Social Psychology, Moral Philosophy, and the Workplace People-Pleaser Trap

There is one question from my undergraduate Social Psychology that has stuck with me in the nearly 20 years since:

Can human behavior ever be purely altruistic? If your supposedly altruistic actions bring you self-satisfaction, are your motivations for helping others pure? And if no one is harmed by your self-satisfaction, does it matter?

This argument has been hashed out in moral philosophy circles ever since the days of Aristotle.  

One very real manifestation of this debate can be seen in many workplaces, in the form of the office people pleaser. You know the type: they are desperate to demonstrate value to the team, so they have a tendency to go beyond a general willingness to lend a hand, pitching in outside their expected scope of work. People pleasers go out of their way to be liked: this often leads them to defer to others in decision making even when they have more expertise or know there are better opinions out there, or to affirm the opinions of others even if they don’t necessarily agree.  They sometimes help others even when doing so interferes with their own workload and responsibilities.  All of these actions are done in search of approval from their colleagues and managers.

While these behaviors may seem altruistic, I believe that people pleasers DO cause harm. So this week, I am making the case for why it makes sense to be wary of people pleasers in your office, and why you should avoid becoming one yourself.

 Living only to please looks cute on dogs, not on coworker!

Living only to please looks cute on dogs, not on coworker!

Catherine Wood, an Executive Life Coach in Washington DC, defined the people pleaser problem brilliantly in a recent article for The Huffington Post. She observes that people pleasers are actually more focused on getting their own needs met – specifically their needs to feel loved, good enough, or worthy – than in being of service to others. What’s more, these tendencies are damaging to the people pleasers in the long term because it leaves them unable to take full responsibility for themselves. They care so much about, and place so much value in, being valued by others that they never develop their own sense of self-worth: in other words, by basing their decisions and actions on what other people think, they can’t develop their own unique perspective, skill set, or critical thinking abilities.

People who are helpful and resourceful in the workplace but aren’t people pleasers fall outside of the definition of pure altruism because their behavior is driven by a desire to make their mark in the office and to be seen as capable and reliable team members. Their motivation is to help the company but also to boost their individual standing in the office, potentially leading to professional growth. These are the ideal employees and leaders in a workplace.  They are not dependent on others for their sense of self-worth; they are driven by knowing that their contributions to the team will help propel the organization forward.

By contrast, people pleasers have an extra level of ulterior motivation that is damaging to both themselves and their teams. Their dependence on the actions, opinions, and ideas of others, combined with their inability to gauge the quality and efficacy of their own contributions, limits their value to their team. In the end, people pleasers can’t be seen as reliable and productive because they can’t contribute anything on their own.

Catherine Wood summed this idea up perfectly in her article. “We don’t get to do things to please others when our motive is that we want a specific response from them. That’s selfish.