Lynn Scott shares ‘real-world’ solutions and tips to help managers and leaders use their coaching skills in everyday leadership life.
This issue: How leaders who coach can support people pleasers  


Leaders-as-coaches often ask team members to identify how and when they ‘get in their own way.’

It’s a well-used and easy cliché but like most good clichés it became one for a good reason.

People pleasing is one of the obvious ways to get in our own way because so often it leads to resentment, frustration and overwhelm.

But before we explore how to work with a people pleaser in the team, I want you to dig deep and ask yourself if you self-identify as a people pleaser. If so, how does that play out when you’re coaching others?


No offence

Hands up, I speak as a reformed people pleaser myself. It was often (although not always) my default position in my early leadership life. And I recognise the many ways it held me back.

It was only when I trained as a coach 20 years ago that I recognised it, understood its origins and learned that it didn’t have to be my default position. I’d love to say that I lost that default position easily but it took time, practice and a potential client in a chemistry session saying to me, ‘I didn’t think you’d challenge me enough’ – and then choosing another coach – to help me realise I wasn’t being as effective a coach as I could be.

In my experience, people pleasing coaches are kind, caring and well-intentioned.

They’re wonderful at support but not so strong at challenge, often confusing ‘challenge’ with ‘confrontation,’ ‘criticism’ or ‘judgement’.

The term ‘fearless compassion’ really grounds for me what effective challenge is all about.

People pleasing coaches may avoid sharing their hunches, insights and observations – the very thing that might most evoke awareness and then enable change in those they coach – because they don’t know what to say, and they fear not being ‘nice’ or upsetting them.

They may collude with what the person being coached says – because it’s supportive or they agree with their perspective – rather than help them to see another perspective, re-frame or dig deep into what might really be going on and then make some empowering decisions about what to do (rather than staying helpless).

I see people pleasing often in my supervision work – many versions of coaches metaphorically sitting on their hands saying, ‘This person I’m coaching is really not helping themselves, but I don’t know how to tell him and I don’t want to offend him.’


Fearless compassion

Feedback ‘in the here and now’ with fearless compassion, can be the most powerful way for the person a leader is coaching to gain new insights into their impact on others.

From an evolutionary perspective, fear of rejection from ‘the tribe’ is what drives us. We’ll do anything to avoid it and so ‘fawning’ or ‘appeasing’ or ‘people pleasing’ kick in when we’re trying to keep ourselves ‘safe’.

If you recognise people pleasing tendencies in your own coaching (and elsewhere) it’s worth taking this conversation to a supervision session and unpicking it.

But whether you self-identify as a people pleaser or you simply want to help those you coach who are people pleasers – here’s what’ll help.


The ‘feelgood’ factor

Team members won’t always use the words ‘people pleasing’. They’ll talk instead about feeling overwhelmed and busy, and will often blame their external circumstances for that overwhelm.

Does this automatically mean that people pleasing is causing the overwhelm? No, of course not. But if both are true, I’d say it’s a likely contributor:

  • They’re often the ‘go to’ person for everything because they’re helpful and quick to respond so people are grateful – and it’s lovely to be so valued, right?
  • They say ‘yes’ to more work even though they’re already overloaded. (They’ll often say ‘my team is really busy, so I don’t want to give them even more to do’, while adding a huge amount to their own workload.)


Both of these things give them an instant ‘feelgood’ hit: ‘I’m a good person.’ Rejection and conflict avoided; no boats rocked.


The negatives

But at what cost?

  • They have no personal boundaries (‘my door is always open’)
  • They say ‘yes’ to things on autopilot and then get exhausted and resentful
  • They avoid what they describe as difficult or sensitive conversations with people
  • Their language in emails and conversations is often apologetic
    or overly deferential (notice how they talk/write to you)
  • They’re ‘Mum’ or ‘Dad’ to their team members or colleagues Interestingly I’ve said on more than a few occasions to my female clients, ‘stop being Mum’ and only once have I said ‘stop being Dad’ to one of my male clients – make of that what you will!

If the person being coached would say yes to most or all of these things, there’s probably an element of people pleasing contributing to feelings of overwhelm, helplessness or frustration.


How to help

I don’t want to trivialise or over-simplify something that might have its origins in something complex. But there are steps the leader-as-coach can take to help such a team member to get off the starting blocks.

After really hearing their story, challenges, hopes and fears; their context and their frustrations, without judgement or assumptions, ask them four key questions:


  1. Which of these things would you like to change?


  1. Which of these things are within your own power to change?


  1. What would be the pros and cons of changing these things?
    (For the leader-as-coach and for others around them.) This is a particularly important question but easy to miss. There are some perceived upsides to so called ‘unhelpful’ behaviours (avoiding rejection being one big one) and we need to enable the person being coached to give equal voice to those pros and the cons.

It’s only when we do that that their true fears, worries, beliefs, inner dialogue and concerns will be surfaced and explored without judgement.


  1. What might you need to believe about yourself or about others in order to change those things? 

    Make sure to challenge (with fearless compassion) either/or thinking and encourage AND thinking.
    Here’s an example of what I mean by this:

A recent client of mine had a ‘my door is always open’ policy because she prided herself on her approachability and availability to her team; she cared about their well-being and ‘didn’t want to let them down.’

This looks like great leadership through one lens but of course she was exhausted and unable to focus on her own strategic priorities.

She saw things as an either/or – ‘I can either have my door open and be available and a good leader or have my door shut and be unapproachable and a bad leader.’

The question for her became ‘how can you be approachable AND take care of your own well-being’?

That was a great starting point for her to think tactically about the small steps she could take to redress
the balance.

None of us changes our beliefs and behaviour overnight. But helping a team member to focus on the first small steps, and building from there, is a wonderfully empowering place to start.


  • Lynn Scott is an ICF Master Certified Coach (MCC), director of Lynn Scott Coaching and founder of The Effortless Leader Revolution. She’s a leadership and team coach, coach supervisor and ICF Coach Mentor.
  • www.lynnscottcoaching.co.uk
  • You can join her free Facebook group for leaders and managers, The Effortless Leader Revolution, for more leadership tips and resources that work in the real world.
  • www.facebook.com/groups/effortlessleaders

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