Leaders Can’t Be People-Pleasers

4 min read

As a leader, you soon learn: You can’t please all people all the time.

I like to please people; I think most people do. Unfortunately, leadership sometimes means delivering bad news. It’s hard to sit across from someone who you’ve upset, whether by adding more work to their day or delivering critical feedback.

Nevertheless, it’s a task that has to be done. Now, my job isn’t particularly difficult or high stakes, but I’ve still found myself struggling with this responsibility at times. I’ll put off difficult conversations, or find myself sugar-coating bad news. And while it’s important to treat your coworkers with kindness, I wouldn’t want to follow someone’s lead if I thought they were feckless. If you can’t stand up to little old me, how are you going to stand up for me to higher-ups? How are you going to represent the needs and wants of my team? I wouldn’t have much confidence in you.

“If you try to please all, you please none.” – Aesop

So I made a list of the traits I’d want in an ideal leader:

  • Morally grounded–someone who won’t make an unethical decision despite temptation
  • Kind and polite to all, but firm and tough in the face of adversity
  • Mentally and emotionally strong–hard times won’t rattle them (at least outwardly)
  • Competent
  • Looks out for their team
  • Far-sighted
  • Complete what they set out to do, but flexible enough to change plans if necessary
  • Critical thinker

When I’m tempted to take the easy way, or if I’m not sure how to handle a new leadership situation, I run through this list. What would this ideal leader do? Most likely, they’d suck it up and face their problems rationally and immediately. So that’s what I try to do.

Now, I’m pretty terrible with conflict. My default position is to try to make you happy, though I wouldn’t say that’s entirely healthy. While it’s admirable to want to make people happy and put them at ease, there’s a dark side to people-pleasing. You’ll find it nibbling at your very reasonable boundaries, pushing to consume them and you. You can lose yourself to anticipating other’s needs and providing for them. That dark side will devour your sense of self, your sense of what you want and what you think. I’ve been there; again, I think many of us have.

So now, when I’ve had to make a decision or offer my opinion, it’s not enough to toe the party line. I’ve been forced to step back and ask myself what I really think. It’s been a refreshing challenge, actually. I’ve connected more with that little voice inside me.

But it’s not enough to know yourself, you also have to speak up for yourself. That may mean disagreeing with others, and on occasion overruling them. Like I said, it can be difficult to know you’ve upset someone. Too often, when faced with conflict, I’ll overreact. My body will go into flight mode: My hands will shake, my heart will speed, my thoughts will race. But as with most fears, facing them down is the only way forward. I’ve found the more I deal with what I’m afraid of, the less I’m afraid of it the next time. After all, I’m still here. I survived it. (And often I think to myself wryly, I’ve survived a lot worse! What was I so afraid of?)

It’s easier to break free from the unhealthy effects of people-pleasing when you have a higher goal. Here, my higher goal is seeing Knowledge Management do the best possible work. Adhering to that goal means looking past individual moans and groans; and frankly, it means not taking on burdens that aren’t mine. I’m not responsible for my coworkers’ happiness, though I’d be happy to add to it however I can. Instead, I’m responsible for improving this team.

This job has surprised me in so many ways. I’ve been thrilled to learn a new role, and surprised at the inner journey it sparked. I like to think I’ve come out a more self-possessed person as a result.

How did you deal with your first leadership position? How did it change you?


Photo by rob walsh on Unsplash

One Reply to “Leaders Can’t Be People-Pleasers”

  1. Great piece on leadership…I enjoyed it! Sounds like you’ve grown more accustomed in your role and have come to some useful solutions to the challenges of being a leader. Love your list of traits and behaviors! My first leadership position was thrust upon me much too early in my career, thanks to my ability to take exams, being fairly fresh out of college. I knew “the book” requirements of my job, but had very little experience, which I quickly discovered was more important on many levels. It took me several years and assignments (and an incalculable number of mistakes) to get comfortable in my leadership role. Once I did, much of my philosophy echoes what you’ve said. A few other things include making sure my folks had the tools they needed; me being the obstacle those above had to go through to offer advice to those doing the job; and focusing on keeping my good folks content and worrying less and less about the slugs…figured if the bad ones weren’t happy, but the good ones were, I must be doing something right! Oh, and respectfully speaking truth to power…and being receptive to those below speaking their truth to you… Love you!

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