By Marshall Goldsmith and Sally Helgesen
We humans are not perfect. Trying to be the perfect person is a trap, which can lead to all sorts of negative behaviors like being controlling, procrastinating until the “job can be done right,” and so on.
Trying to be “wonderful” is also a trap. The desire to be wonderful in all circumstances—to be thoughtful and nice and make everyone around us feel good—is known among coaches as the “disease to please”.
If you’re a chronic pleaser, chances are you know it. You may even talk about it, usually in an apologetic tone. You are probably aware of how it holds you back. Maybe you routinely say yes to tasks and jobs that you know will eat up your time and bring you little benefit. Maybe you spend hours commiserating with people who seem to enjoy complaining, and then wonder what you do to attract them. Maybe you get enmeshed with colleagues who have a knack for creating dramas, and whom others seem to skillfully avoid. You resolve to keep away from them, but end up getting sucked into their toxic orbit.
The disease to please can undermine your ability to make clear decisions because you’re always trying to split the difference among competing needs in hopes of creating consensus or avoiding giving offense. This can impair your judgment and leave you vulnerable to manipulation by people who know how to use guilt to get others to accommodate their needs. It can rob you of the capacity to act with authority for fear of disappointing others or making them even temporarily unhappy. It can make you an unreliable advocate or ally because you are so easily swayed. It can distract you from your purpose, squander your time and talents, and contribute to your general stuckness.
The disease to please is anything but pleasant and it can be positively poisonous for your career.
How can you break the habit? Push back.
Coaches we work with report that not only do they find the disease to please more commonly displayed by women, it is becoming more problematic because expectations are constantly ratcheting up. It’s a difficult habit to break and is an unspoken elephant in the room at many of the women’s conferences we attend, where programs on “achieving balance” have become a standard part of the repertoire.
On the one hand, women are urged to “go for it” and aspire to leadership at the highest level. On the other, they’re warned about the consequences of missing virtually any activity involving their kids. The fact that balance is now more often described as “work-life integration” doesn’t change the basic message, which is that women can “have it all,” and they are fatally flawed if they do not.
To retain any serenity in this ramped‑up environment, you need to think carefully about your priorities. Not what would please others, not what would make everyone think you’re the most wonderful person they’ve ever worked with or met, but what you in your heart want to be and achieve in your life. Given all the distractions and pressures you face and the multiplicity of paths to feeling guilty, pushing back against the disease to please is more essential than ever.
After one year, the first 100 leaders in our ‘pay it forward’, 100 Coaches project have been selected (out of over 16,000 applicants). This is an amazing group of people who are dedicated to making a positive difference in the world. Please go to https://www.marshallgoldsmith.com/Welcome to learn more. To apply to be an Aspiring Coach, please to go MarshallGoldsmith.com/application. We look forward to receiving your applications!