• Nicole Provonchee, Coach

The Art of No: How to Navigate Away from the Pleasing Trap

Updated: Aug 14, 2019


This article is part of a series of blogs around the Five Behaviors Standing Between Women Leaders & Greater Success. This article dives deeper into Career Limiting Behavior #4: Falling into the Pleasing Trap.


The desire to please is one of the toughest career limiting behaviors to overcome because it can be so unbelievably deeply rooted in our psyche.

Last year, I worked with a woman that is simply amazing. She had a senior-level job at a large company and was on the fast-track to be promoted again. Due to her skill and knowledge, she was placed in charge of high-profile projects that enabled her to present to c-suite leaders (a coveted spot usually reserved for an elite few). She was kind, funny, warm and brilliant. She made all the holiday parties at school. When given a task, you could always count on a deliverable that was accurate, thorough and flawless. She loved and valued her reputation, but did not alway recognize the costs that came with it.

All this worked until one day it didn't. Her husband's travel increased. The CEO expanded her role and direct reports, but without providing additional support. One of her children started a new school, forcing drop-offs and pickups at two different locations each day. Keeping everyone happy meant late nights, six-day work weeks and major sleep debts. Her health suffered and then her work and relationships started to suffer too. She felt like she was letting everyone down - her children, her husband, her co-workers, her boss and her friends. Naturally, it sent her into a crisis.

The desire to please can become an addiction. And, like any addiction, it has real-world consequences when it is given power. Note in the story above, the first thing that started to suffer was my client's sleep and then her health.

>>As women - especially working moms - we are often conditioned to put the needs of others before ourselves. And when this conditioning collides with the desire to please, the consequences can impact our health, work and relationships.


To compound the issue around the desire to please, it appears our modern workplace is helping perpetuate a woman's role of making sure everyone and everything "is taken care of." In the workplace, data has shown that women are often the first to volunteer for "non-promotable" work that helps the greater company, but does not drive business metrics (aka plan parties, help with internal initiatives). Why? HBR researchers found that there appears to be a shared understanding - by women and men - in the workplace that women are more likely to do this sort of work. (Check out my blog on Why Managing the Holiday Party Won't Get You Promoted).

So, if you find yourself filled with the urge to make sure everyone and everything is OK, how do you navigate past the Pleasing Trap? You can start with the following steps.

1. View Yourself as a Finite Resource. Plan Accordingly.

The core concept is simple, yet often hard to adopt for women that have been either brought up/socialized to please others or who find self-worth/value in making others happy. So, start small.

  • Take 10 quiet minutes and think about the concept of you as a precious, wonderful, desired resource that is renewable each day - but finite in its daily use.

  • Spend another minute or two thinking about the costs of not treating a precious resource with care. Ask what costs you are paying for trying to please everyone?

  • If you think about yourself as a finite resource, how does that change how you want to spend your time?


2. Just Say No.

Yes, I know. This is easier said than done. However, saying "Yes" to everything is at the root of the problem. You simply cannot do it all, at least not all of the time.

As this Harvard Business Review article aptly called Stop Trying to Please Everyone found: "Sure it’s easier to just say “yes” in the short-term; but taking on an assignment that you don’t have the bandwidth for, or ones that will compromise other key goals, won’t make anyone feel good about you in the long run — and it won’t help your organization achieve its goals. That’s why “getting to no” is such a critical challenge to master."

If you struggle with saying no, start small. Try saying not to serving on a small committee at your child's school versus starting with saying no to a larger project at work.

Another tip to help you lean into the power of the "No:" The next time someone asks you to help with a task, ask yourself these quick questions:

  • Will this task help me move my career or personal goals forward in a significant way? (If no, then seriously consider saying "no")

  • Do I really want to do this task or am I doing to to make someone else happy/to help another person? (If no, then seriously consider saying "no")If no, then

  • What trade-offs can I make to be able to do this task well? (Note: you cannot do everything!)

If you answer "yes" to the first two questions, move forward with caution. AND, you should you move forward only after answering the third question with an actual task or project that you can eliminate.

This can be MUCH easier said than done. So, how do you flex your "No" muscles when they have atrophied? Go to step #3.

3. Check in with your values. Align your actions.

When was the last time you spent time thinking about your core values? One of the first activities I suggest to my clients is to perform a values inventory. There are many ways to think through your values, and this is one of my favorites. Using a selected group of terms (or your own), you list out what you value and then rank your "Most Important" values 1 to 10.

Once you know what you value, you can then take a look at how you are spending your time and ask yourself two reflective questions:

  1. Is how I spend my time aligned with what I value? or Is how I spend my time proportional to what I value?

  2. Are there small changes I could make that would enable me to spend more time in the areas that I have listed as "Most Important?"

Think back to the concept of you being a finite resource. You only have so much time and energy to give. If you find that your time and your actions are not in alignment, then you can move to step 4.


4. Apply the Rule of 10

Change is hard. Trying to move from the disease to please to a boundary-holding maven will not happen overnight. This is where the Rule of 10 can help. Look at how you can change either one priority or one major behavior by 10%. For example, can you cut your workload back by 10% by negotiating your priorities with your boss? Can you leave 10% earlier three days a week. Can you go to bed 10% earlier. Can you hire a cleaner to cut our 10% (or more) of your housework?

You are a smart woman - get creative, but start small and savor your success. As you integrate one change, add another small change. Over time, the Rule of 10 can be very, very powerful.

Take it from an experienced pleaser: Navigating away from this behavior is hard. Yet - just think of all the things you can say "Yes" to once you master the art of saying "No" to the things that are not aligned with your values and that don't bring you joy!

Need help saying NO or setting boundaries? Are you seeing trends that are holding you back from being your best, most successful self? Reach out. I work with existing and emerging women leaders that want to THRIVE and find their own ideal balance/ integration of work and life.

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