The Downside People Pleasing in Professional Relationships

Being liked is a fundamental human need, predicated on the need to survive when humans had to hunt, gather, find food, and defend themselves — it was easier to do it in a team. Your brain is hardwired to seek acceptance and avoid rejection according to clinical psychologist Roger Covin, author of The Need to be Liked. While striving to be well-liked and work well with others can make your professional life more enjoyable and productive, a strong desire to people-please can go into overdrive and have detrimental effects on your career and professional relationships. When you start to sacrifice your needs and suppress your opinions to cater to others, you may actually do more harm than good to relationships. Below are just a few unwanted outcomes of being “too nice,” and tips to avoid them:

You’re pushed to your limits. Wanting to please others can lead you to say “yes” to too many things, and might result in you resenting the relationship. Instead, be honest about your limitations. Before accepting a coworker’s request to help them out with extra work when you’re already at your maximum threshold, take a pause. Your gut reaction may be to immediately accept the request to be helpful, but you might regret it later. Similarly, be upfront about your scope of work with clients. If they ask you to do something that is outside of your wheelhouse, do not accept to try and placate or impress them. Accepting work that you’re not capable of doing well will actually be more damaging to your relationship than saying no.

How to nicely say ‘no’:

  • Sympathize with their situation and explain why you’re saying no.
  • Recommend another resource or solution if you know of one.
  • Be direct and decisive in your answer — don’t leave your “no” open-ended or up for interpretation.
  • Be honest — making untrue excuses could get you in trouble down the line.

You feel guilty when you shouldn’t. Saying ‘no’ might initially make you feel guilty or uncomfortable, especially if you’re a chronic people-pleaser. Remember, this feeling is temporary and may not even accurately reflect how others are feeling. You’re not doing anyone any favors by stretching yourself thin. Stress has been proven to negatively affect your work relationships and the quality of your work. Recognizing your limits and taking care of yourself shows maturity, awareness, and self-respect — all qualities most people consider assets in a professional relationship. 

How to feel good about saying ‘no’:

  • Practice. The more you say ‘no’ during situations when you need to protect yourself, the more confidence you’ll have.
  • Seek advice from mentors or trusted friends on how they deal with similar situations. Hearing them talk about their boundaries will show you that you’re not alone, and it’s healthy to put limits on your work.
  • Visualize what saying ‘no’ means for you vs. saying ‘yes’. While it might feel uncomfortable to disappoint your co-worker or client in the moment, think about the result of your answer and its impact on your life.

People don’t value your opinion. Being too agreeable or complementary to others may lead them to think that you don’t have your own opinions or you simply tell people what they want to hear. Don’t be afraid to disagree or have your own opinion.It can be tempting to want to go with the flow, particularly in a new job or when you don’t know the other people very well. However, you prevent others from really getting to know you when you hide your true opinions, which will stifle your relationships and self-confidence. What’s more, when you offer new ideas and constructive feedback, you’re adding value to your professional relationships.

How to disagree without offending:  

  • First, acknowledge the other side of the argument. Showing that you understand their point of view is respectful and shows that you’ve given this some thought.
  • Follow with a suggestion, rather than a blatant dismissal of the other person’s argument. Saying something like, “Have you thought of this…?” or, “Another idea could be…”
  • When possible, wait until your opinion or feedback is solicited. If you’re in a room with older, more experienced professionals, qualify your opinion with an acknowledgment of your lack of experience. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be confident in your feedback, but you want to avoid coming across as arrogant.

Being too nice can lead to negative outcomes in your career and professional relationships. While serving others, you shouldn’t neglect your own needs and limitations. Having clear boundaries is not just important for your performance, but also for your relationships. For others to respect you, you must first respect yourself. Furthermore, expressing your opinions and setting limitations lets people get to know the real you and that’s the person with whom they want a relationship!

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