People Pleasers, learn to say “No” to please yourselves

“People pleasing is driven by fear, not virtue”.

So writes Financial Times business columnist Pilita Clark in a recent article, where she argues that women are more likely to undertake the drudge work in organisations that eats into their time and other priorities, due to an inability to offer a firm “no”.

We all know a people pleaser. Generally, they are people who consistently strive to please others; adapt their behaviour to make social interactions smoother; are givers of money, time or energy to a cause; regularly take on extra work; and are far more likely to find a way to “yes” rather than “no” when receiving a request.

All in all, they sound like great people to have around. But unfortunately, there is a cost to people pleasing, and it is significant. Over time, it can detrimentally impact your mental health, relationships, and your career.

One of the great ironies of people pleasing is the guilt often experienced if a “no” is mustered up. It’s actually a mark of courage for a people pleaser to utter “no” and stand behind it, but they naturally don’t see it that way. Of course, the irony on the flipside is that uttering a reluctant “yes” to something just to keep the peace can cause deep personal resentment that erodes one’s sense of self over time. They might want to say “no”, but the “yes” is just easier.

There are a few obvious reasons why constant people pleasing is a bad idea. Saying “yes” to everything can be exhausting. And as a flow-on impact, if we are overwhelmed with tasks, we are more likely to make mistakes, become sick, think less rationally, and disregard our own feelings when we become upset for fear of the potential conflict we might encounter. All in all, people pleasers seem to give everything to others, and get precious little back in return. Their emotional bank accounts are constantly overdrawn.

“People pleasers seem to give everything to others, and get precious little back in return. Their emotional bank accounts are constantly overdrawn”

From a career perspective, people pleasing can be severely inhibiting to your own growth as a leader, and those around you. In their classic Harvard Business Review article “Management Time: Who’s Got The Monkey”, William Oncken Jr and Donald Wass argue that a leader’s propensity to take on the work of others (alluded to as “monkeys on the back”) will leave them not enough time to do their own jobs, and stifle their subordinate’s opportunities to acquire new skills. This situation could also be due to a perceived need to retain control, but the authors argue that while saying “no” to a task and helping your people develop their own problem-solving skills can initially be more time consuming for the leader, in the long run it will save time, and build the problem-solving and resilience skills of all involved.

Another author, US management researcher Bruce Tulgan, in his 2020 book “The Art Of Being Indispensable At Work”, calls out the need to fight “over-commitment syndrome” at work. He says “If you try to do everything for everybody, you’ll end up doing nothing for anybody”.

“If you try to do everything for everybody, you’ll end up doing nothing for nobody” – Bruce Tulgan

Learning how to set and sustain boundaries is a tough but essential skill people pleasers need to acquire. Debbie Sorensen, a Harvard-trained clinical psychologist based in Denver, CO, says people pleasers should avoid looking at saying “no” as a reflection of self-worth or capabilities, but rather view setting boundaries as a way of protecting your energy, goals and priorities so you can be a more effective employee. She reminds us that “time off from work, in any amount, is really important…..we all deserve the time and space to recharge”.

Of course, there are right and wrong ways to say “no” to something. In another article, Clark raises a technique described as “distracting the baby”, whereby faced with a request you’d rather ignore, one doesn’t refuse to do something outright. Instead, she argues the benefit of listening to the request carefully, and if it doesn’t work for you, come up with a plausible alternative that would satisfy the requester. She also argues that a blunt “no” can be counterproductive, preferring to deliver the “no” politely, without sugar-coating, spelling out precisely why you won’t be saying “yes” on this occasion.

Like anything new, learning to set boundaries and deliver a polite but firm “no” is a habit that takes practice to get it right. People pleasers might still find themselves ending up with a few monkeys on the back even when they are deliberately trying to avoid them at first. It will take time for those familiar with people pleasers to get used to the fact they are now looking to set boundaries. Some relationships will be challenged – but that will be a sign you are succeeding. The new sense of control and ownership will feel foreign when you first get this right – but over time, the newfound sense of empowerment will be intoxicating.

People pleasers, learn to say “no” to please yourselves.


Cadence Leadership Advisory is a leadership development business specialising in coaching people, team leadership and development, strategy review and organisational culture.

Its Founder, Lewis Williams, has over 25 years of leadership experience gained through senior roles at NAB, HSBC and Bendigo and Adelaide Bank. A Graduate of AGSM@UNSW, a Graduate Member of the Australian Institute of Company Directors (AICD), and an Approved Advisor with Advisory Board Centre, he instigated and drove development of the 2021 paper “Organisational Culture: Beyond the Intangible” with other alumni of the AICD. He is also an accredited CultureTalk practitioner, a training and development platform that activates the framework of personality archetypes for the growth of leaders, teams, brands and cultures.

FOUNDER: Lewis Williams


MOBILE: 61 (0) 477 371 665

LINKEDIN: cadenceleadershipadvisory/

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