People pleasing at work: how to deal with your need to please your boss

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Emma Reed Turrell, a psychotherapist specialising in the social process of “people-pleasing’” has pulled together an action plan to fight your urge to people please your boss, explaining how to start putting yourself, and your progress, first at work.

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When it comes to wanting to impress someone, your boss often comes quite high up on the list – for better or for worse. You’ll likely want them to think you’re keen, competent, super skilled at your job. Unfortunately, this pressure to get everything right could be stopping you from really progressing in your career and being the best you can be.

Research has found that 10% of women are faking happiness at work, feeling pressured to “fake it until they make it” – with this pressure having a negative impact on their mental health. A large proportion of this could be attributed to the perceived need to make your boss happy or to “please” them.

Psychotherapist and author Emma Reed Turrell has just quite literally written the book on people-pleasing, Please Yourself: How to Stop People-Pleasing and Transform the Way You Live, and – most importantly – the importance of prioritising pleasing yourself. While she stresses that people-pleasing is by no means a definitively female trait, women’s tendency to “seek harmony” and “prevent rupture” in the workplace are part of the problem.

By prioritising what your boss wants, needs or thinks over your own respective thoughts, Emma says, “you might be denying some of your potential, your ability to get along with others and make them feel positively towards you. You might actually be getting in your own way.”

You’re likely to be editing yourself down according to what you think your boss wants, which Emma says often leads to “not bringing all of your talents to the table”. On top of that, she says, by people-pleasing your boss “you are essentially outsourcing your self-esteem to the person who pays your rent”.

Emma has given the Curiosity Academy her comprehensive guide to negotiating your need to people please your boss, including practical and thought exercises.

Does your relationship with your boss mirror another one from your past?

“If you’re feeling pressure to please your boss and it’s getting to you, maybe your boss isn’t your boss at all in that scenario,” Emma suggests. By this, she means you might be relating the dynamic you have with your boss to a different close or fraught relationship from your past.

“They might remind you of a critical tone that your father had. Or if your boss seems to reward that effortlessly higher achieving colleague that might remind you of a sibling who just seemed to get everything and never had to try,” she says.

According to Emma, this pattern is part of our brain establishing who is friend or foe, by looking at past experiences so we can adapt ourselves accordingly. It can also be due to a traditional work culture “catapulting us back to being children, if there’s an overbearing culture of stuffy dress codes or inflexible hours”, making us feel like we’re back at school, reliving childhood problems of trying to please teachers and parents.

By trying to please your boss in this way – and by extension, the person they remind you of – you are “re-enacting old drama from that relationship [in the workplace]”, Emma says.

How do I tackle this particular impulse to people please?

To tackle this, it’s important to separate both past from present and facts from fiction. To do this, Emma suggests breaking your work into three stages: recognising your behaviour in hindsight, midsight and then – eventually – with foresight.

Hindsight – After a people-pleasing exchange has happened, recognise it and work out what relationship it reminds you of, and acknowledge this link.

Midsight – With practice, you will start to recognise that you’re people-pleasing your boss as you do it. Can you alter your impulses at this point? Can you try saying no or renegotiate what’s being asked of you?

Foresight – This is the big one. Eventually, you’ll be able to pre-empt what exchanges, meetings or requests trigger this impulse and make plans to renegotiate the situation.

With time, as you get better at recognising the behaviour and interrogating it, it will become easier to correct and change it before it happens.

Find a way to “share the responsibility” with your boss

A lot of people-pleasing can come from taking on the full responsibility of keeping your boss satisfied, without acknowledging their job in keeping you feeling fulfilled and happy.

Emma advises trying to find a way to balance these responsibilities with your boss. For example, if they advise that you go about a task one way but you think it’d be best done a different way (but are feeling the pressure to do things their way to keep them happy), you should set out their responsibility for this as well as yours.

“You could say [via email, Zoom, or in person] ‘when I’m coming at this I can either do it the way you suggested, OR I can do it the way I think could work best’, and describe your thoughts. That way, you’re sharing the responsibility for the job being done well, because your boss is empowered to choose which way to go about it, no matter the outcome.

“Instead of avoiding this conversation, you’re asking for tools and resources from your boss.”

She is quick to stress that this isn’t about passing the blame on for any mistakes you might make, but is more about having a conversation about your work instead of setting about singularly trying to please your boss by ticking off tasks they set you.

Show up to work as you are, not what you think your boss wants you to be

If you feel a temptation to “perform” and be a different or inauthentic version of yourself at work to keep co-workers or your boss happy, Emma says your focus should be on “shedding your performative self”.

Obviously, this is easier said than done for people pleasers, particularly in the workplace. But a key practical exercise Emma suggests to shift how you’d like to behave at work is to write a CV – not of your professional skills, but of your personal attributes and how they fit into your workplace experience.

“Sometimes we market ourselves when we go for a job,” she says. “But this personal CV of your own interests wouldn’t be sent to anyone, it’s just a way to be really honest with who actually you are and how that affects the way you work.

“For example,” she says, “you could say ‘I’m fiercely loyal, I commit to things, I’ll go the extra mile if I feel that I’m being valued. But I also get jealous when other people get rewards and recognition when I don’t.”

The key here is accounting for all elements of your personality, good and not so good, and making space for how that might affect your behaviour at work and around your boss, instead of being inauthentic and getting caught up in situations that don’t fit with pleasing yourself.

Practice your anti-people pleasing tactics outside of the workplace

Emma recommends trying to push back from your people-pleasing habits outside of the workplace first, before you approach your boss. “Your conversations with your boss could be high risk and high reward,” she says, “so best to practice this stuff somewhere else until you’re confident.”

There are a number of ways you could practice your tactics outside of work:

  • Ask a friend to help you out – “maybe they’re a people pleaser themselves,” Emma says. “Ask them if you can practice saying no, maybe you could send them a rough draft of an email to your boss or role play a real-life conversation”.
  • Practice saying no in your social life – Rescheduling walks or FaceTimes to a time that suits you is a “gentler place” to start your efforts at pleasing yourself.
  • Identify and rectify people pleasing actions you make in your daily life – You’d be shocked where you might be exhibiting people-pleasing behaviour, Emma says, so practising while you’re interacting with strangers in the supermarket could be an idea. “If someone pushes in front of you, or takes the last pint of milk, find your voice to [politely] say what you need – it’s a different level of risk if the worst that happens is the people at the checkouts give you a strange look!”

4 things to do if you’re worried about people-pleasing in the workplace

  • Identify how past relationships that have fed into your people pleasing habit through hindsight, midsight and foresight observations
  • Try and meet your boss halfway in terms of expectations
  • Write your personal, not professional, CV to get to grips with your authentic working self, not what you think your boss wants to be
  • Practice amending your people pleasing habits outside of the workplace

When it comes to someone’s habitual need to please their boss, Emma insists that, although it’s hard, fighting these urges will serve to help your progress in the workplace. “A willingness to be a bit disagreeable and more assertive can make you more valued and respected,” she says.

A lot of this change will come from channelling and working on your own value in yourself: “Self worth and self esteem is just the bedrock for any of these situations. You have to think: ‘I don’t have to fear loss because I can survive it’.”

  • Emma Reed Turrell, psychotherapist and author

    Emma Reed Turrell people pleasing please yourself

    After ten years working in business, in sales and marketing workplaces, Emma retrained as a psychotherapist to follow her passion for psychology and mental health. She now runs a busy private practice alongside writing and training, and has just released a book around people pleasing, and learning to please yourself: Please Yourself: How to Stop People-Pleasing and Transform the Way You Live.

Lead image: Getty

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