Are You a People-Pleasing Leader?

Answer these three questions to determine if you have people-pleasing leadership tendencies and what to do instead.

Written by Kelly L. Campbell
Published on Apr. 23, 2024
Are You a People-Pleasing Leader?
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The roots of people-pleasing tendencies often trace back to deeply-ingrained beliefs and behaviors formed in childhood. In technology leadership in particular, people-pleasing can come at a steep cost — for the individual, the team and the organization.

What Is a People-Pleasing Leader?

As a bid for belonging, people-pleasing leaders unconsciously strive to be liked by as many people as possible. They attempt to earn attention and acceptance by making colleagues’ work lives easier— often to their own detriment. While they seem caring, they can also be seen as unreliable because they tend to take on more work than they can handle, have difficulty with delegation and avoid holding team members accountable.

People-pleasing leadership tendencies are rooted in two assumptions absorbed during our younger years: that we must put others’ needs ahead of our own and that we must earn belonging because we are not simply worthy of it for who we are.


3 Questions to Ask to Determine If You’re a People-Pleasing Leader

The following questions are designed to help you determine if you’re a people pleasing leader and what to do to increase self-awareness for the benefit of yourself and your team.


1. Do You Have Difficulty Giving or Receiving Feedback?

Whether simple and constructive or complex and difficult, delivering feedback is one of the most dreaded aspects of leading teams. Most leaders did not have healthy conflict resolution modeled for them during their formative years, so they choose to view feedback as a high potential for conflict. People-pleasing leaders tend to avoid giving feedback for fear that they will no longer be liked and may lose their sense of belonging within the group dynamic of the workplace.

When it comes to receiving negative feedback from employees or other colleagues, people-pleasers have a tendency to suppress their emotions in the moment only to develop underlying resentment and anger after the fact.

In both scenarios, giving or receiving feedback can easily become conflict avoidance. If that’s the case, it might be time to better understand the fear that’s underneath the avoidant behavior. Ask yourself, “What am I afraid will happen if I deliver honest feedback?” or “How can I receive honest feedback without it destroying my sense of worth?”

Beyond these questions and the development of self-awareness that will naturally occur, a trauma-informed therapist or relationship coach can help provide more insight and new language to help you feel resourced before, during, and after feedback conversations.

More on LeadershipHow to Use Strategic Delegation to Grow Your Startup


2. Do You Earn Your Belonging By Aiding, Saving or Praising Colleagues?

Helping a co-worker with a project when they’ve asked for support is a beautiful aspect of teamwork. However, when the intention behind aid is not rooted in collaboration and the health of the project, it might be worth considering if an unmet need for belonging is at play. 

Often the need to belong is unconscious; in other words, there may be zero awareness of it on the part of a people-pleasing leader.

Even easier to recognize is when helping morphs into saving — as in rescuing a colleague, who then feels a sense of indebted tethering. Here, saviorism is an unconscious strategy that feels like a win-win situation: the people-pleasing leader feels indispensable and deepens their sense of belonging, and the colleague feels some sense of security in their role because a crisis has been averted. The intention behind the rescue mission and how it’s carried out is what differentiates a healing leader from a people-pleasing one. The same holds true for leaders who compliment or praise employees.

As with all things, context matters.

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“Heal to Lead,” by Kelly L. Campbell. | Image: Wiley

People-pleasers are naturally empathetic, supportive, positive, and thrive in connection and meaningful relationships. However, the shadow traits here are actually self-serving, in that their ability to read and interpret facial expressions, body language and tonality of others provides all the information they need to position themselves well for being seen as genuine and caring. This can stray strongly off course when others don’t notice or seem to care what their people-pleasing leader has done for them. They might become resentful, believing others are selfish and unappreciative — although they would never express those sentiments for fear of rejection or loss of relationship.

As a people-leader, the best way to help others is to work on yourself. Identifying your unhealthy leadership behaviors and then processing what’s beneath the surface will make you a more effective human. The benefits don’t stop with your mental wellbeing though; as a result of your inner work, your team will observe how you lead with compassionate intelligence, enact healthy boundaries and champion collaboration — inviting them all to do the same.


3. Do You Truly Hold Team Members Accountable? 

Holding colleagues accountable to deadlines, professional development goals, and for their behavior (or inaction) in the workplace can disrupt established relationships. People-pleasing leaders struggle to hold others accountable, and fear is often what holds them back from leading with integrity. In these situations, leaders who experienced rejection or abandonment during their formative years shy away from direct conversations in order to avoid a potential repeat of the feelings associated with those experiences.

Using these examples, the underlying fear within the leader does a disservice to all involved—the leader may feel shame, the work suffers, employees aren’t challenged to reach their potential, and the workplace is likely to become psychologically unsafe for other team members.

More on LeadershipManagers Don’t Run From Conflict, Embrace It


The Integrity of Healing Leaders

If you answered “yes” to any or all three of these questions, it’s likely that you are a people-pleasing leader. The good news is that you can retain many aspects of your being that are positively contributing to your relationships, while doing the work on yourself to become an ethical leader

That means setting healthy boundaries, empowering your team members through delegation, being transparent, leading with compassion, holding people accountable — all rooted in discovering that your worth is inherent and not tied to putting others’ needs ahead of your own.

By embarking on the healing journey that is real leadership, you open the door not only to your own personal growth, but to elevating your entire team and company. The path forward begins with the courageous step of examining your own motivations and behaviors, and leading with integrity. The lifetime commitment of this work may be challenging, but the rewards — greater fulfillment, trust, and collective impact — are immeasurable.


Certain sections of this article are excerpted with permission from the publisher, Wiley, from Heal to Lead, by Kelly L. Campbell. Copyright © 2024 by Kelly L. Campbell. All rights reserved. 

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