Forget The Office Bully, People-Pleasers Are The Real Psychos

The dynamics of every office are contentious but often the most challenging personalities are not the screamers and the shouters but the quiet ones who cannot express their feelings says Sophie White


I have worked with every personality type from bullying bosses and martyrs to know-it-alls and work-dodgers. I’ve even - through amateur sleuthing - identified myself as the most unfortunate combo of all – part know-it-all, part work-dodger. However, the personality I find most difficult to deal with in a professional setting are the people-pleasers.

Common signs of people-pleasery include doing far more than your fair share to win over others. Practising the shady art of being a social chameleon – changing yourself to fit in with others. Putting the needs and feelings of others before your own to the point of self-neglect. And apologising relentlessly.

A common sign that you are not a people-pleaser is that you find the above behaviour baffling, verging on crazy.

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In Psychology Today, clinical psychologist, Leon Seltzer writes that “the original cause of people-pleasing stems primarily from messages, both overt and covert, that people-pleasers get from their caretakers... other forces may also contribute to this dysfunctional personality type… the "training" to become compliant and agreeable (in a word, "pleasing") may come not just from a person's family but from their culture as well.” Studies have found that if you are a woman or belong to a minority you are more likely to have these attributes.

People-pleasing is not a trait I can lay claim to. I once made a passing remark to my mother along on the lines of “you know me, I’m just too much of a people-pleaser,” and I think she may still be off laughing somewhere. When I was younger, I was known on occasion to pepper work emails with fawning sentiments, over-thanking the tech support guy for basically just doing his job for example, or relating elaborate (and unnecessary) excuses for why I couldn’t do something, until I learned that ‘no’ can be a perfectly acceptable one-word answer.

I believe people-pleasing is ultimately an act of dishonesty which is why I find said people-pleasers to be such a tricky bunch. What is behind the seeming compulsion to go ‘above and beyond’ (often to ridiculous ends) for every little task? I find it unnerving.

Life coach, Lauren Zander writes that people-pleasing “breeds inauthenticity on many levels”, she goes on to highlight how much insincerity and dishonesty is lurking behind people-pleasing behaviours. Pasting a smile on one’s face while clearly upset or unhappy with some element of work or relationships, is not an act of generosity sparing other people in the office your troubles, it makes the social interaction awkward. I know because I’ve done it and felt the discomfort of my colleagues who are rendered unable to resolve an issue, simply because I refuse to acknowledge it or disclose it.

Helpfulness can actually become oppressive when it is practised to an inappropriate degree. When dealing with a people-pleaser, the interactions are difficult because the other person’s behaviour is creating a power imbalance. I once had a colleague who would tidy my desk for me which I found to be both an odd overstep (to put it mildly) and difficult to put a stop to. Engaging with a people-pleaser is difficult because you are invariably admonishing them for an act of goodwill. "Stop touching my stuff, creepy lady!" I wanted to shriek but instead, I just thanked her while feeling profoundly awkward.

However, I question whether goodwill is the intention of the serial people-pleaser.  Zander dubs it a “backwards power grab: They avoid being powerful (and responsible!) in their own lives, and instead get their power from the validation of others, currying favours and winning the badge of martyr that allows them to avoid stepping up to the plate,” she states.

I also see people-pleasing as a covert method of retaining control. The zealous helpfulness and willingness to take on every little thing means the people-pleaser can have control over everything from work projects, to what to order for staff lunch to where to have the Christmas party. It's a passive power play.

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An overtly difficult colleague can be hard to manage but at least there is little ambiguity about their emotions and point of view. You know where you stand with a tyrannical, shouty boss. People-pleasers, on the other hand, can be slippery. What's behind the effusiveness and eagerness to help? I suspect more than a little resentment bubbles inside the compulsive people-pleaser.

An assault of politeness can be every bit as intolerable as a barrage of negativity from your colleague or superior but at least you can rail against a sh*tty colleague. It's very difficult to vent about a people-pleaser.

"What exactly is the problem?" your friend might inquire as you grapple with the futility of complaining about someone who is "too accommodating." I've learned that having clear boundaries in the workplace and honest interactions are far more important for a team than overdoing it on Sheila in accounts’ birthday cake.

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