The Saboteur series: The Pleaser

The ‘Saboteur series’ is a succession of articles that outline some of the defining characteristics of limiting beliefs that can inhibit leadership effectiveness. Each article explores a particular ‘Saboteur persona’ - a specific set of traits that are observable, and which can shape the behaviours of ourselves as leaders, and those we work with. Some suggestions about how to effectively reduce the limiting effects of such traits are also shared, and developing such strategies can be enhanced by working with a professional Making Stuff Better coach.

Derived from the work of Shirzad Chamine, and outlined in his book Positive Intelligence, each article offers some fascinating insights to ‘people behaviour’.

It’s a phrase we hear from time to time in schools, references to those who are seen as a ….’people pleaser’. Indeed, putting others first in many situations is well regarded.  As parents we can be compelled to praise and reward our children when they ‘show consideration’ for others. Certainly, for those in school leadership roles in education, we can so often be characterised on our nature to put others before ourselves. This has spawned a whole body of work around the principle of ‘servant leadership’.

I wonder how often we consciously, or unconsciously for that matter, actually engage in ‘pleaser behaviours’ or even ‘pleaser thinking’ in an extreme or excessive way? How often do we feel the compulsion to do something that will demonstrably put another person before ourselves, with the intention to gain acceptance, acknowledgement or even affection? After all, don’t we feel better about ourselves when we do so? Isn’t giving and serving part of the role?

  • Do you ever feel that putting yourself first and before others is intrinsically selfish? (In fact, to be a good person you should put the needs of others ahead of your own)?
  • Do you tend to believe that you help others selflessly (and even though you do not expect anything in return, you are silently looking for a ‘return’ through acknowledgment, acceptance, or even affection)?
  • Despite your giving nature, you can feel resentful if you perceive that you have been taken for granted (but have difficulty in expressing this frustration - worried that insisting on own needs may drive others away).
  • Saying ‘No’ to others can be a very challenging thing to do?

Well, if so, it turns out you are not alone. It seems that there are those in school leadership who, despite having numerous admirable qualities and well-developed skills, feel an inner compulsion to put others and the role before themselves. In leadership, we can often feel we need to be that model of giving, to support our colleagues, and the community we serve. We might believe that this is exactly as it should be, and that our organisation would be a better place if everyone lived by the mantra that others come first. We do this in a manner that shapes ways of being and doing that are very visible. And yet, there is an emotional overhead to all of this ‘giving’ that can take its toll. It often does so far more privately.

Of course, on the face of it, servant leadership can seem like a positive way of being and doing – and in many ways it can be. It could be argued that for leaders, particularly in educational organisations, being focused on others is a fundamental of the role. In reality, it is the exaggerated and magnified compulsion to put others first that distinguishes this behaviour with normative ones. When this exaggerated compulsion is combined with a need to gain acceptance and be liked by others, we can begin to see the counterproductive effects of 'Pleaser tendencies' on those with them, and those they interact with.

The promise (and problem) of the ‘people pleaser’

It seems that the crux of this is the extent to which we are reliant on external affirmation and attention to feel fulfilled. Those with Pleaser tendencies rely on this external recognition for a sense of self-respect and worth (sometimes to the point of dependency) and are driven towards a constant need to seek reassurance from others about their acceptance and affection. Achieving this indirectly, they have people feel obligated to reciprocate care, having been proactive, intentional and first in giving it.

Being ‘pleaser-oriented’ also leads us to a belief that others are selfish and ungrateful if they do not reciprocate the care that they have been given. However, it can be difficult for the recipient of care, attention or even flattery, to be fully aware of the covenant they are engaged in. As such, they may simply see a gesture of support from a ‘Pleaser’ as an authentic ‘no-strings-attached’ gift. This unfulfilled situation in which the Pleaser has given, but not received in return, can leave those with Pleaser tendencies feeling resentful for being taken for granted. Worse still, they can feel frustrated at themselves for giving away too much, and not having the confidence to express their own needs (or put themselves) first. 

People pleaser profiles

The actress Brie Larson is a self-confessed ‘people pleaser’.  As a Hollywood actress, her high profile means she is often in the spotlight and bound to be aware of what others think about her. After all, any opinions will be splattered in the press and on social media.   

As someone who is naturally empathetic and tuned into the emotions of others, it can’t be easy to have messaging about you splashed so publicly around.

How challenging must it be to have your source of connection gravitate around the external affirmation of others?

In her blog, Carley Schweet shares her experience of having an exaggerated ‘Pleaser’ tendency:

I found myself locked in a bathroom stall at my corporate fashion job, experiencing what I now recognize as a panic attack. My ears felt like someone had stuffed cotton balls in them, and my palms were so sweaty I couldn’t stand to touch them. Everything went black and white, and I felt like I completely lost control’.

This description of having panic attacks, the physiological reaction she had was experiencing, is not typical, but not necessarily uncommon either. When those with 'Pleaser tendencies' feel a heightened sense of cognitive and emotional dissonance, the result can be quite significant. In her blog she notes how difficult it was to say ‘No’ and cites other characteristics she experienced:

  • You have a hard time saying 'No' because you feel guilty or too worried about the other person’s feelings
  • You are quick to say 'Yes' and sometimes find it hard to follow through with everything you committed to
  • 'Sorry' is a common word in your vocabulary
  • You find it hard to accept help or compliments
  • Rescuing people – at work, in relationships – gives you a sense of purpose and validation, but often leaves you feeling burnt out and exhausted
  • You have a hard time communicating what you truly want or need to be entirely happy

Being an Associate Coach with Making Stuff Better has helped me 'notice' the voice of the 'Pleaser tendency' and develop strategies to reduce its limiting impact in those I work with. Certainty as a school leader I recognised many of these characteristics in some I have worked with. To be honest, I recognise a few personal traits in myself too.

As a coach, I am now able to support others to take a different view of things... aspiring toward being driven by behaviours that give unconditionally. I help them shift the way they derive their sense of connectedness and belonging away from the external sources of confirmation by others, towards other indicators of happiness and fulfilment. These shifts frequently require an uncomfortable and yet necessary change in behaviours towards being able to openly express one’s views and feelings, and to be able to say ‘No’ when it serves positively and is authentic.

The message here is that it was better to shift perspective to looking at what constitutes ‘belonging and acceptance’ in different ways, effectively to reframe the idea of ‘being loved’.

The question is how do I know if I have got 'Pleaser tendencies'? And what can I do about it when this is not serving me positively?

Well, it seems that there are certain identifiable characteristics when it comes to ‘Pleaser tendencies’. The more able we are at recognising them and noticing the way they manifest in ourselves and others, the better placed we are to manage these limiting beliefs.

What should you look out for?

If you recognise any of these in yourself or others, it may well be that ‘Pleaser tendencies’ are present (and holding you or others back).  Do you or your team have:

  • A compulsion to be liked and accepted by others. A tendency to engage in behaviours to secure this by helping, caring, pleasing, flattering or rescuing them
  • A belief that putting others first is a noble and unselfish way of being. You will tend to feel that this motive is altruistic. You may be torn from this external way of being, with an internal dissonance that is derived from occasions where you feel resentful for being this way
  • The need for frequent reassurance by others in a way that demonstrates acceptance
  • Insecurities about expressing own needs openly and directly. Will tend to do so indirectly in a way that others feel obligated to reciprocate care. Expressing your needs openly and directly will feel selfish and difficult. As such you may have a tendency to want to ‘fit in’ and do what you think others want so you are more likely to gain acceptance

What are the pros and cons?

If you recognise any of these in yourself or others, I would encourage you not to be too judgemental (of yourself or others).  Having 'Pleaser tendencies' is a double-edged sword. Don't forget, it comes with some positive characteristics too, if not taken to the extreme.

Look out for these in yourself or others:

  • You are naturally empathetic, caring and giving. In many ways you will model positive behaviours that foster a nurturing culture.
  • You are tuned in to the feeling and needs of others. As such you have a high potential for emotional intelligence which can build trust and loyal relationships.
  • You are tuned in to your own feelings and needs. Being so self-aware you are able to notice how you are being (particularly when interacting with others) in a way that those with Hyper-rational and Hyper-Achiever tendencies, for example, find more challenging.

The problem with being a Pleaser

As an Associate Coach with Making Stuff Better, when I coach those with 'Pleaser tendencies', the challenge can be authentically acknowledging it in the first place. Pleasers will find it particularly difficult but recognising the limiting impact of such a tendency, believing that they are driven towards acting selflessly.  

Being honest about the compulsion that is driven to outwardly be selfless, but is inwardly motivated by seeking attention and affection, isn’t an easy step to take. The very nature of being a Pleaser, where there can be a concern that admitting and articulating your own needs may drive others away, means that Pleasers can camouflage their reality in a coaching conversation.

Acknowledging the possibility of burnout, compassion fatigue, and inner feelings of resentment when your good deed is not reciprocated, isn’t easy for those with Please tendencies as it is a de facto admission that trying to gain acceptance and affection in this way is itself a flawed approach. The limiting effects can include:

  • The constant need to give to others is exhausting and can lead to burnout and compassion fatigue
  • Self-acceptance is continuously conditioned on the behaviours of others, with the added limitation of being validated typically as a response to a given gesture of support. Those with Pleaser tendencies therefore give their power away to others, and self-acceptance is never unconditional
  • As those with Pleaser tendencies give to others with the aspiration of reciprocation, there natural empathetic leaning can turn to negativity, seeing others as ungrateful and selfish. This sours a trait that is naturally warm and generous
  • The belief that others may be driven away if those with Pleaser tendencies express their own needs is misleading. In collaborative interactions, over the longer term, deep and authentic relationships are unlikely to grow when those engaged with a Pleaser begin to sense that there is ‘an elephant in the room’ not being acknowledged. Indeed, the behaviour of those with Pleaser tendencies can leave some feeling manipulated, and seeing gestures of care as inauthentic

How can I manage me (or others better)?

In reality, like all limiting beliefs, once we recognise the lies that these perspectives are telling us, we tend to have a reason to address them more positively and proactively. Working as a Making Stuff Better coach allows those in school leadership to develop strategies such as:

  • Consider the oxygen mask analogy – only by putting yourself first, can you really be well placed to help others? As your needs are fulfilled (by having the confidence and authenticity to state these openly), so you will be able support others unconditionally. Remember that seeking acceptance and affection through giving does not build lasting relationships.
  • Recognise the ‘opportunity cost’ of overly focusing on pleasing and giving to others. Not only does it drain you of energy, it also leaves you vulnerable to your source of fulfilment being external - the cost of depending on others for attention, acceptance, and validation is vulnerability. Ask yourself ‘To what extent have I given my power away?’
  • Learn how to say ‘No’. Reframe this as ‘A ‘No’ is simply a ‘Yes’ to something else’.

Limiting beliefs are not unique, we all have them. They take a number of different forms; from self-judgment (or judgment of others), avoidance behaviours and thinking, perfectionist tendencies, being highly competitive and having a compulsion to excel, and of course, having a tendency towards wanting to please others.

Whilst these are rooted in personal qualities and strengths, they can become so magnified, so exaggerated that they no longer serve us and others positively.

In the case of the 'Pleaser tendency', being aware of how this limits our ability to shift our fulfilment locus of control inwards, noticing the presence and influence of the Pleaser in us, and shifting our perspective and behaviours, can really support our effectiveness and sense of wellbeing. Working with a professional coach from Making Stuff Better could be one positive step towards tacking a limiting belief that is holding you back.

About the author

Andrew Macdonald-Brown is an Associate for Making Stuff Better.

Making Stuff Better is the executive coaching company for international school leaders.  Working around the globe, we coach ambitious values-driven leaders who want to have a lasting impact in a world that requires agility, collaboration and perspective. We work with principled leaders who understand that only through their own transformation can they change those that they lead.

MSB’s extensive global client base include renowned educational organisations such as Dulwich College International, Berlin International School, Tanglin Trust School, Seoul Foreign School and British School of Amsterdam.