This is an audio transcript of the Working It podcast episode: ‘Why people-pleasers fail

Tessa West
When you stop what you’re doing, just stopping to people-please, it’s gonna harm your performance. And so do it, you know, with boundaries and do it in a scheduled way. I think one of the pitfalls is people feel really busy at work and they feel productive when they people-please, but before they know it, they’re spending 30 hours a week doing that and 10 hours a week doing real work. And that’s where you have to start looking out for that kind of balance shift.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Isabel Berwick
Hello and welcome to Working It from the Financial Times. I’m Isabel Berwick. Most of us are willing to lend a hand when a colleague needs help, to do a bit more when work is busy, to take on extra responsibilities just to be helpful. But some of us, including me, have a problem knowing when to stop. We put more on our plate even when there’s plenty there already. And we make our lives harder just to make our bosses or colleagues happy. If that sounds like you, you may be a people-pleaser. Should we stop putting others’ needs ahead of our own, or is going the extra mile just a good way to get ahead? To find out, I spoke to Tessa West, a professor of psychology at New York University and an expert in the science of interpersonal communication. I started by asking her what is people-pleasing?

Tessa West
I would talk about people-pleasers as people who take on visible roles that high-power people ask them to do, so someone who’s kind of doing something that they maybe don’t really see as directly beneficial to them or their career, but someone who has status and power is asking them to do it, and so they say yes.

Isabel Berwick
What are the pitfalls of people-pleasing specifically for managers or people in positions of power? Are there any pitfalls for them? Because presumably people are just doing stuff for them.

Tessa West
One of the major problems with people-pleasing is that when people in power are asking others to do things for them, there’s often this kind of false belief that the things they’re asking them to do will actually get them into those positions of power themselves. I’m doing some new research now on sort of why people are runners-up at work, why they are failing to get promoted into positions of power and as a result are leaving organisations, leaving companies. And the number one reason why people are doing this is because they’re taking on highly visible roles that managers and senior leaders are asking them to do as favours that they falsely believe will actually help them get into those positions of power themselves. So in the short term, it feels good as a manager to get a yes-person around to take on all these roles for you. But insofar as those roles are not actually important for performing on the dimensions people care about for climbing up at work, you’re gonna end up bleeding a lot of talent pretty quickly.

Isabel Berwick
Is it on the part of the people doing the people-pleasing that they think they’re going to get promoted? It’s never actually made explicit.

Tessa West
Yeah. So this is the million-dollar question. When I talk to managers, when I survey them, they all tell me, oh, I’m super clear about what does and doesn’t count for promotion. But when I ask the people themselves who’ve taken on these roles, was it made clear to you that this role was maybe not as important as you thought it was? Seventy-five per cent of them say, no one ever told me this. It was actually implied that it was a good thing. And I think what we’re seeing is a little bit of kind of mixed messages going on. I might not explicitly tell you, hey, if you volunteer for that committee, if you step in and, you know, help out that last-minute minute team member, it’s gonna help you get promoted. But I’m really nice when I ask you, maybe I give you some kind of non-verbal feedback. I’m a little bit more attentive to you in meetings. So the people are actually getting mixed messages and I think managers are giving off those mixed messages to people that they need to be super aware of.

Isabel Berwick
So I just wanted to talk a little bit about the people-pleasers who just don’t know how to say no. They’re probably doing it to make people like them. Does that work?

Tessa West
In the moment, it makes people like you. But keep in mind for those people-pleasers that most people, when they’re asking you to do a favour, they’re just looking for someone who can do something for them. We’re all kind of like looking to fill that slot, you know, looking to get someone to just take on that additional role. And so in the moment, what you’re doing is actually just relieving attention that another person is experiencing. But it’s just as effective to give five recommendations of someone else who could do it instead who might actually benefit. And you’re gonna be liked just as much if you do that than if you actually volunteer to do the thing.

Isabel Berwick
Where do we set the line between being nice and being a people-pleaser? Where’s the line there?

Tessa West
So I think offering to help people but on your own terms is actually really important. So I wouldn’t turn everyone down. I wouldn’t turn that boss down, but I would give them timeframes and just be really cognisant of the fact that when you task switch, when you stop what you’re doing, just stopping to people-please, it’s gonna harm your performance. And so doing it urgently as an emergency over and over again is really the least effective way to people-please. Do it, you know, with boundaries and do it in a scheduled way and keep track of how much time you’re spending doing these types of things versus your actual work. I think one of the pitfalls is people feel really busy at work, and they feel productive when they people-please, but before they know it, they’re spending 30 hours a week doing that and 10 hours a week doing real work. And that’s where that you have to start looking out for that kind of balance shift.

Isabel Berwick
If we repeatedly go above and beyond for our boss or our colleagues, will they expect us to keep doing it? You know, does it set expectations too high? What do you find in your research? Does it become a pattern people can’t get out of?

Tessa West
Absolutely. And I think this is where things start to get dangerous. There’s a little bit of a people-pleasing creep that happens. Your boss says, I just need some last minute help with this one thing. You step in. You become known as a very reliable people-pleaser. And so they know that if they really need something done in a crunch, they can come to you and then that becomes a crutch. They just need you to get all of these things done. Where this gets dangerous is when you’re doing a whole bunch of work that you’re not being paid for and you’re not actually getting credit for. And I think you do wanna be very careful of that dynamic between yourself and your boss in the same way that you don’t wanna get into that relationship with your child or with your spouse where they’re constantly relying on you to kind of step in and do every little thing for them, fill in those gaps to make their lives easier all the time.

Isabel Berwick
Do you think a level of people-pleasing is necessary in some jobs? I’m thinking about client-facing roles, professional services where you really have to please the client.

Tessa West
There is absolutely a certain amount of people-pleasing in all of our workplaces. I think just saying my time is my own, I’m not gonna help other people is really damning to you and your reputation at work. Reciprocity is probably the strongest norm we see at work. If you need help, you should be willing to give that help. But I think just kind of keeping track of the level of the people-pleasing and the specific nature of the ask. So if clients are starting to go into kind of inappropriate asks that are outside the scope of work, then it’s important for you to kind of set those boundaries early.

Isabel Berwick
Some of us are people-pleasers because we’re anxious, but some people-pleasers are a bit more disingenuous, aren’t they?

Tessa West
Yeah, this is my favourite form of people-pleasing, the really disingenuous, I’m not a bleeding heart. I don’t actually care about helping you, but I feel like this is transactional. That absolutely happens at work. And I think this is actually where we see people-pleasing backfiring and hurting people’s careers — when it’s clear that the only reason why they’re doing it is to get ahead and they’re not actually providing that much help. It’s only visible help. It’s never kind of like the real kind that happens behind closed doors. And those types of people-pleasers are usually easy to spot because they insist on getting public credit for every little thing they do to help out another person. Those are those kind of more Machiavellian people-pleasers.

Isabel Berwick
I don’t think it’s a long-term strategy, though, because we all hate them, don’t we?

Tessa West
Yeah, they’re super irritating and it almost always backfires. It almost always makes the boss think this person is just gonna be in massive pain. They’re not gonna do any real work, they’re just gonna do this public stuff and they’re not actually performing very well. So I’m gonna come take them out of that role and make them invisible again.

Isabel Berwick
Tessa, thank you so much for coming on the podcast.

Tessa West
Thank you so much for having me.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Isabel Berwick
Trying to please our colleagues or our clients is a noble aim, but it’s important to know how much is too much, and where to set your boundaries. You build trust in a workplace by doing the stuff that matters. So doing things that look good but are outside your remit isn’t necessarily a good long-term play. So stick to your guns and draw a line when you’re too busy to do more.

Protecting yourself in that way is a nice idea, but it’s not always realistic. Sometimes you have to swallow your pride and do things you don’t really want to do. Christine Braamskamp understands that better than most. She’s the managing partner in London for the international law firm Jenner & Block. Lawyers work hard for their clients, pull long hours and get paid handsomely to do so. So I asked Christine, isn’t people-pleasing just part of her job?

Christine Braamskamp
When you’re in the professional services industry, you cannot not be a people person. I think there may be a slight difference there, but invariably when you’re a people person, you will work hard to make sure that the environment within which you’ll be operating will be a pleasant environment. And sometimes that means that you need to bend a little bit to other people. So that is probably also a version of people-pleasing.

Isabel Berwick
Yes. So I’m interested in that distinction between people person and people-pleasing. Could you expand on that?

Christine Braamskamp
For me personally, in a law firm as a lawyer, you cannot do this job without building relationships. Your relationship with your clients is an incredibly important one, and that needs to be built first before you can step away from the people-pleasing, if you like, and give the messages that may not be well received. So there’s always that level of trust-building that is needed before you can pull away from the people-pleasing.

Isabel Berwick
And people often talk about it in terms of setting boundaries, which must be quite pertinent in your work. Are there boundaries when it comes to getting work done? You know, how do you set those for yourself?

Christine Braamskamp
Well, again, you don’t go into professional services if you’re not flexible around boundaries. In an ideal world, a boundary doesn’t have to be a negative, but can be part and parcel of that whole team dynamics and the friendships that you build up by jointly working on something. I’d like to think that an awful lot of the boundary-setting can be part of the relationship-forming, and there needs to be an honesty up front as to what the expectations are of everyone that’s involved in, again, just to the example, a particular case.

Isabel Berwick
Have you ever been pushed too far and just thought this person’s not being reasonable? I’m just gonna . . . 

Christine Braamskamp
Oh yes. Absolutely. And then I get terribly cross with myself when I don’t set the line. Because I think there is part of us all that is only human in wanting to avoid conflict; doesn’t necessarily come natural to stand up for yourself. And so the worst thing that happens in those situations where you feel like someone is really crossing the boundary, your own personal boundary, whether you’ve expressed it or not, but someone who is either very aggressive in talking at you or aggressively working against what is the right thing to do, the right thing to do for the team. The worst thing that you can do to yourself is not standing up for yourself at that moment, but it’s also incredibly difficult.

Isabel Berwick
We’ve talked about laying the foundations of a relationship to set the boundaries, but sometimes early relationships are hard. They’re not easy. So what do you do when the early part of a relationship is difficult and conflict-filled, but you have to people-please get to the next stage?

Christine Braamskamp
Sometimes in that period of time, the best thing that you can do both for yourself — because sometimes you have to bend yourself to the character of the person that you’re dealing with — is be curious. To be really curious as to where they come from. They do come to you. And you just have to remember that person comes to you with something that is really important, and you have to be open to the fact that is A) making that person very anxious, and B) that person doesn’t know you from Adam.

So if you’re just at the early stages where someone is trying to work with you on resolving something that is incredibly difficult in their life, you need to give them space to deal with their anxieties, build a trust with them so that they feel like they are in good hands. And that does sometimes involve more time, more energy than you may have, absolutely a level of people-pleasing.

And that, again, is a learning moment, I think, for the younger lawyers in a team to see how you build up that relationship, because the work that you will be doing for the clients or the organisation will be incredibly important and meaningful, and it falls into a void unless you have a relationship.

Isabel Berwick
I wanted to talk a little bit about generational differences because, you know, younger people often are very particular about their boundaries in a way that perhaps we weren’t when we started work. How would you suggest to people listening to this that we navigate that in workplaces?

Christine Braamskamp
An awful lot actually happens I think quite naturally in that there will be an element of, we need to get this piece of work out by tomorrow; what will you be doing to get that done? And alongside of that will be, and I will be doing this, and for me to be able to do that, I need that from you.

So there is an awful lot to be said, I think, for clarity, for being very straight-shooting, for following through and also for being understanding because the person on the other side of the table may say, well, actually, I have a hard deadline of five o’clock because I need to pick up my youngest child from nursery. I don’t have a partner who can do that for me. Can you cover for me for that period of time?

And I think that flexibility can certainly exist in the workplace and should exist in the workplace, but it requires the groundwork again, and that is a two-way thing. But there should always be space for them to say, I cannot do this. And then the question is, but what can you do? And then if it’s not enough, you can then be quite direct, I think, and quite clear in saying, well, that’s not quite enough because that doesn’t deliver me what I need by this time. So how are we going to do this?

Isabel Berwick
Do you think that older workers or managers could learn anything from the younger generation?

Christine Braamskamp
I am absolutely certain that we can learn. And I find it fascinating to listen to a godson of mine who is in his mid- to late 20s and who expects a very varied diet of work and learning something new year on year, and has different expectations of what the work environment should do for him.

I hope that also in return, he enjoys hearing from me about the benefits of building the relationships. And whether you call that people-pleasing or building relationships or people management or being a people person, I think you should never underestimate the joy of a good team and working in a good team that is well functioning. And I think actually that when you listen to each other, that’s the best outcome that you can go for.

Isabel Berwick
Thank you so much.

Christine Braamskamp
Thank you for having me.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Isabel Berwick
Helping out your boss or your colleagues is great, but there’s definitely a point at which it can become too much and get in the way of your own workplace goals. By all means, help your colleagues. But do it with boundaries.

And if you’re a manager, be really careful not to mislead your team members about what counts and what doesn’t. If you’re a manager, be really clear about what will help your employees get ahead. Don’t imply that doing extra work will help them get promoted, unless that’s actually the case.

This episode of Working It was produced by Mischa Frankl-Duval and mixed by Jake Fielding. Manuela Saragosa is the executive producer and Cheryl Brumley is the FT’s global head of audio. Thanks for listening.

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