by Jaana Woiceshyn
A graduate student once told me that he was feeling anxious about disagreeing with his supervisor about the direction of his thesis work, because, as a “people-pleaser,” he didn’t want to disappoint the professor. Many may sympathize with the student and think that wanting to please people—teachers, bosses, employees, others in general— is a good thing. I, too, felt sympathetic, because I can understand wanting to avoid conflict. However, I told the student that the first person he should ‘please’ is himself; the professor’s approval is secondary.
Since this could be easily misinterpreted as advice not to care about others’ evaluation, or to do whatever one feels like, on a whim, let me clarify the principles behind such advice. Of course others’ evaluation matters. The professor may not pass you, the boss may fire you, employees may quit or do a poor job, if they are not pleased with you. However, pleasing others should not be your primary concern—because you do not (and cannot) live for them. Self-interest must be the primary principle as a guide to achieving your values.
But trying to please others by seeking their approval is a poor approach to running your business or to living your life.
The life you live is yours; you must pursue rational values (not whims): such as knowledge and education; fulfilling, productive work; success in business; and others—if you want to achieve happiness. What matters in not a professor’s disappointment but you learning the knowledge and skills needed to achieve your other values. A boss’ approval is only a consequence of you doing good work; something you must find interesting and satisfying. Certainly, your employees must be happy to be as productive as they can be, and customers must be pleased with your products and services.
But trying to please others by seeking their approval is a poor approach to running your business or to living your life, because you cannot achieve your values that way. The principle guiding your relationship with others should not be ‘pleasing,’ but trade. A graduate student doing personally motivating research is more productive than one who works merely to please a professor’s research agenda and thus has more output (discovery of new knowledge) to trade for the professor’s supervision and expertise.
Likewise, successful relationships with bosses, employees, customers, and others should be based on trading of values. We offer our best productive performance in exchange for interesting work and competitive compensation that matches our performance (this works in reverse with our employees). To customers, we offer the best value for their money (and for the profit we make).
Ultimately, we can only ‘please’ others by offering values they want. In return for the values we provide, they much offer values we want. It is trade.
When it comes to trading material values—products and services—we must first produce them (or contract to produce them on an ongoing basis in the future). The principle of producing material values is what Ayn Rand called productiveness. When it comes to trading spiritual values, such as friendship, we must develop values of character—honesty, integrity, loyalty, benevolence, and others—that make a friendship worthwhile. Whether trading material or spiritual values, the trading partners must each have values to offer—the relationship must be mutually ‘pleasing.’
If you recognize yourself as a “people pleaser,” I encourage you to re-think your approach. It will detract you from achieving your values—those that you need for living your life and achieving your happiness, whether in the realm of work and business, or elsewhere. The motivation to please others is a form of second-handedness, or dependence on others, which destroys a person’s ability to achieve values—on which his life and happiness depend. As an anti-dote to second-handedness, Ayn Rand identified the principle of independence, essentialized by Leonard Peikoff as “a primary orientation to reality, not to other men.”
Rand considered independence a virtue, because we can survive and flourish only if we focus on facts and act accordingly, as opposed to following others and trying to please them. We must adhere to the fact that our survival and thriving, requires achieving values—food, shelter, clothing, work, money, and others—not losing them. We can achieve values by solving problems first-hand, focusing on facts, producing values—and trading them with others, but not by putting their needs ahead of our own.
Life is too short for people pleasing. Instead, let’s focus on achieving our self-interest—a flourishing, happy life—by producing and trading values with others, through first-handed focus on reality.
Jaana Woiceshyn teaches business ethics and competitive strategy at the Haskayne School of Business, University of Calgary, Canada. She has lectured and conducted seminars on business ethics to undergraduate, MBA and Executive MBA students, and to various corporate audiences for over 20 years both in Canada and abroad. Before earning her Ph.D. from the Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania, she helped turn around a small business in Finland and worked for a consulting firm in Canada. Jaana’s research on technological change and innovation, value creation by business, executive decision-making, and business ethics has been published in various academic and professional journals and books. “How to Be Profitable and Moral” is her first solo-authored book.