no matter what happens, but it’s more likely you’ll end up drowning under a constant flow of requests, many of which you’re not even particularly invested in or convinced by – and all of which consume your time. If that’s you, it’ll be helpful to understand what’s going on and find out how to change things.

Oprah found the Principle of Intention an eye-opener, calling it her ‘cure’.  The idea comes from Gary Zukav’s book The Seat of the Soul in which he says, “Every action, thought and feeling is motivated by an intention, and that intention is a cause that exists as one with an effect. If we participate in the cause, it is not possible for us not to participate in the effect. In this most profound way, we are held responsible for our every action, thought and feeling, which is to say, for our every intention.”

You might want to delve into the reasons or the intentions behind your compulsion to say ‘yes’, when a lot of the time you really mean ‘no’. You really do have a choice, although it may not feel like an option at the time. Ask yourself what you gain from saying ‘yes’ so often.

There’s a multitude of potential reasons and yours will be unique to you. Perhaps you’re unconsciously trying to fit in, are trying to protect yourself from social discomfort, or have slid slowly into the people-pleasing habit without realising it.

You can also ask yourself questions. Will awful things happen if someone isn’t happy that you’ve said no? Will it affect your future career? Will everyone think you’re lazy? In reality a refusal says nothing about your worth or intentions, or about those asking for help. By saying no when it’s appropriate you’re actually honouring your own goals, energy levels and priorities. Being true to yourself. This ultimately means you’ll be able to perform your role better, which in turn benefits the organisation.

If you are an expert pleaser, over time, you may find yourself becoming invisible, giving other people precedence by not sharing your ideas in meetings and keeping your opinions to yourself. You might at all costs want to maintain the peace, making yourself small so you don’t feel you’re overpowering other people. But a successful and enjoyable career demands boldness, bravery, putting yourself forwards sometimes, saying what’s important, and as a result becoming ever-more trustworthy, confident and competent in your role.

You might want to examine and adjust your boundaries, too. Do you arrive at work before everyone else, work through lunch, then stay later than the rest? Are you constantly being dragged into after-work activities you’d rather not attend? Do you check your work emails and messages at weekends or find you’re unable to switch off once you get home? When you set the right boundaries – nothing unusual, just the same boundaries most people set for themselves – you take your time and energy back, spending them in a way that actually benefits the organisation, your team and colleagues.

Talking through your people pleasing tendencies might be a real solution. Finding someone who understands, who is non-judgemental and supportive is a great strategy. Maybe that is a mentor, a coach, a therapist or even a trustworthy, wise friend. Acting as a sounding board you trust can help you see your wood for the trees. You can set measurable goals to help you progress, kicking off a new habit of saying ‘no’ in low-key ways to strengthen your confidence. You can find imaginative ways to say ‘no’ that don’t cause offence; saying you’re thrilled to be considered but really don’t have the bandwidth, or recommending that someone else would be a much better fit for the project.

Learn to think twice before saying ‘yes’, giving yourself time to digest the impact. If you do agree, seek help with the task so you don’t get overwhelmed. Remember other people’s feelings about you are not your responsibility, and be nice to yourself. At the end of the day you can only be true to yourself, and only be more fulfilled at work, once you stop trying to please everyone else.

Let’s leave the last word to Oprah. Once she’d accepted she was a decent, kind and giving person whether she said yes or no, and was no longer afraid of people’s reactions, she jotted this down and has kept it on her desk to this day:

“Never again will I do anything for anyone that I do not feel directly from my heart. I will not attend a meeting, make a phone call, write a letter, sponsor or participate in any activity in which every fiber of my being does not resound yes. I will act with the intent to be true to myself.”

If you’d value overcoming your people-pleasing tendencies, our coaching will support you through that process of change. It can make a real difference. Contact us.