Careers | Tips & Insights


3 steps to stop people-pleasing at work (and why you need to)

Being a people-pleaser could be holding you back in your career. Learn how to spot the signs and use our tips to boost your assertiveness in interviews and at work.
By Nicole Kaniklidou
Updated: 25 June 2024
6 min read
Stressed African American woman feeling overwhelmed at work, emphasising the negative impacts of people-pleasing in the workplace.

People-pleasing: What it is and how it impacts your well-being at work

Do you find yourself saying 'yes' when you truly want to say 'no'? If so, you might be caught in the people-pleasing trap, which could be stalling your career growth.

On the surface, being a people-pleaser might seem quite positive. It's about making others happy, which seems inherently good. However, continually striving to satisfy others can take it's toll. The truth is that people-pleasing can have detrimental outcomes, such as increased anxiety, exhaustion or even burnout. This article explores the signs of people-pleasing in the workplace and offer tips to help you become more assertive and confident at work.

Why do we pride ourselves on being 'yes people'?

People-pleasing behaviour is rooted in our human nature, as social creatures we crave acceptance and fear rejection. We are biologically wired to seek approval. Elizabeth Saunders, a time-management coach, outlines three scenarios where people fall into the people-pleaser trap at work:

1."Yes!" Man or Woman Scenario: service-oriented individuals tend to overcommit, neglecting top priorities. Evaluating available time before accepting tasks and allowing others to step up can prevent overload and ensure focus on what truly matters.

2. Unrealistic Standards Scenario: people often feel guilty if they are not always available, leading to personal time spent working. Changing the definition of being effective to include setting boundaries, can help remove guilt and improve productivity.

3."I’ll Just Do it Myself" Scenario: Highly capable individuals often avoid delegation, preferring to do tasks themselves. To focus on strategic leadership and avoid burnout, they should delegate tasks whenever possible, even if it's not perfectly convenient.

The prevalence of this behaviour is significant. A YouGov poll conducted in 2022 revealed that 52% of US adults feel unable to refuse requests from others, with women reported as being more likely than men to describe themselves as a people-pleaser, highlighting the societal pressure to conform and please.


Key traits of people-pleasers

Common traits include an aversion to conflict and need for approval. People-pleasers often find themselves avoiding expressing criticism or disagreeing with others and apologising frequently for issues that are not their fault.

When you say yes to others, make sure you aren't saying 'No' to yourself – Paolo Coehlo

The problem with this behaviour is that it can prevent you from providing honest feedback, as the desire to be liked makes it challenging to offer the constructive criticism necessary for growth.


Embrace authenticity from the first interaction

Be aware of people-pleasing tendencies in your first interactions for job opportunities, such as in cover letters, your CV and interviews.

These early stages are important to make an impactful impression and they should reflect your true self. Automatically agreeing too eagerly, using cliché phrases, or not sharing your real career goals can undermine your chances from the start. Employers value candidates who bring unique insights and genuine engagement (you will also be more memorable!). By recognising these behaviours early, you can present yourself authentically, balancing politeness with assertiveness.

Examples of people-pleasing in interviews

  1. Agreeing without consideration: Saying "yes" or "absolutely" without true conviction.
  2. Over-enthusiasm for all ideas: Showcasing uncritical enthusiasm for every discussed idea regardless of its relevance to your real interests or career aspirations.
  3. Failing to ask critical questions: Avoiding challenging questions or negotiations about role expectations or salary.

It's crucial that you avoid echoing the interviewer's opinions without showing critical thinking. Employers need to assess if you genuinely possess the skills you claim or if you're just saying what you think they want to hear.

A truthful discussion about your experiences demonstrates your actual capabilities and readiness for the role, rather than just a superficial willingness to please. You don't want to find yourself unable to meet the expectations you've set — strive for genuine interactions that reflect both your capabilities and your character.


How to spot the signs of people-pleasing in the workplace

Identifying people-pleasing behaviour and recognising the impact on well-being is crucial to create healthier workplace dynamics and boost personal growth. Common signs include:

Agreeing to unrealistic deadlines

Consistently agreeing to deadlines that are unmanageable to avoid disappointing a manager or a client, can lead to chronic stress, potential burnout, and lower quality work.

Example: A recent graduate, eager to impress, takes on multiple projects and ends up overwhelmed and staying late to meet all deadlines, fearing that saying no would make them look uncooperative or lazy.

Tip: Communicate your current workload to a supervisor, setting realistic expectations about what can be feasibly handled. You could say "I'm currently working on a project, which is my priority given the deadlines. I can revisit this project next week, or perhaps there’s someone else who could take on this project right now?". This approach shows initiative and responsibility while setting realistic boundaries.

Volunteering for extra work or new projects

Taking on every possible project or task, regardless of current workload, to appear dedicated and indispensable can dilute focus and effectiveness across projects. This leads to decreased performance and increased mistakes, whilst setting unrealistic expectations for availability and capacity in the future.

Example: A Junior Product Manager always volunteers to fix problems or errors that arise in their team, even if these issues fall outside their responsibility. They often worry that not doing so would reflect poorly on their dedication or team spirit.

Tip: Instead of stepping in to solve every issue, you could facilitate problem-solving discussions amongst your team, encouraging others to share the responsibility. You might say, "I've noticed this issue; what are everyone's thoughts on how we can solve it? I can assist with parts of the solution, but I'll need support from the team to implement it quickly." This method promotes teamwork and ensures that responsibilities are more evenly distributed.

Not voicing disagreements

Failing to express disagreement with an idea during meetings for fear of conflict or appearing difficult can lead to the implementation of less effective or flawed business strategies. It also prevents personal growth and the development of a confident, authoritative voice in professional settings.

Example: A marketing manager notices problems in a proposed strategy, however they remain silent during the discussions, fearing their views will conflict with their colleagues popular opinions or be perceived as difficult by their superiors.

Tip: Prepare for meetings in advance, gathering data to support your views. Bringing data into the conversation, plus your perspective, can help a team consider alternative strategies to achieve better business outcomes.

Handling other's responsibilities

Regularly completing tasks that are the responsibility of other colleagues to avoid confrontation or to be seen as helpful can result in unfair distribution of work. It pushes the dependency on the people-pleaser, preventing colleagues from learning and developing necessary skills.

Example: A project coordinator, notices that a few team members are not meeting their deadlines. Instead of addressing the issue, she starts picking up the slack to keep the project on track. This leads to her colleagues becoming reliant on her willingness to cover for them.

Tip: Schedule a team meeting to discuss project timelines, specific responsibilities of each team member and suggest for regular check-ins to track progress.

Skipping breaks

Regularly skipping lunch breaks or staying late to help others or to catch up on work, leads to mental and physical exhaustion. It also sets a poor precedent for work-life balance within the team.

Tip: Treat your breaks as non-negotiable appointments. Block out time in a shared calendar just as you would a meeting. Enable reminders for these breaks to prompt you to step away. This can help you transition out of work mode and take the break you need.


How to break the habit of people-pleasing at work

Like any habit, you can break it through small confident steps. Follow these three simple steps to curb your people-pleasing tendencies and boost your well-being at work:

  1. Identify the behaviour and recognise the impact on your well-being.
  2. Develop assertiveness by feeling empowered to say no.
  3. Set healthy boundaries with your colleagues.

Start with self-awareness

Awareness is the first step to change. By recognising how people-pleasing behaviours can impact your well-being and professional performance, you can begin to understand the need for change. You don’t need to give up being hard-working, resourceful or a great team player, which are desirable qualities of any employee. The key is to examine your motivations and intentions. Don’t do things out of fear of rejection or desire for approval. Respond to tasks and voice opinions on your own terms. Remember kindness doesn’t seek validation or rewards; it simply aims to make things better for others.

Building assertiveness at work

Assertiveness is key in combatting people-pleasing as setting healthy boundaries act like bodyguards. Know your limits, establish clear boundaries, and communicate them effectively. Be specific about what you can and cannot take on. Being assertive is key to managing expectations and for sustainable leadership, it doesn't mean creating conflict or not being likeable; think of setting boundaries as you protecting your goals and priorities to be a more effective employee. By setting clear boundaries and sticking to them, you can gain respect and create a more supportive team environment.

What's the worst that could happen if you impose a healthy boundary? What do you fear the most? Consider these phrases to set boundaries:

  • "I understand this is important, but I need to focus on my current tasks to meet our deadlines. Can we discuss the priorities and maybe reschedule some for a later date?"
  • "I need to maintain a healthy work-life balance, so I won’t be available to work overtime this week. Let's plan accordingly."


The power of saying no

Learning to comfortably say "no" in professional settings is a crucial skill for anyone, but it is particularly transformative for people-pleasers. While agreeing to every request may make you seem like a cooperative team member, it can often lead to becoming overwhelmed. Whereas, asserting the ability to decline requests not only helps you to prioritise your goals and wellbeing but also builds resilience, and shapes better leaders.

There are several situations where it is appropriate to refuse a request. These include workload conflicts, tasks outside your core responsibilities, or requests that fall outside the project's defined scope. Recognising these scenarios is the first step towards effective self-management.

Tips for saying no for those who find it tough

Use this structured approach to ease the discomfort of saying no in the workplace to break the people-pleasing cycle.

Start by expressing appreciation for the opportunity

This maintains a positive tone and shows respect for the person making the request such as "Thank you for considering me for this project,". This shows you value the request even if you can’t accept it right now.

Provide a valid reason and communicate it clearly

Be direct about your inability to take on a task or rejecting an opinion to avoid misunderstandings. Providing a reason for declining is crucial as it helps manage expectations, enhancing decision-making at higher levels. When you articulate the reasons for your decisions, you guide your leaders to reevaluate priorities and resources, creating a more productive work environment.

Offer an alternative solution

Recommending someone else who might be available or suggesting different approach that requires fewer resources demonstrates your commitment to finding solutions. For example, you could say 'That sounds like an interesting project but my to-do list is packed today. Let's schedule a meeting tomorrow or is this something that I can pass on to my colleague who has more experience in this area?'.

Saying no doesn't reflect your self-worth or capabilities. Practicing these steps enhances your assertiveness and teaches you to protect your time and personal boundaries effectively whilst strengthening your internal resilience. By confidently saying no, you can assert control over your workload.


Building confidence at work

People-pleasing is essentially the opposite of practising self-love or self-worth. To combat this, it's essential to boost your self-esteem through positive affirmations. Start by regularly practicing phrases like, "I can say no and still be a valuable team member." These affirmations remind you of your worth and strengthen your resolve to prioritise your needs.

Building confidence also involves trusting your ability to handle disapproval and focusing on gaining your own approval instead of always seeking it from others. This shift in perspective can positively enhance your professional relationships.

Healthy relationships involve reciprocity. If you find yourself constantly giving and others predominantly taking, then others are taking advantage of your 'yes' attitude. It may be time to reassess these dynamics. Healthy relationships at work should involve mutual respect and give-and-take from both sides.


The takeaway

Saying 'yes' when we mean 'no' compromises our integrity and stifles our career growth. By saying no, we reclaim control over our workload, prioritise our mental health, and pave the way for effective professional development. By being authentic from the very first professional interaction, we ensure that we present ourselves as genuine and capable candidates.

Remember, feedback is crucial for growth and that setting clear boundaries and managing expectations are about affirming your value as a team member. As we've seen, over 52% of us struggle with refusing requests, highlighting the need for a shift towards more balanced workplace dynamics. Use these tips to break the people-pleasing cycle, prioritise well-being, and boost your confidence at work.