Are You Pleasing Your Way Through Life?

Pleasing is an individual and systemic phenomenon that affects our ability to set limits, to have authentic relationships, to delegate to our teams effectively, and to be in true partnership with those around us. It limits our growth as individuals and leaders and causes us to consistently look outside of ourselves for approval.  If this is a strategy we use to grow our career, it will eventually hit its limit of effectiveness and can have surprising backlash.

So what do I mean by Pleasing?  Pleasing has its roots in the old “carrot and stick” and begins in our families of origin where we are taught that if we do certain things, our parents and teachers would be happy and reward us. And, if we did other things, they would be unhappy and in some way try to alter our behavior. Some of you may have been rebels and resisted this kind of direction from authority figures in your life, but many of us believed that we would be happy if our parents and teachers were happy with us – so this very early training took root.

Another complication to pleasing is that while we’re being conditioned to please,we’re also taking in the message that some part of us is not acceptable or even wrong. Think about your days in elementary school and the kids who were always being told to be quiet, sit still or would get punished for talking without raising their hands. They were not only getting a message that they needed to do something different, they were simultaneously getting a message that something was wrong with them for not being able to sit still all day long (what child wants to sit still???).  And to add insult to injury, we now even medicate many of these children to force compliance.

I see this phenomenon of pleasing with many female executives. When pleasing has been the career growth strategy (albeit unconscious), the limitations of pleasing begin to show up at senior levels as meek, “quiet”, not assertive.  Female leaders with an underlying pleasing nature often receive feedback to  “have more executive presence”, “lean-in”, “fake it till you make it”.  It is impossible to suddenly put on a suit of executive presence unless the inner pleasing system has shifted.

But pleasing is not just an individual phenomenon. It is also systemic and can be found in organizational cultures – particularly, where you see hierarchy and an overtone of compliance and fear.  You might recognize this in organizations where excessive number of stakeholders are required to move a decision forward, where people are afraid to give their boss feedback, or where having a different viewpoint is labeled as “not a team player”.  So the double-bind is that while many women are being given the message to be more assertive – some organizational cultures are also sending the message to comply – hence, The Need to Please.

So how do we get out of this double-bind? How can we as women fully step in our power, set limits, be true partners, use our own voice and opinions to influence, and break out of the dynamic of pleasing?  We have to shift the pleasing system.  Pleasing is an adaptive behavior which has evolved over time and is often outside of the individual’s awareness.  In my work as a coach, I help women find the roots of their pleasing system so that they can release it system while simultaneously building new muscles of personal power, presence, and self-confidence.

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