A curable disease-the disease to please

Many women start out in their early careers as very enthusiastic contributors. Saying yes to assignments, raising their hand to volunteer for projects that others may not want to take on, accepting assignments from their boss even in cases where it is clear to them that there is little or no benefit to themselves by being part of it. Over the years this overly co-operative auto pilot of delivering great work and taking on a high volume of work becomes the norm and because women have a tendency to want to keep everybody happy around them, including their bosses, their peers, their partners, their friends this can be the start to becoming chronic pleasers.

Fast forward a few years and life starts to get more complex. Perhaps those same early career women have moved up a rung or two on the career ladder. They remain super helpful to their past teams given they were one of the best performers and their input was so well respected they figure why not keep contributing? They hold that posting close to their heart after all and some of their best friends are still in that team, so they remain willing to go the extra mile and support them. Commendable right?

Mmmmm, let’s see what can happen next. Now they are under more pressure, their current role involves learning the ropes of new elements, the management of a team and reporting into senior leadership to name only two. They are up for the challenge and enjoy the role even though it is a lot of extra work to have the weekly catchups with team members and make sure the communication cascade is reaching them. Perhaps they have moved to a new country to take up this role and they are learning their way around the roads, needing to make new friends and networks. Perhaps they get married along the way or get themselves some pets to take care of, maybe having a child comes next. All the while there is a cause they are passionate about and they have started supporting a charity as a volunteer. All of a sudden, they are wearing many more hats as they find themselves as an expat, an employee, a team leader, a project owner, a first time mum, a pet owner, a wife or girlfriend, a charity event organizer, a daughter/sibling living abroad. So many layers of complexity have been added to their work and private lives which carry with each role many mounting expectations. Throughout all these changes, perhaps unknowingly, they uphold their desire to keep everybody around them happy and continue to operate in the same way they always have, saying yes to every opportunity and spreading themselves very thin.

The adverse effects

A word of warning here, this is simply not going to be sustainable and will have a poisonous impact on future career success.

Not adapting a high level of people pleasing translates over time into not holding others accountable and taking too much responsibility onto own shoulders for other people’s happiness, sometimes at the expense of their own.

This can end up building feelings of resentment because in the long run it may become very tiring always being the compromiser and trying to keep up.

Remaining fearful of disappointing others serves as a barrier to further career progress as it can distract you from finding your true purpose. It can limit your ability to stay focused or keep you stuck exactly where you are. It will also get in the way of effective delegation which means that others are not given adequate opportunity to develop.

This can be especially dangerous when you are good at a lot of things and quickly become the go to person for problem solving and let’s not forget it gives you great pleasure to be of service and be helpful in many different domains over extended periods of time.

Now, do we still think it is commendable to always do the right thing by others when we more fully understand the impact in can have on careers?

The Case Study

Let’s meet Nancy who Sally Helgesen describes as suffering from the Disease to Please. Nancy is a Senior Administrator at a highly rated regional medical center who started her career as a receptionist with only two years of community college. Nobody in her family had gone beyond high school and she had never envisioned herself in a management role. Due to her smart, efficient, hardworking, warm, and cheerful manner medical teams quickly started relying on her to coordinate with her patients.

No surprise the patients loved her, and positive feedback came in about the service the patients were receiving at the center. After a couple of years Nancy’s was promoted from position to position over the next twenty years. Any role that required outreach and community engagement Nancy was put at the helm of and she always excelled there year after year until she hit a plateau. Her portfolio was now very broad, and she was still in touch with patients and stakeholders from her long string of previous successful projects. She was spreading herself very thin across multiple projects due to her combination of likeability and competence. Everybody kept coming to Nancy for help and it started to feel like Nancy had 5 jobs and all of this was running Nancy into the ground. Nancy had no boundaries around whom she served even though her priority to keep everybody happy was no longer serving her. Nancy was constantly trying to prove to everyone that she did not see herself as better than anybody else and this made it hard for her to say no to situations.


The anamnesis

Do you resonate with some of these diseases to please indicators?

  • Having difficulty saying no
  • Holding the belief that being a good girl requires always keeping people happy
  • Increased stress levels trying to keep up with too high a workload
  • Tiredness and fatigue sometimes leading to burnout
  • Feeling that you are being spread too thin and running around trying to keep up
  • Avoiding conflict, going with the flow even when you don’t agree
  • Always saying yes to assignments even when there is no real benefit for you

Top tips to overcome The Disease to Please

 Let go of guilt-write down what you feel guilty about by saying no and burn the paper or destroy it somehow

  1. Prioritize self-care-make sure your own self-care is on your daily to do list.
  2. Stakeholder evaluation-Evaluate the most important stakeholders-ask yourself which ones hold the keys to more future career progress and align your “yes” for assignments to those who matter most to what matters most to you
  3. I get to: Telling yourself I get to do XYZ….instead of I have to do XYZ….rewires your thinking towards telling yourself that you have a choice to say yes or no, removing any feelings of obligation driving your decision making.
  4. Check in on caring levels-Be mindful that if you care too much it can be to your detriment if left unchecked. Instead, leverage it, keep it with you and learn to manage it more effectively.


The WIFIM tool

The simple tool of using WIFIM can help you discern what to say yes to and what to say no to. It can help you build the new habit to be able to recognize that you are not responsible for other people’s happiness, you are responsible for your own happiness. Channeling more effort and energy into asserting yourself and ensuring your happiness will have a ripple effect around you. Inadvertently you will be making others around you happy because you are radiating more happiness from yourself which is infectious.

It is OK to keep people happy but not at the expense of overlooking your own happiness in the pursuit of excellence. Make sure you are your own priority and use the WIFIM acronym question to ascertain “What’s is in it for you?” before deciding to say yes or no.






The tendency to people pleasing needs to be managed, not diminished altogether, it is steeped in a strength, and means that you care about people, which means that your ability to build rapport and maintain trust are strong.

Finally, learn to ask for the support that you need to see how you could allow others to please you for a change. The great news is that the Disease to Please is definitely curable by becoming a discerning pleaser.

For a related article check out Productivity Patterns- Your most important employee is yourself


Article written by Simone Lawrence-Managing Partner, Executive Coach and People Developer at The Ameliorate Group. Content inspired by the book called “How Women Rise” by Sally Helgesen-12 habits that hold women back from being successful in their careers-as well as my own experience as executive coach when coaching senior leaders in the workplace.

The Ameliorate Group, Learning Partner with Women@Work, is a leadership and corporate coaching consultancy offering a range of bite-sized learning solutions to long-term development programs incorporating executive coaching to achieve organizational goals. The Ameliorate Group aims to superpower your teams and individual capability beyond what you thought was possible.

The first ‘How Woman Rise” program is available across the Middle East through The Ameliorate Group powered by Sally Helgesen. Creating more inclusive workplaces of the future through raising awareness of the habits that hold women back from being more successful in their careers. Encouraging both genders to engage in dialogue and co-creation of solutions and strategies to help women rise at work and in business.