If your workplace relationships continuously cause you problems, you may be bringing some baggage to work. Messages you heard as a child, beliefs you learned and how the adults in your life treated you can later lead to dysfunctional behaviors in the office — such as approval seeking and people pleasing — that can sabotage your professional success. But by understanding why you’re bringing this background into the workplace, you can take steps to recognize this tendency and replace it, resulting in more professional interactions and empowering work relationships and performance.
In a book she co-authored with Martha Finney, “Healing at Work: A Guide to Using Career Conflicts to Overcome Your Past and Build the Future You Deserve,” Susan Schmitt Winchester explains that your past experiences can cause you to think or act in certain ways with your co-workers — particularly through behaviors designed to get others to like you. Schmitt Winchester, who is also senior vice president and chief human resources officer at Applied Materials, experienced this firsthand. Growing up she unconsciously adopted behavior patterns to try to keep an unpredictable family member happy, which manifested in becoming “the goody two shoes, the perfect little girl, the A student.”
This pattern continued into her adult life as an executive. “As I stepped into my career, how that transpired was that I had this set of beliefs about myself that in order to be successful, I had to constantly be on the pleasing bus, and that I felt like it was my job to please others, and it was others’ job to determine my worth or value,” Schmitt Winchester shared. “And that if I would do something that was unpleasing, then it would create a significant amount of worry inside of me that I had done something wrong.”
Bosses Validate People Pleasers
According to Schmitt Winchester, one reason why people pleasing and approval seeking tendencies may play out in the office is that these qualities are often valued in the workplace. “The corporate world loves people who are pleasers, because we’re the ones who are always willing to take on any assignment,” she said. “We’re the ones that will work long hours and on weekends to deliver the highest possible quality work we can, in our efforts to try to gain the appreciation and the positive feelings of the person we’re trying to please.”
She pointed out that this pattern is particularly accentuated when an employee is dealing with people in authority. It’s also a slippery slope, since there’s an upside to workplace approval seeking: many people pleasers also have high-level professional achievements. Yet Schmitt Winchester unpacked that being a pleaser comes with significant costs.
“Living the life as a pleaser is a very dysfunctional way to live because we’re constantly looking to somebody else to tell us if we’re OK, and any sign of not being OK sets us into a whole pattern of behaviors that are emotionally unhealthy and physically unhealthy, working ourselves to the bone with no work-life balance,” she said.
Red Flags That You’re a People Pleaser
Not sure if you’re a people pleaser? Schmitt Winchester describes it as “an energy of neediness.” “It’s like the golden retriever puppy dog,” she said. “It’s this kind of needy ‘I need attention. I need you to pat me on the head. I need you to tell me I’m a good girl.'” She added that what separates a healthy from an unhealthy response to positive feedback is whether you determine your feelings of self-worth based on whether you’re receiving approval from your boss and others at work or not.
“Last night my boss called me to compliment me on a meeting I just ran, and it felt great!” she said. “Did it feel great to get recognized and positively affirmed as being effective? Absolutely. That’s healthy.” But she noted that since bosses are busy and don’t always have time to be looking around to see who needs to be approved of, you can’t wait for this type of feedback to believe in your own value at work. “In the absence of it, that’s where we get ourselves into that dysfunctional mess,” Schmitt Winchester explained.
How to Overcome Approval Seeking Tendencies
The first strategy to break the cycle of people pleasing and approval seeking at work is to recognize that you’re not alone. According to Schmitt Winchester, nearly two-thirds of adults have experienced what she terms “adverse childhood experiences,” or ACEs, which can pave the way for unhealthy work behaviors that negatively affect their careers and co-worker relationships.
A second strategy that she shared is realizing that you have a choice in how you respond when your outdated negative scripts or beliefs get triggered at work. “There are two ways to live your career: either on the unconscious wounded career path, where you’re automatically and unconsciously responding when you get triggered, or by realizing that you can actually step onto the conscious healing career path,” she said. Schmitt Winchester explained the latter as becoming aware that when you are triggered, there’s an opportunity to interpret what happens differently than you usually do. The key is to choose a different response than your usual approval-seeking tendencies.
A third but related strategy is to welcome workplace conflicts as opportunities to practice leveraging a different response than your usual fallback response. “Try not to say yes to something that someone else can do,” Schmitt Winchester advised. You can also learn how to say no with grace, and if you do decline to do something, offer a solution. “Say no with an alternative scenario,” she said. “Like, ‘this isn’t the thing for me to do, but Sandra down the hall would really welcome that opportunity.'”
A final strategy is that when you feel triggered into people pleasing, take a break to regain a more powerful, centered sense of self. “When you start to feel that you’re not worthy, and like you’re immediately going into people-pleasing mode, this is an opportunity to go take a five-minute walk just to get away,” Schmitt Winchester said. “What you’re doing is breaking the trigger.”
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Are You a People Pleaser and Approval Seeker at Work? originally appeared on usnews.com