Do you have a people pleaser on the executive team? Someone who might change opinions depending on which way the wind blows?
If so, you have a major trust leak in the team.
How can you tell if you have a people pleaser? And what can you do if you identify one?
Your people pleaser means well. In fact, this is his or her main driving force in life. But because they are busy making sure they fit in, people pleasers can’t support a particular idea or direction with integrity.
Sandy was a newly appointed executive in a large software tech company. One of the chief reasons she had interviewed well was that she exhibited a great deal of empathy.
“We needed more empathy on the executive team,” said Anna, the CEO. “In our world, tech can tend to come before people, and we were making an effort to infuse leadership with more human connection and understanding.”
“You are right to keep that in mind,” I answered. “We are losing human connection in the workplace. And empathy as one of the emotional intelligence traits is key in leadership.”
“She also brought a wealth of technical knowledge, so I felt it was a great combo,” Anna continued. “But I’m noticing that she can’t tether to a decision she makes. And she actually looks at other people to see what they are going to say before she offers an opinion.”
“This is serious,” I said. “It sounds like you have someone on the team who is stuck in what we call ‘the socialized mind.’”
“Well, whatever you call it, the team has started to distrust her. They don’t know how to take what she says or presents with any kind of certainty. She pretends to agree with everyone and seems to try to act like the people around her. A real chameleon. And she is constantly asking for feedback – seems to need praise to feel good. It’s exhausting.”
“Those are hallmarks of a socialized mind,” I responded. “This means she relies on the external world to tell her who she is and what value she brings.”
“It’s just not working,” Anna said. “I need someone who can contribute by bringing her own perspective and expertise to the mix. Someone who isn’t afraid to counter an opinion, but who can also negotiate to a great solution. When I tried to talk with her about this the other day, she just kept apologizing and started crying. I need your help.”
I met with Sandy, who was, of course, eager to please. It was clear she needed to show me that she understood and agreed with me, no matter what I shared. Not surprising, as we are all creatures of comfort who need to feel that we are accepted and safe. We took some time to become acquainted so that I could develop trust with her. I asked her what she felt was the challenge from her perspective.
“I just want to do the right thing,” she said. “Hearing what is needed is important to me. And I want to make sure I align with others’ thinking so I get it right.”
This showed me clearly that she was ready for growth. There were several things we did over the course of eight months that helped Sandy move from this people-pleasing state to one that was more tethered to her values and beliefs, even in the face of conflict.
A first phase in coaching Sandy was to help her recognize where she was trying to please others instead of standing true to herself as she negotiated solutions with the team. We began by doing some personal values work to solidify her sense of self and to use as a litmus when forming opinions.
At the same time, we identified her fears around carrying different opinions than her team members and tested out of this mindset trap in small ways so that she could become accustomed to disagreeing with others as it felt comfortable.
As her confidence grew, we explored key issues in her company and identifying multiple perspectives on how to solve these. Becoming comfortable with the complex and various ways to resolve such can be threatening to someone who needs to be right in others’ eyes. Working with real-time challenges with which she was familiar helped her to become more comfortable with weighing various options and seeing that more than one might be right.
Later, developing Sandy’s comfort and lens on seeing things as systems was important. The world is complex, and this can be overwhelming for anyone. A person of socialized mind can feel threatened by such complexity. Learning to first see complexity as a system and to become comfortable with the pieces in order to make decisions is key for today’s leadership.
Sandy’s team members rallied, seeing integrity in how she showed up and contributed. She felt the positive results and worked on developing closer relationships with each to strengthen her credibility.
The end result of our coaching? Sandy became a trusted contributor at the leadership level and the company benefited greatly, as well.
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Patti Cotton helps executives optimize their effectiveness in leading self, others, and the enterprise. Her areas of focus include confidence, leadership style, executive presence, effective communication, succession planning, and masterful execution. With over 25 years of leadership experience, both stateside and abroad, Patti works with individuals, teams, and organizations across industries, providing executive consulting, leadership development, succession planning, change management, and conflict resolution. She is also an experienced Fortune 500 speaker. For more information on how Patti Cotton can help you and your organization, click here.