January 25, 1990 – the day of the Avianca 52 disaster when 73 of the 158 people on board were killed. You know why? Because the co-pilot had the people pleasing syndrome.
In the bright afternoon, the Boeing was flying from Colombia to New York. The plane runs into clearance delays and starts running out of fuel. The air traffic controllers are not aware of their situation and instruct them to land at a nearby airport.
All the copilot had to do was tell the air traffic controller “No, it is an emergency. We cannot land at the next airport, we need to land right here right now.” But he couldn’t say no. As a result, the plane crashed on the hillside of a small village some minutes later.
We will explore the reasons behind the difficulty the co-pilot faced in saying no.
Why was it so difficult for the copilot to say no? You have been through a situation similar to what the pilot underwent but with far lesser consequences. In your case, your inner voice wants to say no while the other person is waiting for your reply.
2 anxious seconds go by as your throat dries up and you feel a tingle down your spine. The people pleasing syndrome kicks in. After what seemed like forever you reply “Sure, I will do it.”
Your inner self hates yourself for saying yes but you could not muster the courage to say no. Was it the lack of courage really? Have you wondered why do you find it difficult to say no when it is the obvious thing to do?
Why do you find it difficult to say no
To answer this question, we have to go back in history. If you look at the human origins and how we evolved, one of the strongest reasons for human survival today is that we were a strong social group. For a very long time, maintaining good relationships is a part of ourselves.
Whether you are an extrovert or an introvert, whether you prefer the presence of people or like solitude, you still try to protect relationships. Even if it is with a stranger. Being nice is wired in your DNA.
There are some exceptions to every case like some jerks out there who enjoy pissing people off. But in general, most people will be uncomfortable if they have to be rude to a stranger for no reason.
For example, let us say you are a 250 pound ripped muscular person who could lift a car with your left hand while you chug on a beer with the right. If I told you to walk up to a random 120 pound person and tell him “You are stupid”, will you do it?
Most people will not be comfortable doing it. You will not lose anything, he cannot harm you but you still cannot say it on his face. You have a natural tendency to get along well with other people.
Some people have a condition or a personality disorder called people pleasing syndrome where they have to please people. While all of us might not suffer from the condition, most of us have some influence of it even when we know the disadvantages of being a people pleaser.
How common is the people pleasing syndrome?
Don’t worry, you are not the only one. Agreeing with people is so common that people pleasing syndrome is now a term used in many articles and writing. It is not a part of the dictionary yet but I am sure I will see the term there soon.
How common do you think people pleasing is? Take a guess. In fact, it is so common that every person is a people pleaser to some extent. Yes, every single one in the world. The degree of people pleasing can vary but everyone has the quality ingrained in them as human beings.
Why do you say yes to things that you should not?
People pleasing syndrome does not always lead to agreeing to do something you dislike. People pleasing happens in daily life in situations that are hard to notice.
What about agreeing to throw the garbage out when your mother asked you? Didn’t you lend a pen when your friend did not have one? Why did you reply with a “Good morning” to a colleague who greeted you first?
Agreed, all these situations have emotions and relationships involved. But if you take a deeper look, you did not have to do any of them.
You could disagree to throw the garbage, denied giving a pen or ignored the good morning. You would not have lost anything. You did what you did because you did not want to hurt emotions.
In the situations above, if you did not react the way you did, the emotions and relationships would take a hit. Since we care about both these aspects so much, we tend to agree to certain things which we would not have done otherwise.
A typical example is as bachelors, most men are messy. Once married, they make an effort to keep things organized because their wives like the house in order. The men are not scared of their wives but care enough for them to make an effort even if keeping things organized does not make any difference to the men personally.
How you are a people pleaser by culture
From your childhood, parents and teachers teach you good manners and to be nice to people. Just like you learn being nice to people, others learn to be nice to you too. We learn very early in life to be annoyed by people who are not nice to us.
Nobody teaches us that, but driven by our emotions of ego, fear, and anger, we learn it subconsciously. For the same reasons and rightly so, we also believe that we have to be nice to people.
Over time the behavior of being nice can manifest into a problem. With experience, some people learn how to handle their priorities well and start saying no frequently. The others, however, continue having difficulty disagreeing or denying.
Each country have a different people pleasing level
Dutch social psychologist Geert Hofstede came up with a Power Distance Index(PDI), which indicates the distribution of power and wealth in a business, culture or nation. PDI also indicates how well do people in the nation follow orders from an authoritative figure. View the PDI by country list here.
The higher the value, the more the people respect authority. This does not mean that countries with low PDI will not follow authority. It means that people from countries with low PDI will question an incorrect statement/decision even if it comes from a person in authority. Countries with high PDA have an authoritative leadership style while countries with low PDI has a collaborative style.
How people pleasing caused the Avianca 52 disaster
Let us come back to the Avianca 52 disaster. If you notice, Colombia is high up on the list and the United States is down below. Therefore, people from Colombia respect a person in authority and do not question a decision easily. A person from the United States is vocal about his thoughts because he expects his subordinates to challenge and question him.
This is exactly what happened in the Avianca 52 disaster. The person handling the clearance of aircrafts in the airport was from the US while the copilot was from Colombia. The copilot respected authority and found it difficult to challenge the decision of landing in another airport. The staff handling clearance expected pilots to tell him if there was an emergency. The outcome was literally a disaster.
I have attached a small portion of the chat where the co-pilot fighting life and death has trouble saying no because the Air Traffic Control person is angry. The link for the whole transcript is available below the image. The portion where the co-pilot is unable to explain his situation makes the PDI gap painfully evident.
Following the incident, pilots from all cultures started being trained in handling such cultural differences.
Are you suffering from the people pleasing syndrome?
As trivial as it may seem, most people are unaware of suffering from the people pleasing syndrome. You may find it easy to identify the syndrome in another person but fail to identify the same in yourself. For example, it is easy to identify another person using filler words such as errr, ummm, like.
When it comes to identifying to what extent you use filler words yourself, it needs a lot more conscious effort. This is because there is a difference between how we look at others vs how we look at ourselves. We are quick to find faults with others and slow in noticing our own mistakes.
Let me help you identify if you suffer from the people pleasing syndrome.
1. You have trouble disagreeing:
You are in a discussion/meeting. Though you disagree with the statement of discussion, you disagree only mentally without saying a word.
2. You apologize often:
Whenever things go wrong, you apologize whether it was your fault or not. If you are thinking, isn’t that being humble? Sure, it is. The problem is if your apology is to please people.
3. You have too many things on your plate which you should not be doing:
If you have your priorities straight, you would have told no to many tasks that came your way. If not, you have agreed to many people just to please them and you now carry the burden of too many tasks.
4. You feel uncomfortable when someone disagrees with you:
Disagreement is normal and expected. But you make a compromise because you were uncomfortable with disagreement. Making compromises aren’t wrong but they should not be done with the intention of pleasing people. The right time to compromise is when the other side had a stronger argument than yours.
5. You avoid conflict:
If you have a problem with a person or situation, you postpone confronting it as long as possible. Though you know discussing would make the situation better, you simply cannot voice your disagreement.
6. You fear the negative emotions of others:
You do not want to displease, deject or disappoint people around you. You will do anything possible to avoid putting people into negative emotions even at the cost of yourself.
7. You sugar coat things:
If your friend asked you how does she look in the dress, you would say “good” even if she looked like a clown from the circus. At best you will give a subtle hint saying the color does not go well on her. You can never say “you look bad in the dress.”
8. You want people to like you:
You feel sad, you sulk and you are stressed when people dislike you. You go out of your way doing things to gain the approval of people even if the approval does not matter.
9. You worry more about what people think than what you think:
When making a decision you are concerned about what a person or other people would think. Even though the decision is right, you will refrain from taking that decision if it does not please most people.
10. You are unable to say no:
If someone asks you to do a favor or pick up a task which you should not be doing, you accept it with a smile. You know you should have said no, but you couldn’t. I have written a detailed article on conquering your fear of saying no.
The dangers of people pleasing syndrome are many more but these are the most prominent.
The danger of being a people pleaser:
If you exhibit most of these 10 behaviors listed above, you are a people pleaser. You already know the problems of being a people pleaser. However, for those unaware here are the reasons why people pleasing isn’t good for you.
Imagine a TV on a wooden table. During the first day, it looks new, neat and nice. A few days later, people start placing coffee on it. A little later, the empty space underneath starts being a book rack. Fast forward a few more weeks, keychains, watches and wet umbrellas are kept on it.
Sooner or later, the table looks cluttered and ugly. The shine of the table wears off. The wood becomes weak due to holding more than it can. Termites easily devour the wood. Finally, the table is destroyed.
By being a people pleaser you are acting similar to the table. You are doing things you should not be doing. You suffer while others reap many benefits due to your inability to disagree with what was happening or voicing your opinion. Being the table costs you time, energy and money.
There is one difference between you and the table. The difference is the table can do nothing about the situation but you sure can.
How to stop being a people pleaser:
If you have trouble making the change, here are a few helpful tips to start
1. Realize that it is ok to be selfish:
I am not talking about being a selfish jerk who cares about nothing but themselves. I am talking about putting your needs first. In an airplane, you are asked to put on your oxygen mask first before you help children. Imagine your life to be an emergency and helping yourself should be the first priority.
2. Have your priorities straight:
Identify what are the key things for you. Whenever you have to do something or agree with something, check how much of an impact it makes to the things that matter to you. If they do, voice your opinion.
3. Realize that people pleasing does not create a good image:
You might be thinking “I am doing good things to people, so people love me.” Well, I hate to break the truth to you but people consider you a doormat they can trample and rub their feet upon. When you do the opposite by saying no or declining the things you should, people start respecting you.
4. Listen to your inner voice:
Whenever you are making a decision the voice within yourself gives you an opinion. Some times it is driven by your fear and biases. However, it is also your subconscious mind making a decision in a snap of fingers by considering all your experience. Start listening to your inner voice and evaluate if the voice is instructing you to do the right thing. In most cases, it is.
5. Change to no being your default answer
Start with the assumption that you will say no or decline the task coming your way. If there is a strong reason to change your opinion, only then do so. The reason to change your opinion needs to be more than pleasing people. When you change your thought, the entire flow of things changes. A word of caution about keeping this under check because you might enter negativity but overdoing this.
6. Do not postpone the decision or communication
In many cases, your inner voice clearly tells you no right from the outset. You know your inner voice is right too but you postpone the decision. For example, you are invited to a party which you know you do not want to attend, but you reply back saying “I will try.” You know you won’t show up, but you do not decline. In such cases, postponing the decision never helps.
Postponing the communication or the decision will make it harder. The sooner you say no, the smoother the outcome for all parties involved. The longer you take to say no, the harder it is for you.
7. Do not fabricate fake reasons
You do not have to come up with a lengthy reason to please the other side while you decline. You can say no because you do not want to agree to the request. You can say no for a weekend party with your friend because you don’t want to meet up. For heaven’s sake do not call out sick.
8. Decline politely in a sentence or two
Declining does not have to be rude. You can state the actual reason in a few words. Do not keep going on and on with the reason. Any sane person will understand when you say “I will not be able to assist you with your request because it will need a considerable amount of my time. I am currently occupied with projects X, Y, Z.”
9. Do not apologize if it is not your fault
This has nothing to do with humility or ego. If you were earlier apologizing to make others feel better, you need to stop apologizing for each and everything right now. Do apply caution and thought based on the situation. It is sometimes acceptable to apologize even if it is not your fault for the better good. For example, you can say sorry to your spouse to keep your relationship healthy even if it was not your fault.
10. Start in little ways
You do not have to transform into a people pleaser to a tester of a vaccination who says yes once in a blue moon. Approach the problem one step at a time by stopping the little things you are doing to please people. Gradually, up the ante once you start feeling comfortable.
Stopping people pleasing is like working out. People can give you tips to workout, tell you the benefits of working out and where to start. But only you can workout. No one else can do it for you.
What the experts had to say about people pleasing syndrome:
I had the opportunity to ask the opinion of renowned writers about their opinion on the people-pleasing syndrome.
Darius Foroux, an entrepreneur, blogger and a writer, author of 3 wonderful books, Think Straight, Win Your Inner Battles and Massive Life Success said:
“Stop caring what other people think. Just make sure you always do the right thing. You’ll have nothing to worry about.”
Benjamin Hardy is one of the most successful writers on Medium, the bestselling author of Willpower doesn’t work and is currently writing Personality isn’t permanent. He said:
Research shows people lie, at least to some degree, in almost every conversation they have. One study found that in a 10-minute conversation, over 60% of the people said at least 2-3 lies. “People tell a considerable number of lies in everyday conversation. It was a very surprising result. We didn’t expect lying to be such a common part of daily life,” Dr. Feldman, the researcher, said.
Lying is easy. We all lie to ourselves all the time. We lie to others. We do things we don’t really want to do. It takes courage to be honest. It takes honesty to build intimacy and trust in our relationships. It takes radical honesty to become TRULY successful, where you feel amazing about yourself and about what you do. YOU HAVE TO SAY “NO” SOONER.
You have to be WAY more honest in your communications, about what you really want. Otherwise, you’ll spend your whole life doing what you don’t want. Being honest may cost you some friends and money in the short run. But lying will cost you everything. Especially yourself.
Benjamin Hardy has written an article on a similar topic why most people will not be successful which touches on the aspect of people pleasing syndrome.
Francesco D’Alessio, is the author of the blog KeepProductive.com, where he provides information about productivity software and other tips. He said:
Saying yes to everything can be dangerous
As a ex-freelancer and someone who feels I must deliver, I agreed to many projects without delivering the best quality
The lesson learnt over the last few years is to make sure to take a breath before agreeing to anything
Not everything will get you to where you need to be, so rejecting projects can sometimes be a winning decision.
You should have realized now that being a people pleaser does more harm than good. You have to stop pleasing people in every step of your life. At least, you have to learn how to stop being a people pleaser but still be nice.
- If you thought you maintain a good image by pleasing people, you were wrong.
- If you thought people pleasing helped you, you were wrong.
- If you thought you did not have to change your habit of people pleasing, you were wrong again.
People pleasing syndrome damages your self-esteem and has only short term benefits. The sooner you get out of it, the lesser stressed you will be, the more time you will have and the more respect you will gain.
You can make a decision to not be a people pleaser and you alone can do it. Nobody can change the situation for you if you continue trying to please people in every possible way.
The moment you make the decision to stop being a people pleaser, the price you pay by being one starts reducing immediately. You can stop being a people pleaser right now. The question is, will you?
What I am not:
What I am:
Continuously improving self-learner
Productivity/Time Management Obsessed