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How people pleasing can ruin you
Good morning. Today I want to reflect a little bit on a regret I have, in hopes that people coming up behind me will be helped.
But also if you're reading this and you're ahead of me, this might be helpful to think about too.
I want to talk about the important topic of identity. The importance of knowing who you are, and having a very firm foundation especially if you're a builder or someone that wants to lead.
When I was younger, I didn't really know who I was. I was confident in some things however my sense of self wasn't that strong. I routinely would conclude that what I did with who I was and so as a young child did lots of things. It was very hard to work out what my identity was. Far too frequently, I would connect myself to projects I was working on or things I was doing, and if they were going well, my mood and general sense of self were high. However, if things were going wrong, I would find myself in deep sadness, often questioning my self-worth and whether I was useful in any way.
It would take me years (around 22) to learn about the importance of creating distance between what you're building and who you are. For those of us who aren’t building things, the same applies to your job title or whatever you are currently doing with most of your time.
The simple truth here is that we are not what we're building. Our sense of identity must be constructed separately from projects. If not the work will define you or the process will.
Let’s explore this a little further.
Despite the sanitised version presented online, anyone who built something consequential will know that the process is messy and far from smooth sailing. I routinely have to have difficult conversations with members of my team that social media would readily misunderstand. They are spirited and are not for the faint-hearted.
Building anything of worth means abrasive conversations, it means disagreeing with people, sometimes fighting and sometimes arguing. I don't know of any amazing projects or amazing things that have been built, where the process of building it was seamless, lovely, and a walk in the park. If that were the case, everyone would build amazing things, however, we know that's not the case.
When you are having these interactions, if you don't have a strong sense of self, it's very easy for you to begin to internalise disagreements or even the negativity that can arise from these difficult conversations. For a long time, I was a people pleaser, which meant having difficult conversations was genuinely terrifying to me. My main focus in this cancel culture world was ensuring that every single person I had an interaction with had a positive reaction to me. This meant if there were people who weren't performing or weren't doing what they were meant to do, rather than having a stern conversation about how they could improve, I would often just smile and keep on going.
Why did I do this?
The answer is simple. I wanted to be a charismatic leader that was inspirational and that pleased everyone. I have since realised that if you are everyone’s cup of tea, then you are probably a mug. As a leader, you must be very intentional about what you tolerate. The worst behaviour you tolerate in your organisation becomes the culture of that organisation. And so your job as a leader isn't primarily to be liked, but instead to get the most out of people. Being liked and being respected are two very different things. If you optimise your working life to be in like, you'll find yourself to be a people pleaser with no convictions. And I want to say you probably won't achieve much.
On the other hand, if your goal is to be respected and you can be kind, and compassionate, can show grace, but you can also have a very strong sense of where the organisation is going and clear expectations of people in the team.
The time I was called names.
I remember one period when I was having a tough discussion with some members of my leadership about a direction we should go. As the leader I was trusted when making the final call. We all sat around and shared our perspectives on what should happen and where we should go. It was a very heated and very needed conversation. I played referee as different members of the team went back and forth disagreeing with each other on what the next step of action should be. After listening to everybody, I weighed up what was said and I found a sort of middle ground where I thought we ought to be.
I made the decision and let the team know how we were going to move forward. The meeting ended and for the most part, I thought it was a successful meeting. I remember messaging someone after and saying 'That was really really good'. I loved that kind of debate. Fast forward three weeks, and somebody has something negative to say. They called me names and said that they didn't agree with me and said things that I can only interpret as a character attack. This was very difficult for me to understand. To me, we just had a really lovely conversation which I thought was productive. It's very easy for this kind of scenario to destroy me. I may start to internalise that maybe I'm a terrible leader. Maybe something is wrong with me.
My self-worth was far too connected to the work. I spent the next few weeks obsessing over their comments. How could they not like my leadership? How could they not agree with the decision I made? It was the best decision based on balance and everyone else's perspectives. How could this person disagree? After weeks of moping around, and generally having very low self-esteem, it occurred to me that I was obsessed with being liked. I was obsessed with everyone in my team agreeing with me and thinking my decisions were the best.
This type of people-pleasing actually slowed business down because it meant that rather than following my convictions and instincts, I would often be trying to make sure everyone was happy. When I learned this, I knew that something had to change about myself because to achieve great things I have to follow my instincts. I have to make decisions. I can't create a system where the best decision will rise to the top. Leaders have to make the decision and have to be confident about it. When I decide, I divide and as a leader, you have to be comfortable with division. That's just how you lead. In the years following I've invested a great deal into following instincts and setting the vision. There are things that in my organisation only I can do because I am the leader and I should be comfortable with making those decisions.
When I make decisions, they will be inadvertently divisive. Some will agree and some won't. I should try to be fair. But if we circle back on the identity point, I have to divorce the decisions I'm making from who I am and my self-worth. So when someone says that was a terrible decision, or I disagree, I must take that seriously, but never personally. I shouldn't allow what people think about what I'm building or what I’m making to spill over into what they think about me.
Put it this way, at 5 pm I should be able to put the phone down and say work is done and move on with my life. I shouldn't take my sense of self from other people or how effective they think I am in making decisions. If I do that, I'm almost destined to have this self-worth that oscillates and that is never stable. I've had to learn this the hard way and I'm hoping people learn it much quicker than I did.
So dear leader, know who you are and build your self-worth separate from what you are building. If you don't know who you are, other people will tell you.
Have an amazing week
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