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November 11, 2023

The Pitfalls of People-Pleasing in the Workplace: 6 Warning Signs to Watch Out For

People-pleasing is a lifelong challenge that impacts all areas of life. Relationships at home and at work often suffer the most – and many of us don’t even realize it. 

I’m a therapist for millennials with anxiety and ADHD, and I work with a lot of high-achieving people-pleasers. Understanding what people-pleasing at work looks like – and how to stop – can vastly improve your anxiety, your mental health, and your career.  

People-Pleasing at Work

People-pleasing occurs when you can’t tolerate the idea of causing disappointment or pain to someone else. Think about the motivation behind your helpfulness in the workplace. Is it to avoid conflict or stay in your boss’s good graces? Maybe you’re worried if you don’t go above and beyond, you’ll get fired or demoted. Or maybe you just can’t stand the thought of disappointing anyone else. Your motivations likely stem from a desire to avoid conflict or negative emotions.

In the workplace, these behaviors and habits tend to be rewarded. If you put in extra work or are consistently available and helpful, people often thank you, express their gratitude for your presence, and even tell you their job would be so much harder without you. Comments like this can feel extremely gratifying, but they usually come at a cost.

People-pleasing comes with short-term feelings of accomplishment and success, but it isn’t sustainable in the long run. Trying to please everyone else to your own detriment only causes more problems down the road. People-pleasing often ultimately leads to burnout, resentment, and more conflict. 

People-Pleasing at Work

6 Signs of People-Pleasing in the Workplace

If your behaviors at work impair your nervous system, your daily job satisfaction, and your ability to function, it’s worth taking a closer look at your relationship with people-pleasing. 

Here are six signs of people-pleasing in the workplace:

  1. Inability to set boundaries. Struggling to set healthy boundaries is one of the most common symptoms of people-pleasing. It can manifest as difficulty saying no to events others add to your schedule or filling your time with too many meetings. If you’re feeling drained and resentful, your boundaries probably need work. 
  1. Poor communication with your boss. People-pleasing can be at the root of communication issues. Practicing assertive communication is crucial to feeling comfortable around your boss (and other coworkers). Without it, you may end up feeling like you’re constantly tiptoeing around, afraid to upset them, and unable to ask for help.
  1. Staying silent. Remaining quiet when you wish you could speak up is a common sign of people-pleasing. This can look like not saying nothing in response to a homophobic joke, not speaking up when you feel disrespected, or participating in gossip that makes you uncomfortable. You might be worried about the repercussions of using your voice, or you might know that your values or viewpoints are different from the other people in the conversation. 
  1. Hovering over employees. If you oversee other employees, you may find yourself micromanaging their daily tasks. Even if you realize you’re doing it and try to stop yourself, it can be difficult to keep yourself from hovering. You may worry they need help or won’t be able to figure their jobs out for themselves. Or your hovering may be connected to perfectionist people-pleasing, where you ultimately don’t believe they’ll do as good a job as you would. 
  1. Feeling like you have to prove yourself. The need to prove yourself can feel like underlying and persistent anxiety. You might worry excessively about what others think about you. For example, you’re afraid someone will think you’re slacking off. To try and avoid this, you attempt to do whatever it takes to prove that you’re competent and capable. 
  1. Being willing to take on more work. Whether you volunteer or are voluntold to do more, you take on extra work. Usually, this extra work takes a toll on you and you may not even be properly rewarded for it. It might look like taking on the tasks of a vacant role in your workplace without getting a promotion or consistently going above and beyond your job duties.

People-pleasing is pervasive, and it can be frustrating to realize that so many of your behaviors revolve around it. It’s normal to feel completely out of your element when you’re first becoming aware of or trying to overcome people-pleasing tendencies. With time, practice, and self-compassion, dismantling people-pleasing within yourself is entirely possible. It starts with setting boundaries. 

How to Say No and Set Boundaries at Work

Setting boundaries is the best way to reclaim your energy and mental health if you’re a people-pleaser. At work, this often means saying “no” more frequently – to extra tasks, to projects you don’t have time for, and to unnecessary events. Setting boundaries and saying no sound relatively straightforward, but they’re rarely easy.  Here are some suggestions for how to start.

Reframe “no.” It’s not always possible to flatly refuse an assignment from your boss. If you know their request is going to interfere with your workload, explain to them that you’re willing to take on an additional task if something else can be dropped or deprioritized. That way, they understand that you’re flexible and willing to work with them, but that you aren’t willing to let yourself be completely swamped in the process. 

Ask for help. If you’re used to doing everything on your own, consider starting to ask for help in small ways. This can feel scary at first, especially if you believe you’re the only one who can accomplish things in the “right” way. However, you don’t have to always be doing everything all the time. Asking for support with a project or task gives you practice in not overbooking yourself – and letting go of perfectionism. 

Take up more space. If you’re a people-pleaser, you might be exceedingly uncomfortable taking up any space. This is because you don’t want to inconvenience or upset anyone, so you do your best to keep yourself small. Practicing taking up more space when appropriate can be a game-changer at work. It can look like:

  • Taking more breaks (I’m looking at you, lunch skippers)
  • Taking time off to take care of something personal
  • Ask for an opportunity or promotion you’ve had your eye on
  • Speak openly about your career goals and momentum with your boss and colleagues
  • Express yourself in a way that feels genuine (for example, don’t be afraid to wear clothing that suits you and is comfortable)

Therapy and Coaching Can Help You Learn How to Stop People-Pleasing at Work

People-pleasing can permeate your whole life in ways you don’t even realize. Trying to stop on your own can feel overwhelming, frustrating, and impossible. If you want support learning how to stop people-pleasing at work, I'm here to help.

Together we can come up with ways to set boundaries, sit with the discomfort of disappointing others, and change your behaviors to show up more authentically at work. We’ll work to help you set goals for yourself, feel more empowered, and have the kind of life, relationships, and career you want.

I’m ready if you are. Reach out today to get started.

Meet the author

Danielle Wayne

Danielle is an anxiety therapist and perfectionism coach. She specializes in helping busy millennials dial down their anxiety and ADHD, so they can perform at their best. Danielle has been featured on Apartment Therapy, SparkPeople, Lifewire, and Now Art World. When Danielle isn't helping her clients, she's playing video games or spending time with her partner and step children.

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