I don’t think that anyone enjoys being disliked, but some people are much better at dealing with it when it inevitably happens than others. That’s because trying to please everyone people is frankly exhausting and ultimately futile as people are so varied as to make it impossible. I don’t know about you but after 2 years of COVID-19 I’m too tired to do it anymore. I think having reached acceptance that I can’t and won’t be everyone’s cup of tea has come with a feeling of freedom, so I thought I’d share some thoughts of how I got here.
How do you know if you are a people pleaser?
For many years I didn’t realise that everyone wasn’t like me. It meant I also didn’t understand why some people were able to behave like they did (not always badly but with independence) without suffering the crippling shame spirals that happened to me. So how do you know if you are a people pleaser? Some great examples are below.
You may not be a dyed in the wool people pleaser all the time. It’s true primate behaviour to become more extreme in this behaviour during times of stress, meeting new groups or in high stakes situations. Which is why I suspect that for me it’s been made worse by COVID-19. Being aware of your tendencies so you can undertake a review of whether or not they are helping you is key. For instance I have a tendency to over compensate initially when I’m annoyed at someone whilst I process that irritation. This can lead to me having less good outcomes in the long than if I’d taken a more neutral stance, as I am guilty therefore of sending mixed signals.
Playing well with others
This pleasing people can be especially challenging when it comes to working on group projects or when running events. I’ve been running events and working in groups/teams for most of my life and for all of my NHS career. Most of you won’t know this but for many years, even in my spare time, I ran role playing conventions or live role-playing events for dozens or even hundreds of people. The main thing that I have learnt in my time doing these is that it is actually impossible to please everyone. The things that were one person’s highlight will inevitably end up on the list of another’s persons disappointments – especially when events reach a certain size. Everyone is different and therefore it is almost impossible to tick the boxes of everyone attending.
When I was putting myself through the ringer and getting upset about the not universal love for a freeform I’d spent a year and over 150,000 words writing a good friend turned round, hugged me and whispered in my ear ‘remember the rule of thirds’.
Now I had never heard about this but on follow up questioning it turns out as follows:
- A third of the people will love it
- A third of the people will be ambivalent or think its OK
- A third of the people will hate it
You will hear most from the lovers and the haters but what you actually need to know is how many of the ‘good enough’ people there were. If you manage to get over over a third you are probably doing something right (unless the extras all come from the lovers category). Those are the people you won’t be able to judge the numbers of unless you specifically go out there and seek their feedback – otherwise you respond to the most vocal and may react incorrectly.
The thing is as I go through my career I think the last part is really becoming a key part of my thinking. Am I or do I respond to the things that are shouted loudest or do I take the time to actually evaluate the situation that is beyond the noise to make an action plan which may work for the quiet majority?
It isn’t just about groups
I’ve started off talking about groups but obviously people pleasing can have challenging aspects in 1:1 settings. In fact overcoming people pleasing tendencies in these 1:1 settings can be key to maximising your own effectiveness both at work and at home. I’d like to state for the record that this is very different from me advocating for selfishness. We should absolutely all be team players, but it is important to also ensure that you have the capacity and reserves left to be the best version of yourself so that you deliver as fully as possible.
Below are some of the things I’ve been thinking about/learning in order to handle some of these 1:1 settings better.
Set your success criteria without bias
When I have someone in front of me asking for something I find it incredibly challenging in the moment to say no. Especially when each individual request doesn’t feel unreasonable or large. This year though I’ve been trying to move towards not seeing these 1:1 moments in isolation, but rather to measure them against a holistic whole of what is happening in my life. One important step towards being able to judge whether taking something on is people pleasing or appropriate, is to set boundaries and measure your responses against these.
These decisions can be very challenging in the moment and so one of the things I’ve started to do is to set my own success criteria, before I start projects, but also for my year. These are not another rod for my own back but are a way of checking in with myself about whether something is going in the right direction and whether the decisions I’ve been making are actually serving me and the goal.
It’s important to do this before being in the moment. When I’m in the moment emotions and other pulls can make it difficult for me to evaluate. By having a list that is done before I get into the situation it enables me to have made an unbiased set of judgements that are more reliable for me to use as benchmarks.
One example of this happened recently. This year I had promised myself and my family that after the last 2 years of work coming first I would start to regain a balance where actually my family would be my priority for a while. In May we had some news that meant that this was even more important. In that moment I was able to go back to my list and goals and re-evaluate commitments against my stated aim for this year. Although it was sad I then stepped away from a number of things I was agreeing to that were interfering with my top goal for the year, spending time with my family.
I’m aware other people may think I’m barmy to have to do things this way, but I really easily slip into a default of yes, and in many ways that’s great and where I aspire to be. Not at the costs of my main goals however.
Communicate and manage expectations
If you are going to do this though, communication is key. One of the reasons that I can get more drawn into things than I originally intended is because either myself or the other side haven’t accurately communicated their expectations.
One of the things I dropped in the above example was being a school governor. I only started the role in September 2021 and I had been told that it involved 3 2 hour meetings a year. This I had decided I could manage even in a pandemic and that giving back to my community was sufficiently important to me that I could make it work. Then the mission creep occurred. Suddenly it was 3 meetings a year plus a governor monitoring day per term, then that plus, as Health and Safety governor, I needed to do an inspection visit per term, and finally I became governor with responsibility for science teaching review. Suddenly my 3 evening meetings a year were replaced by at least 2 day visits a term plus the other meetings. Something that was simply incompatible with my goal for this year. In previous years I would have just made it work, I’d signed up after all. This year I reviewed against my goals and found that it just didn’t fit with me achieving the things I’d prioritised for my life so I quit.
The lesson for me from this is that we have to be very clear in communicating our expectations and what the situation will actually look like. That works for both sides. I should have been clearer about the commitment I could actually make and they should have been clearer about what they needed. So many things in my career have been subject to mission creep and I’m trying to be much more aware when I take on new things what they should look like and how much variability from that I’m prepared to accept.
You can’t fix everything
One of the situations that I know is a real challenge for me and my people pleasing tendancies is when I’m presented with a situation where I feel like I should help or ‘fix’. At times like this I become a real helicopter friend/manager and I try to ride in on my white horse and make things better (mixing my metaphors all over the shop and I don’t care – see that’s what I call growth). It comes from a good place, I don’t like seeing people upset or struggling. The problem with this is that a) I often then take on unexpected extra work as part of the response and b) I actually take the learning away from the person I’m trying to help. There is a big difference between assistance/support that enables learning and development and ‘fixing’ which then takes the learning experience away, although fixes the situation in the short term. I struggle to know when in the midst of these situations when to step away or hold my ground to allow space for development to occur and how much help is too much.
This brings me onto something I’ve mentioned previously. It is sometimes just not possible to please everyone. Sometimes you have to have the courage to be disliked and honestly this is definitely harder 1:1. This can happen for a number of reasons: sometimes it’s because it’s a collective decision and not everyone in the group is going to be on board, sometimes you have to make a decision that is in the best interest long term but may not garner immediate approval or understanding, and sometimes (especially in IPC) you make difficult decisions on the basis of safety. I have found this the most challenging aspect of leadership, but I have come to one conclusion and that is I need to acknowledge the noise but not be deafened by it. I have to put it into context to be able to deal with it. If I believe that have done all I can, communicated/collaborated as well as I possibly can, then I have done the best I can in the moment and I have to put my people pleasing aside.
Remember context is key
You can only control you, your responses and what you have decided to put out there. You can’t control how it is received and you definitely can’t control the responses of others. Often these responses are not even about you or what you have put into the world. They will be intrinsically caught up in the perceptions of others, their prior experiences and their current emotional state. Fundamentally it is not all about you and you have little to no control over the people you are trying to please. The more we recognise this, the more we can put our energy into focussing on success criteria and moving forward in the wider landscape.
I’ve found the below image really useful in addition to checking against my success criteria. If my only motivation in saying yes is to please, then actually my answer is really no and the sooner I deal with that the better it will be for all involved.
People pleasing isn’t a zero sum game, by prioritising something over something else there is always a resource cost. If you like me have spent energy for years trying to please in situations where you have little or no control of the outcome my plea is to stop. Think. Why I am doing this? Is it actually helpful? Does it align with my values? Does it move things forward? If the answer is no, then the answer is no. You are allowed to decline, you are allowed to choose where to focus your energies, you are allowed to have your own goals. So say it with me now ‘No’ ‘Thank you for thinking of me, but I can’t right now’ ‘It isn’t the right time for me right now, but please do contact me again in the future in case I can help then’. Your world will be a better place for embracing the power of N O, you will succeed more, do more and in my case I will get to spend time with the people I love who are, after all my reason for being.