Everybody’s Friend, Nobody’s Leader
Women and Relational Leadership
Sharon and Tracy had worked extremely well together for many years. Both were surprised when Sharon was promoted, effectively leaving Tracy under her supervision. Sharon didn’t notice the initial subtle changes to the relationship, she was just so pleased about the promotion and the opportunity to try out her ideas. So it took her a while to recognise the signs of aloofness and the slightly cutting comments Tracy made to any of Sharon’s suggestions. These days it felt as if Tracy was actively avoiding her, spending as little time as possible in her company. In addition, Tracy always seemed to be in conversation with others when she should be working. It was beginning to affect the entire team who were also becoming increasingly uncooperative. Sharon knew she would have to do something soon or risk an all-out revolt, but Tracy was her friend, they had been through a lot together and she felt awkward about pulling rank at a time when Tracy probably needed her friendship more than ever . . .
A desire for friendship is good, most of the time! However, when our need for friendship exceeds what a human relationship is designed to deliver, then we are in trouble. Men and women search for levels of intimacy and security in different ways. However, many still expect someone they know, such as a spouse, family/church member, friend, and possibly even a work colleague to deliver levels of affirmation, security, and recognition that only God can provide! Conflict inevitably arises whenever relational wires are crossed with leadership wires. This leaves women, who may have made substantial relational investments, particularly susceptible to the downsides of relational leadership. Commenting on women’s predilection for building effective relationships, Lois Frankel writes, “The problem is, we’re so good at it that we often confuse our leadership responsibilities with a desire to maintain those relationships at all costs.”
It is somewhat ironic that, when taken to an extreme, the very gifts that women bring to leadership become the very characteristics that undermine them. In a desire to be likeable and friendly, we can become overly concerned with the need to please others. This condition is more popularly referred to as the “disease to please.”
When Friendship Goes Awry
Wanting to please other people is both natural and normal. However, the real issue is just how far we are willing to take it. When the need for approval becomes an imperative, it can no longer be equated with a seemingly harmless desire to appear “friendly” or “nice.” The habit of putting others first and the compulsive need to please, even at the expense of our own health, can rapidly spiral into a serious psychological syndrome with far reaching physical and emotional consequences. Yet some women are predisposed to this condition and it lies at the root of many of our stress-related problems.
At first glance, people-pleasing does not appear to be a problem. In fact, many wear it as a badge of honour or even take their ability to please as many as possible, as a compliment. Even the Bible seems to commend the aspiration to please others (see Romans 15:2–3; 1 Corinthians 10:33). However, while it is certainly true that pleasing others and meeting their needs is always highly commended, it is always clearly distinguished from the self-defeating thinking and behavioural habit of striving to be liked by everyone (Galatians 1:10). It is this behaviour that so often betrays the presence of a “disease to please.”
Almost all of us enjoy gaining the approval of people who are important in our lives. For people pleasers, earning the approval of others and avoiding their disapproval become primary driving forces. Once approval becomes overly important, it places an individual in bondage to the fear of rejection or confrontation.
When people-pleasing has become a compulsive, addictive pattern of behaviour, we begin to respond to the need for approval by accommodating even the most unreasonable expectations. Just because we understand why someone made a mistake, doesn’t mean we have to tolerate them making the same mistake over and over again! Attempts to accommodate others, at almost any expense, take on many forms but they are particularly dangerous to those serving in leadership capacities. Not only can we be easily manipulated by opportunistic individuals, we may attempt to prove just how essential we are to others by taking care of every presenting need. Such behaviour when mature, develops into forms of benevolent manipulation, where we foster dependency in others in order to avoid our own feelings of rejection. Similarly, in the name of caring for others, women leaders may also be hesitant to leverage their relationships, believing that they are somehow taking advantage of people when they delegate or ask for “favours.”
The “disease to please” results in leaders who are predisposed to overwork or over-responsibility and who subsequently spread their already finite resources too thinly. What’s more, leaders may also respond to the impulse to please by over consulting and over collaborating. In doing so, we may effectively undermine our leadership. For example, instead of communicating inclusiveness and acceptance, leaders who are always consulting as many people as possible, can inadvertently communicate indecision and abdication of responsibility. Similarly, an overemphasis on collaboration can communicate an aversion to taking even calculated risks, a very necessary feature of effective leadership.
Women in leadership may even unconsciously undermine their own professionalism by allowing or encouraging an unhealthy over-familiarity from others. This can also result in our being taken for granted. In addition, we may avoid the use of titles or credentials, even in formal settings for fear of emphasising our accomplishments in ways that suggest superiority or inaccessibility. Indeed, high achieving female people pleasers often live with the fear that their accomplishments will backfire when it comes to relationships with others, especially with men. Fear of our own success may lead us to unconsciously sabotage our own careers or personal relationships in an effort to avoid rejection from people who have come to mean a great deal to us. However, such attempts at friendliness in leadership can so easily backfire and communicate our likeability rather than our capability.
One female leader I know confessed that she feared the kind of backlash associated with success and it had deterred her from embracing a more senior role. She was painfully aware that others would cheer her on as long as she was the perpetual underdog. She had seen other women elevated to greater visibility and responsibility only to become targets for those intent on pulling them down a peg or two. I reminded her that her primary responsibility was to God’s call on her life and to the exercise of the many great gifts and abilities he had invested in her. Leadership carries a cost, but if we are wise this kind of rejection will not become part of it. The people who matter should never be those who are fickle enough to want to build you up one moment and tear you down the next.
Ironically, people pleasing can intensify our fear, cripple our communication, and impair our people-skills, particularly as the concern with how other people view us begins to take control. We may be led to assume that people are saying or thinking critical things about us. The truth is they may not be thinking about us at all; on the contrary, they are far more likely to be thinking about themselves! Ultimately, we lose confidence and abandon the path of healthy choices when we become preoccupied with seeking favour and acceptance, particularly from our critics.
Unsurprisingly, people pleasers soon discover that constantly trying to please others is draining, which is why many of us feel anxious, worried, unhappy, and tired much of the time. We also tend to feel out of control given the seemingly endless pressures and demands being placed on our lives.
How It All Begins
Many women learn their people-pleasing behaviour in early childhood at a time when girls, in particular, are actively encouraged to be pleasing to others. Girls who rebel against these expectations tend to pay a higher price than boys under similar circumstances. People pleasing can spread like a virus throughout our teenage years, a period when girls are particularly susceptible to the pressure to fit in, conform, or to simply become one of the crowd. However, the initial instinct to please is not necessarily unhealthy. We often express it as a way of gaining the approval of significant adult authority figures in our lives, such as a mother or father. This is because approval from significant others is a powerful source of reward for nearly every human being. Harriet Braiker re-emphasises this fundamental concern, “From infancy on, our behaviour is highly influenced and shaped by the approval we receive. Our biological and genetic wiring along with our deepest social programming propels us to seek the praise and approval of other people—especially those whom we deem most important by virtue of the rewards they control (e.g., love, social status, school grades, salaries, etc.).” However, a preoccupation with this desire proves to be disastrous particularly if we grow to believe that being pleasing or “nice” will protect us from unpleasant situations with friends, family, and/or colleagues. We may also end up seeking to deploy people pleasing as a kind of psychological armour, designed to protect us from negative emotional experiences with others.
As we exercise both authority and influence, leaders seldom, if ever, make decisions that are likely to please everyone, all the time. The willingness to shoulder this aspect of our leadership responsibility is what, in part, ensures our success. People pleasers addicted to approval and eager to maintain relationships at almost any cost inevitably make poor leaders.
Leaders who commit themselves to the task of overcoming such relational derailments, are those who embrace the necessary constraints that enable them to exercise their leadership responsibly and effectively.
Excerpted from 7 Deadly Sins of Women in Leadership: Overcome Self-Defeating Behaviour in Work and Ministry, by Kate Coleman (Next Leadership Publishing). Used with Permission.