The leader who never said “no”
In these busy and tense days, it seems like everyone in the workplace is walking around with a frown upon their face, and an attitude of “do you really, really need something from me?”.
It’s disarming and a bit disappointing but luckily — we still have some people who seem to be a shiny beam of light around the office.
It’s especially refreshing and important to have such people in the leadership ranks of the company — they are approachable, they feel likeable and trustable, they really want to make time for you and your request — regardless of how busy they are.
This type of attitude is either innate, or something the leader has worked hard to develop and grow to be successful in their role. It becomes a second nature, it becomes an instinct to have a “say yes” attitude to everything and while this leads to some fantastic results — seen not only in goals, KPIs, tangible deliverables but also in the quantity and quality of relationships this leader creates around him/her — it can also become a strong source of bias and issue.
If you follow my writing, you know I often talk about the double-edge sword of the values we cultivate. The same value can lead us to adaptable and efficient actions, but also to inefficient ones. Being approachable and agreable for everyone falls under the same risk — the leaders who cultivate this value (whether consciously or unconsciously) will generate a lot of magnetism around them. People know that if they go to them, they will not leave without a result, without help or at least without a pleasant and agreeable chat if the situation cannot be solved at the moment.
What does not happen that much when a leader values agreableness is people do not really get to hear “NO” from him/her. They do not learn about boundaries. They do not receive negative feedback — or when they do, it looks painful from the outside — almost as if the leader is feeling embarrassed himself/herself about having to deliver that feedback.
They have resistance towards taking unpopular measures to solve issues (heck, they actually might be the ones who claim there is no such thing as an “issue”, only “opportunities to grow”; does this ring a bell?).
It is also quite difficult for others to understand who this leader is — what does he/she value and work for? What do they stand against? What’s their breaking point?
A couple of years ago, an HR leader I was working with told me something that will ring true in my ears for life: “If everyone likes you, you’re probably not doing your job too well.”
And of course, most of us can theoretically agree with that — theoretically, we do know it is not “okay” to strive to please everyone and we all probably have seen the joke about how we’re not ice-cream and we cannot make everyone happy.
The “secret” is that between knowing something theoretically and actually embodying that knowledge and transforming your behavior as a result there’s a whole world of difference.
Pretty much like the training participants who roll their eyes when you talk about the urgent/important matrix because “they’ve seen it so many times” — the question is: Do they use it? :) You can probably guess what the answer to that is.
So while someone prone to being a people pleaser and the perpetual agreeable leader knows they should change, changing gears seems to be an elusive and painful process.
They might feel like if they start saying “NO”, they’ll be the bad guys. They’ll start losing what they have gained so dilligently and with so much work.
They might be so deeply entrenched into their people pleasing game that they have lost touch with any other criteria to establish is something is good or not — other than “if people like it” or “agree with it.”
So what do you do if you see yourself in this description of leadership? Here’s a couple of ideas:
- First of all, if reading this makes you feel super uncomfortable and this creates a reaction in you and you annoyingly want to dismiss the whole thing, well, then high chances that you are exactly this type of leader. (sorry)
- If you’re past the point of denial, then consider some questions for reflection:
a. Have you always been so focused on pleasing others and being agreable? If not, when did this change start?
b. What is the story you are telling yourself about the need for this behavior? You can even fill in these prompts: “My belief is that by being the person who everyone likes, I can achieve …………………………….. and I can avoid ……………………. “
c. What are you trying to prove by being the agreable leader? And what are you trying to hide?
d. What are the advantages of this behaviour?
e. What are the disadvantages of this behaviour?
f. In which situations does it stop being useful and adaptive?
g. What could be possible for you if you stopped being so focused on being liked? What else could you focus on? What else would be possible for you if all that energy was redirected into something else?
h. Who can you trust to be objective sources of feedback for you, people who will “tell it as it is” and who you can refer to when you need to gain another perspective on your behaviour?
Breaking the cycle of agreeableness is definitely doable, and it is a continuous process of learning, unlearning, reflection and adjustment.
It is also important to know that you probably shouldn’t aim to become the complete opposite of the agreeable leader type — to become the cold, numbers/facts/results focused individual who isolates himself/herself from other people’s feelings, needs and interests.
The opposite is the same — meaning when my goal is to change the course from becoming the agreeable leader into the complete opposite of that, I still act from the same paradigm where everything is defined and dictated by the agreeability and likeability value.
It is about slowly, but surely exploring new ways of being and acting into the world; it is about learning about our limits and our edge, about our patterns and our habits and growing beyond them with the realisation that so much more is available for us.