Why People Pleasing Can Undercut Communication

By: Tim O'Brien, APR
Feb. 1, 2020
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In my work with crisis and issues management, I’ve seen the same personality trait that helps many PR professionals perform so well also become a liability for them, specifically in those crisis and issues management situations. 

The trait is being a people pleaser, a drive to be accepted, liked and perceived in a positive light by others, above all other considerations. 

In more than one instance I’ve seen critics engage in calculated attacks on organizations — and frustrated communications teams trying to appease those critics. The communicators tried to respond to each piece of criticism on its own merits, even if it was without merit. In doing so, they often inadvertently fed the fire of the criticism.

Patricia Thompson, Ph.D., is president of Silver Lining Psychology, a corporate psychology and management-consulting firm in Atlanta. In her professional capacity, she has often observed these people-pleaser characteristics, such as an intense need to be liked by everyone at all times, or being reluctant to voice one’s own opinions for fear that others might disagree. 

People pleasers risk negative consequences, however — including loss of respect and putting the fear of disappointing others above their own best interests, or the best interests of their business organizations.

For anyone struggling with such challenges, whether as an individual or in the context of organizational communications, Thompson’s advice is to be more compassionate to your own side of the equation. Recognize that your side is just as valuable as all the others involved, she says. 

Set boundaries.

Don’t let a sense of obligation to your critics drive your decisions, Thompson recommends. Instead, set boundaries for pleasing others and focus on managing conflict. 

“When you set a boundary people may not like it, especially when they’ve become accustomed to your side bending over backward for them,” she says. “But the key is to keep in mind your goal for communication. You want to consider both sides’ needs equally. Be empathetic and kind, but be prepared to hold your ground.”

She advises monitoring yourself for disconnections between what you think the best communications approach is and how you advise your leadership. Avoid knee-jerk reactions, and take as thoughtful an approach as possible. 

“If you tend to be a pleaser, it’s always a good idea to consult with others about how they perceive an issue,” Thompson says. “That way, you can get an objective opinion that is less clouded by [your own] emotion.” 

Make sure to seek viewpoints from others who have different backgrounds than yours or who are likely to have different perspectives than your own, she says. That way, you will reduce the chances of dismissing valid feedback.

Expect criticism.

In this age of heightened sensitivities and the polarization of public discourse, criticism is “part and parcel of being in the public eye,” Thompson believes.

To understand the inevitability of criticism and therefore not feel bound to appease it, “think of an organization that is seemingly uncontroversial, [one that] you really admire, and look at the criticism they’ve received,” she says. “Regardless of who the person or the organization is, and what they have achieved, they’re likely to receive criticism.”

Success invites criticism, and the only way to avoid it is by being mediocre, she says. “Is that a trade-off that you’re willing to make? For most high achievers, the answer would be ‘no.’”


photo credit: lisa kolbasa