3 Ways to Stop People-Pleasing and Start Leading

If you’re a chronic people-pleaser, you might know deep down that it’s impossible to make everyone happy. Even so, you may continue taking on more tasks, responsibility, and grief until eventually you burn out.

The truth is that people-pleasing isn’t about whether or not you’re a good person. Rather, it’s a fixation on what others think, and an assumption that you are responsible for controlling other people’s emotions — when in fact, the only one you can control is yourself!

If you’re in a leadership role, people-pleasing becomes even more impossible. It often feels like pushing back or saying “no” is mean, but practicing some simple exercises can help you set boundaries and focus on what really matters to help your team (and yourself!) be successful.

Remember: setting boundaries doesn’t make you a bad person. More often than not, it’ll make you a good manager! Here are 3 simple tactics you can use to help combat your inner urge to please.

🧘The Pause

Use this when:

👉 You’re being forced to make a tough decision

As a people-pleaser, it’s best to pause before making a decision instead of trusting your gut reaction. According to a 2014 Columbia University study, taking even 50–100 milliseconds before responding can help you make better decisions. It gives you a chance to potentially override your impulse to give someone the answer they want, instead of the answer that’s best.

Here are some ways you can make space to think:

  • “Let me check my schedule. I’ll get back to you with an answer tomorrow.”
  • “Thank you for your input — I need a little time to take all of the options into consideration, but I’ll get back to you by the end of the week on how to proceed.”
  • “I appreciate you making this a priority — I can tell it’s important to you. I don’t want to keep you waiting for too long, so I’ll return with a decision by the end of the day.”

Pro tip: Regardless of the decision, a great way to give yourself time while still setting the other person’s mind at ease is to let them know when you’ll return to the conversation. Even indicating that you’ll respond by “end of day” or “later this week” can help manage expectations.

🕵️ The Pulse Check

Use this when:

👉 Someone is trying to push a task or project onto your plate

When you’re really good at people-pleasing, it won’t be long before heaps of people ask you for help. But there’s only so much you can take on — you have your own projects, too!

Here are some questions you can ask to tell if you should take something on:

  • Will helping now save us time in the long run?
  • If I don’t help, what are the risks? If I do, what’s the opportunity?
  • Does this project/task have a higher priority than what’s on my plate already?
  • Is there someone else that could complete this equally as well as me or better? (If yes, then delegate.)

Something to keep in mind is that the person requesting help ultimately wants the task or project to be completed — whether it’s by you or someone else. It’s possible to be helpful without overextending yourself in the process. If you can delegate while maintaining quality, it’s the best decision for both parties.

🔫 The Straight Shot

Use this when:

👉 You have to communicate a difficult message

When you have to share difficult news, you’ll often feel like you’re letting people down. But there’s a way to communicate with kindness while still setting firm boundaries or pushing back.

Here’s some examples of how to do it:

  • “I’m afraid that won’t be practical for us given the budget/it’s outside of our current capacity.”
  • “I’m unable to take on anything beyond my current load. Thank you for thinking of me — I’m happy to suggest someone else who could help out.”
  • “I’ve reviewed our performance against the target. It looks like the current path is not matching with the goals and milestones we set. Here are 3 places we’re off. Please let me know if you see differently.”

When you’re a manager, trying to make everyone happy is a quick path to making no one happy. Yes, you have to build your team up and appreciate their work, but you also owe them the truth — even when it’s difficult to communicate. Once you step into a leadership role, people-pleasing is no longer an option. Here’s why:

  • When sh*t hits the fan, your team will look to you for transparency
  • Helping your team grow will mean you sometimes have to speak the hard truths directly
  • You’re going to have to make difficult decisions and someone is always going to end up unhappy

Using these tactics can help you shift your focus away from what people think about you and your actions toward achieving the goals that matter most. While overcoming the urge to please won’t be easy, it’ll make you a better manager, and your team (and you) will be better for it.

Want to make stronger decisions in half the time? Download the Bunch AI Leadership Coach app to become a better leader in 2 minutes a day.

For more tactics if you struggle with people-pleasing, check out this new tip on giving feedback when your inclination is to keep the other person happy.

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Co-founder, CEO at Bunch — Helping future leaders grow; bookworm, psychologist and relentless optimist. Grow | Inspire | Stay humble