Is the Need to Please Hurting Your Business?

That drive to wow customers and colleagues can set you apart. But can the need to please hurt your business and career?
CEO and Founder,
December 13, 2011

In business, there’s a thin line between people pleasing and good customer service. And in crowded and competitive markets, anything less than a “customer-obsessed strategy” simply won’t do.

That drive to wow customers, clients, bosses and colleagues can set you apart from the rest. But can a relentless need to please hurt your business and career?

It’s not an easy question, but let’s start with something simple: pizza. When a group orders pizza, what role do you play? Do you voice your topping preferences or think, “No problem, I can just take off those olives.” Do you give your opinion equal weight or do you politely defer to the group?

If you’re wondering what the group dynamics surrounding a pizza order have to do with running your business, consider the following scenarios:

  • Do you feel in charge of your business or are your clients running the show?

  • Do you take on troublesome clients, even though you sense red flags that there's unpleasantness ahead?

  • Do you let your colleagues encroach on your time, even if you’re stressed by a tight deadline?

  • Do you take on the grunt work or the least favorite task, rather than delegating it?

  • Do you ever hesitate calling a prospective client or someone you might like to network with because you don’t want to bother anyone?

Any of these scenarios signal a need to please. People with this tendency often overextend themselves in the workplace. But it’s hard to achieve your own goals when you’re constantly focused on trying to make everyone else in the room happy.

Let’s consider the underlying feelings behind the action. Is stress or generosity motivating your behavior? For example, imagine that a valued client asks for some small pro bono work for his or her spouse’s non-profit organization. If you agree to help out, but are silently harboring negative feelings, chances are you were trying to please. But if you feel a sense of accomplishment and purpose about the work, it was probably an act of kindness.

Understanding the distinction between stress and generosity is key. Generally, people pleasing is less about making others happy and more about fending off rejection and feeling others' disappointment.

Realize that people pleasing isn’t the same as being nice. Niceness and kindness are wonderful traits, and ones that we need more of in the world and in business today. However, it is possible to be nice while expressing your own needs.

Standing up for yourself doesn’t make you unkind or self-centered; it just gives you equal footing with everyone else.

The need to please is linked to lower wages and poorer negotiation skills. And while we often discuss people pleasing in the context of women in the workplace, I believe the trait affects both sexes.

Continually working on someone else’s terms may lead to frustration and dissatisfaction. These feelings can ripple through to relationships with customers and clients. As a consequence, always being nice can yield poorer customer service in the long run.

If any of the scenarios we mentioned sound familiar, it’s time to break the pleasing cycle and begin to work on your own terms and run your business the same way. While truly understanding what compels you to please may be more complex than the bounds of this article, here are a couple of tips to help you break the pattern.

  • Recognize the difference between being generous (wanting to help a customer, colleague, employee or boss) and wanting to avoid conflict or disappointing others.

  • Actively manage people’s expectations. You can say yes, but frame your answer in terms of what’s realistic for you, whether that’s needing more time, money or resources.

  • Be brief and meaningful when communicating (especially when delegating or responding to a request). People pleasers often need to share everything and anticipate others' reactions when they discuss plans. Being brief exudes confidence.

  • Take baby steps. You’ve had a lifetime to perfect this behavior; don’t expect to change it overnight. Something as small as voicing your own thoughts on pizza toppings can be an empowering and liberating experience.

Most importantly, continue to be generous and kind toward customers, clients and co-workers. You can’t get anywhere without being what Forrester calls “customer-obsessed” these days. But be nice for the right reasons.

Give your own opinions and needs the same weight you give everyone else’s. After all, your business, your customers and you are all worth it.

Image credit: iStockphoto