• Kurt Schmidt

Workplace People-Pleaser Trap

There is one question from my undergraduate Social Psychology course that still has me thinking more than 20 years later (wow, now I feel old!).

Can human behavior ever be purely altruistic?

I mean, if your supposedly altruistic actions bring you self-satisfaction, are your motivations for helping others pure? And if no one is harmed by your self-satisfaction, does it matter?

This argument has been hashed out in moral philosophy circles ever since the days of Aristotle.

We can see this debate play out in real life, in the form of the office people pleaser. You know the type. People pleasers:

  • are desperate to demonstrate value to the team, so they have a tendency to go beyond a general willingness to lend a hand, pitching in outside their expected scope of work.

  • go out of their way to be liked, which often leads them to defer to others in decision making even when they have more expertise or know there are better opinions out there, or to affirm the opinions of others even if they don’t necessarily agree.

  • sometimes help others even when doing so interferes with their own workload and responsibilities.

These actions are all done in search of approval from their colleagues and managers. (Trust me, I know. I am a recovering people pleaser myself).

While these behaviors may seem altruistic, people pleasers can and do cause harm.

So here’s my case for why it makes sense to be wary of people pleasers in your office, and why you should fight existing tendencies to become one yourself.

Executive Life Coach Cat Wood observed that people pleasers are actually more focused on getting their own needs met – specifically their needs to feel loved, good enough, or worthy – than in being of service to others.

This is self-defeating in the long term because it leaves people pleasers unable to take full responsibility for themselves. They care so much about being valued by others that they never develop their own sense of self-worth: in other words, by basing their decisions and actions on what other people think, they can’t develop their own unique perspective, skill set, or critical thinking abilities.

People who are helpful and resourceful but aren’t people pleasers fall outside of the definition of pure altruism because their behavior is driven by a desire to make their mark in the office and to be seen as capable and reliable team members. These are the ideal employees and leaders in a workplace.

  • They are not dependent on others for their sense of self-worth; they are driven by knowing that their contributions to the team will help propel the organization forward.

  • Their motivation is to help the company while also boosting their individual standing in the office, potentially leading to professional growth.

By contrast, people pleasers have an extra level of ulterior motivation that is damaging to both themselves and their teams. Their dependence on the actions, opinions, and ideas of others, combined with their inability to gauge the quality and efficacy of their own contributions, limits their value to their team. In the end, people pleasers can’t be seen as reliable and productive because they can’t contribute anything on their own.

Cat Wood summed this idea up perfectly in her article.

“We don’t get to do things to please others when our motive is that we want a specific response from them. That’s selfish.”

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