I learned a very important lesson about ten years ago. I was feeling rather pleased with myself when my boss told me I’d done a good piece of work; I smiled and said, ‘Thank you, I aim to please!’. He responded gravely, ‘No, Fiona, your job isn’t to please, your job is to do the right thing.’
I’ve thought about that moment many times over the years and have sought to weave it into my work and my life at every opportunity. I suspect it’s the best piece of personal and professional advice anyone ever gave me and I’m so grateful for it. I’ve noticed that many of the high achieving people that I work with in senior medical and professional roles also have a desire to please – or its close companion of not wanting to let others down – and that this can often be at their own personal expense.
We are hardwired to stay in the tribe
Thanks to evolution (we are more likely to survive if we stay in the tribe and not out on the savanna on our own) plus our early life experiences of socialisation, our brains are usually hardwired to please other people. Sometimes this can be helpful, but it can mean we find it difficult to disappoint people in all areas of our lives, not just within the work setting. The consequences of being hardwired to please others can include: not communicating our needs clearly to others; not making clear agreements with other people; avoiding difficult conversations; and not questioning the status quo when it is appropriate to do so. It can also mean that we don’t negotiate terms and conditions in our contracts which will suit us, saying yes when we mean no, and staying in a job we no longer enjoy because we feel guilty about handing in our notice.
There is an antidote
Once we are aware of a feeling of wanting to please others, we can then learn to be skilful about what we do next. Sometimes it is entirely appropriate to be helpful and to please other people, it’s how the give and take in relationships works. But sometimes we need to be comfortable with disappointing others and letting them down in service of our own needs or of ‘doing the right thing’. Being comfortable with the uncomfortable feelings of disappointing others is the antidote, and this is a skill which we can learn to develop.
Don’t let your fear of disappointing people stop you from doing the right thing for both yourself and in your work. Without being belligerent or deliberately obstructive, who can you experiment with saying no to today?
Dr Fiona Day (MBChB, FFPH, Dip Occ Med, ILM 7 Executive Coaching and Mentoring) is a Leadership and Career Coach and helps Doctors and Professionals to succeed as Leaders and to improve their careers and working lives, using evidence based psychological theory and behaviour change science. Download a free career planning workbook and find out more at www.fionadayconsulting.co.uk; to explore working with Fiona please book a confidential half hour Career Consultation here.