How to stop being a people-pleaser in the workplace (and still be nice)

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people pleaser
9 min read

I wasn’t born a people pleaser. Neither were you.

I learnt how to be a people pleaser as I grew up. Circumstances at home weren’t the best. As the first child, I took up the responsibility to make the atmosphere happy — to an extent. That only grew when my brother came into the picture. I was complimented a lot (I revelled in it, to be honest) for being an understanding child who did not have many needs and was accommodating compared to most other kids. However, it translated into me being a people pleaser — a quality that isn’t really ideal. 

Recognise that people-pleasing is a toxic behaviour

So, when did you know you were a people pleaser? 

For the longest time, I couldn’t figure out why it was bad to be a people pleaser.

For the most part, I believed that saying yes equated to being a ‘nice’ person. So, what was so wrong about being nice to other people?

Well, there’s a clear difference between being a nice person and being a people pleaser. Saying ‘yes’ to everyone and everything meant that I could avoid conflict. I believed it would make everyone like me. Turns out, there’s a lot more to me that people like — aka my personality and my lame jokes — other than my people-pleasing tendencies.

Avoiding conflict has always been one of my top priorities as a kid, and as an adult, I used this ‘pleasing-people’ behaviour as a way to avoid unnecessary conflict. And that’s besides the fact that I was not taught how to stand up for myself or navigate conflict

Saying ‘yes’ to everyone meant that I had no boundaries whatsoever. It warranted that I neither respected myself, nor asked to be respected. Without these boundaries, it was hard for me to figure out the person I was, what I really liked or wanted, or what I wanted to do with my life.

people pleaser

Being nice was more about me trying to have an ounce of control over a situation or relationship, and not about trying to be a good person, even though that’s what I told myself. 

Be who you want to be

A question I asked myself a lot is — Will I be a people pleaser for the rest of my life? The truth is, trying to please everyone is a learnt behaviour. And like all learnt behaviours, they can be unlearnt too, no matter how much you think it’s a part of you. 

Think about the kind of person you really want to be. Get really detailed if you have to. Start to believe that you are that person. If you ever doubt yourself or a coworker approaches you with extra work, picture this person and ask yourself — What would this person do? Slowly, but surely, you’ll watch yourself grow into this new person and stop people pleasing. 

Just because your coworkers give you extra work or a client asks you for more or even free work, you don’t have to say yes. Even if you have the time and energy, or even if they really need your help.

Say ‘yes’ only if you want to and ‘no’ when you don’t. And if you do decide to give a hand, keep strict boundaries for yourself instead of people pleasing. Leave no room for miscommunication or for going back on your boundaries. Make it clear what you are and aren’t willing to do. 

‘Yes’ may be the polite answer, but not the right one

Growing up, my parents taught me not to complain or say ‘no’ to anything, because saying ‘yes’ was the polite thing to do. While people called me an understanding and mature child for people pleasing, it did hurt me a lot in the long run. This is especially true when dealing with friends and family. There have been plenty of times where I’ve been asked to do something for my close ones for free.

Just because they are your friends or family, does not mean that you should give away your services for free, unless you really want to help out. 

Trying to please everyone and taking on more than I could was exhausting. As time went by, I started to hate myself for agreeing to things I didn’t want to do and on others for piling more work on me. Even then, I kept this resentment to myself and never complained. Until I started lashing out through passive-aggression — that definitely did not go well!

It took a while before I realised that I was the grown-up now. While my parents taught me that saying ‘no’ was disrespectful, I was no longer that child. Saying ‘no’ to things you don’t want to do is not rude or selfish. It’s about respecting yourself and your mind. Saying ‘yes’ to everyone will have you disliking yourself and your life. Take it from a recovering people pleaser — you do not want that! 

So, while saying ‘no’ may have your colleagues think of you as uncooperative or rude, know that you are respecting yourself and your mental health.

And don’t worry, your coworkers will definitely understand why you don’t want to take on more responsibility than you can handle if you explain it to them. 

Instead of saying: Yes, I’ll find some time to do this today even if you don’t want to do it, say: I can’t work on this. I would suggest asking XYZ.

Don’t let others meddle in your business

Raise your hand if you have nosy relatives and toxic friends who give unwanted advice or opinions — especially when you are much more qualified to decide what you want to do with your life or with your work. 

Ignoring unwarranted advice isn’t really the way to go about it. That just means you are going to avoid learning how to say ‘no’ and continue people pleasing. People are only going to come back with more advice. Make yourself clear when you tell them when you do want their input and when you definitely don’t. 

Here’s the least direct way to do it: Thanks for sharing these suggestions. However, I’ve already gotten approval from XYZ for this project, but do let me know if you have any other concerns.

A more direct way would be: That’s interesting! However, I prefer to do it this way.

people pleaser

If you are the go-to person for a job, then act like it. So, the next time Rahul gives you his unasked-for advice on something you are more qualified for, tell him that you know what you are doing.

Don’t shy away from what you know about your work and your responsibilities and don’t let anyone else tell you what to do, especially if you didn’t ask for an opinion.

‘No’ means no!

As you slowly break yourself away from this behaviour of saying ‘yes’ and pleasing every person, there will certainly be a few people who will not approve of this change. Now that you no longer say ‘yes’ to their every need, they might start to get defensive and even guilt-trip you for simply saying ‘no’.

Guilt tripping will eventually make you resentful of that person or that activity. Explain that the more they guilt trip you, the less likely you are to commit to that activity. Assure them that you understand how important it is to them and that you would be happy to help, but only if you have the time and energy to do so. 

So, instead of saying: Sorry but I really can’t work on this, try saying: I know this is important. I have a lot of work to do, so I would suggest that you take this up with someone else.

Stop apologising for not pleasing everyone

It’s normal to feel guilty or selfish once you start on your journey of saying ‘no’.

people pleaser

Remember that it is not your job to please everyone, nor is it possible to do that.

Of course Rahul is going to complain now that he actually has to work because you aren’t taking on half his workload. Know that you do not have to feel sorry for him or for yourself. 

The same goes for those who apologise for hurting or taking advantage of you repeatedly. Even if they do apologise, it’s not okay for them to keep repeating their mistakes. And do not let it slide everytime — saying it’s okay is not okay if you were not okay with what they said or did.

So the next time someone dumps their work on you, try saying, I don’t have the time to do that instead of saying Sorry, I don’t know if I can but I’ll try to work on it somehow.

If you want to learn to say ‘no’, you actually have to start saying ‘no’. If you keep putting it off, you’re never going to start. 

‘No’ is a yes to something else — to your value for time, to your priorities, and to your choices. ‘No’ is a word for a confident person, and I like to think that I’m a more confident person today, just for being able to say a simple two-letter word.

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A content writer, Nruthya's love for words knows no boundaries. An avid reader, she is known to devour books while deconstructing and analysing them with her English degree. If reading entire novels in one sitting was a superpower, then she might be a superhero in disguise. Having recently found a new love for experimenting in the kitchen, she is always keen to learn something new. However, on most days, you might find her curled up and imagining insane scenarios. If not, then she's probably binging stand-up comedy and commentary videos on YouTube. A tiny introvert who always gets mistaken for an eighth-grader, Nruthya tries to be open to new perspectives and opinions, so she's the one to approach if you want to have philosophical debates.

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