The peril of people pleasing

If any of you have been to therapy (and if you haven't, schedule an appointment immediately), you've likely heard the phrase "pleaser."

If any of you have been to therapy (and if you haven't, schedule an appointment immediately), you've likely heard the phrase “pleaser.” It's a personality type that constantly seeks to please others, always offering to be of help and to serve. It's endemic to PR people.

I'm not sure how we all got this way. Maybe it evolved as a coping mechanism from a dysfunctional childhood. Maybe it's how we survived public high school. Maybe it's the way we're wired. It's also possible that those of us who began their careers in the agency world had it beaten into us.

I had an obnoxious client once who worked for a large Japanese electronics manufacturer. He called me one day and needed a press release devised ASAP. I immediately started composing the somewhat complicated release. After 10 minutes, the phone rang.

“Don,” he said, “Is it ready?” I assured him I was working on it as fast as I could. The phone rang in another 10 minutes.

“Don, I am waiting.”

I know you jerk, I thought, and I'm working on it. But I calmly assured him it would be ready soon. The phone rang in another 10 minutes. He simply said, ”Waiting.”

I somehow survived this client and ultimately the agency business, but along the way I became a full-fledged pleaser. Like most PR pros, I learned to churn out copy at a furious pace, answer absurd deadlines, and do whatever it takes to keep the boss or client happy. And while this undoubtedly can be a formula for career success, it has its dark side.

To start, it tends to breed workaholics who respond to the buzz of their BlackBerry with junkie-like twitches. You know the type: the perennially stressed obsessors who wear their harried, frazzled state as a badge of honor. In truth, this zealousness is actually kind of sad and unattractive. It's not really impressive to work 14 hours a day, six days a week, and never take a vacation. In fact, when I meet one of these people, all I can think is, “Boy, I wouldn't like to work for you, and I definitely wouldn't want to be married to you.”

The other big downside to all this pleasing is that it keeps us from entering the corporate management mainstream. At some point, we need to stop pleasing and start taking a stand. We have to learn to say no and to tell people that their idea is not a particularly good use of time or resources.

My epiphany came after I had moved into an operational role and had to manage several difficult and bickering personalities during the integration of a newly acquired company. About three months into the process, I was having trouble sleeping. I was filled with anxiety. I talked to a friend who gave me the following advice:

“Remember when your kids were little and they'd hand you their candy wrappers and ask you to throw them away? And one day you handed the wrappers back and taught your kids to throw away their own trash? Well, you need to do the same thing with these difficult people – stop taking their garbage and making it your problem. Give it right back to them.”

The higher up the management chain we move, the more our life is about managing conflict, confronting hard decisions, and motivating those who work for us. It's hard to do if you're the one leaving every meeting with the follow-up work tasks. It's even harder if you're always worried about pleasing your peers, boss, and subordinates.

So try not pleasing for a little while – you might like it.

Don Spetner is EVP of corporate affairs at executive recruitment firm Korn/Ferry International.

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