As human beings, our desire to please others is a common characteristic. However, if someone finds it hard to refrain from behaving or doing things to please others, they may be a people-pleaser. A people-pleaser is a person who feels compelled to put other people’s needs ahead of their own – because how they measure their worth is based on how others perceive them. Chronic people-pleasing can have negative outcomes, affecting a person’s sense of self and their relationships. People-pleasing behaviour can be particularly difficult to change, since this is often socially and culturally reinforced in families, educational systems and the workplace. However, it is possible to change people-pleasing behavior – awareness is often the first step toward change.

At the root of people-pleasing lies the fear of rejection or failure. This is often grounded in early relationships. For example, a people-pleaser may have had a parent whose love was conditional or who was unavailable emotionally – or had high expectations and punished them for making even small mistakes. People-pleasing is a natural response. Here are 6 potential causes of people-pleasing behaviour:

  1. Insecurity and low self-esteem:People who feel they are worth less than others may feel their needs are not as important. They may also feel that they have no purpose if they cannot be of help to others.
  2. Social anxiety:People-pleasers may want to please others because they feel anxious about fitting in or being rejected. They may feel the need to be friendly or nice or to do whatever their friends or colleagues ask of them for people to like them.
  3. Acute conflict avoidance: People who are afraid of conflict and compelled to avoid it at any cost may use people-pleasing to prevent confrontation or contention.
  4. Desire for control: People-pleasers may feel like they need to be in control of a situation or relationship. By constantly putting others first and keeping them happy, they may feel like they are avoiding conflict and keeping things under control.
  5. A trauma response: Because we are innately wired to protect ourselves in several different ways, people-pleasing (or “fawning”) is now recognised as one of four trauma responses – fight, flight, freeze, or fawn. People pleasing is initially an innate response, beginning outside of conscious awareness. However, over time, it can become a go-to strategy for protecting ourselves when we feel emotionally insecure.
  6. Cultural norms and beliefs: The culture of a person’s family, community or nation may influence how they view their duty toward others and themselves. For example, it may be culturally based belief that the needs of the group matter more than the individual.

People-pleasers need other people’s validation to feel good about themselves and can go to extreme lengths to earn words of praise. Yet despite acting outwardly content and at ease about it, they may feel:

  • anxious about creating dissent by standing up for themselves with colleagues,
  • stressed due to the onerous commitments they have taken on,
  • frustrated that they never have sufficient personal time for themselves,
  • discouraged that their own wants or needs do not matter compared to others in the group,
  • resentful that people take advantage of them.

Characteristics of a people-pleaser at work

Perfectionists, high achievers, and people-pleasers share certain traits: they want to be seen as valuable and successful. Here are 8 characteristics that are particularly applicable to people-pleasers in a work setting:

  1. They are mostly highly accommodating and may find it difficult to say no requests or demands from others. So, they often overcommit to plans, responsibilities, or projects.
  2. They tend to find it difficult to express themselves and keep their emotions hidden.
  3. They are uneasy about giving their honest opinion.
  4. They avoid conflict and disagreements whenever possible.
  5. They avoid advocating for their own needs and will go along with things they are not happy about to avoid creating friction.
  6. They can get really stressed out when they think someone might be upset with them.
  7. They tend to like being micromanaged
  8. They will do whatever is necessary to impress and win their superiors over by going above and beyond.

Are you a people-pleaser at work?

If you recognise yourself in the descriptions below, you may be a people-pleaser.

  • Routinely agreeing to do things that you do not want to do or would decline to do if you thought the other person’s perception of you would not be affected.
  • Taking on more responsibility than you can comfortably manage because you do not want to disappoint someone or the team.
  • Keeping quiet in meetings or group settings to maintain harmony, even though you have thoughts, opinions, or other information you would like to share with colleagues.
  • Repressing your feelings when someone says or does something that upsets you because you do not want the culprit to become angry or upset with you.
  • Apologising for things that are not your fault. People-pleasers often make themselves responsible for the emotional responses of others. If someone feels bad, you may blame yourself or worry that the person believes you are the problem.


How to break the habit of people-pleasing

At some point, constantly making yourself available to others, or offering to be the person who takes something on, may take too heavy a mental and physical toll. You may realise that you have been neglecting your own needs because you fear disappointing others when they ask for your help, or you do not take on what you consider to be your fair share. Take these steps to break your people-pleasing habit:

  • Learn to say no – and stop saying yes
    Sometimes people-pleasing can become such an ingrained habit that you must remind yourself that it is okay to say “no” when someone asks you to do something or if they make an unreasonable request. It is also important to stop saying an automatic “yes” when someone asks you for a favour or you will not benefit from taking a task on.
  • Assess requests:
    Look for signs that other people are trying to take advantage of your generosity because they are used to you not turning them down. If it feels like you are being pressured into taking someone on, first spend some time assessing the situation and decide how you want to handle their request.
  • Ask for time:
    When someone asks for a favour, inform them you need some time to think about it. Saying “yes” off the cuff can leave you feeling obligated. Taking your time to respond to a request can give you the time to evaluate and decide if it is something you can and really want to do.
  • Avoid making excuses:
    It is important to be clear and direct when you say “no” without needing to make any excuses. Once you start justifying why you are saying “no,” you are giving the other person the opportunity to adjust their request to ensure that you still do what they are asking.
  • Help when you want to help:
    You do not have to give up being considerate and a team player. These are positive qualities that can contribute to strong, lasting work relationships. The key is to examine your motivation. Do not agree to do things only because you fear rejection or want the approval of others.
  • Set healthy boundaries
    People-pleasers are often unaware of the healthy boundaries they need to set in their lives. Well-conceived and communicated boundaries give you the ability to say “no” when another person asks you to do something or takes advantage of your time. Remember, doing so does not make you selfish. Instead, you are secure enough in who you are and your value that you know it is okay not to agree to someone’s requests every time. An effective way to start is by noticing what you are doing and identifying things that need to change. Make a list of the things you are doing that make you feel undervalued or used and rank them in order of importance so that you can set boundaries around them. Once you know what you are willing to do, communicate those needs with kindness.
  • Ask others for help
    Asking for help when you need it is a major step in overcoming people-pleasing. It turns the tide but is not easy if you are used to being the go-to person in your circle of friends and family or work community. Remember, it is more advantageous for you – and for your family or colleagues and team members – if you start asking others for help, rather than trying to do everything yourself. Start by asking a person close to you, who knows you well and has your best interests at heart, such as your partner or best friend, for feedback on how often they see you taking on too much. They could also be the first people you turn to and ask for help.
  • Be true to yourself and your values
    For some, people-pleasing is a way to stave off the intense discomfort of rejection, judgment or feeling less than perfect. But if you learn to sit with those feelings without having to dispel them, they will have less power over your actions. The most important thing to remember about your behavior is to stay true to yourself. Stick to what you know is right and beneficial for you. Avoid doing something just because it will make you look good in someone else’s eyes. By standing your ground and not changing who you are or what you are comfortable doing you will gain people’s respect.

Over to you for sharing your comments and experiences.

About the Author: Kerstin Jatho

Kerstin is the senior transformational coach and team development facilitator for 4Seeds Consulting. She is also the author of Growing Butterfly Wings, a book on applying positive psychology principles during a lengthy recovery. Her passion is to develop people-centred organisations where people thrive and achieve their potential in the workplace. You can find Kerstin on LinkedIn, Soundcloud, YouTube and Facebook.

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