“You can’t please all the people all the time”.
These words are often quoted after a particularly drawn out or stressful event. They are a figurative shrug of the shoulders that signals an end point.
But the truth is that for many of us there is a lot of angst that comes before this point. And a lot of it comes because we don’t want to upset people, in fact we don’t want to upset anyone.
Early on in my educational adventure, I often found myself in that camp.
By trying to please everyone, or at least to avoid upsetting anyone, we unwittingly make ourselves ineffective because the only way to attempt this impossibility is to consign ourselves to maintaining the status quo.
And maintaining the status quo is simply not OK in a world where we need change.
So, what are some signs that you are operating in this trap? Here are some common ones.
- You pretend to agree with everyone
When people are discussing a topic, it is not your job to agree with everything they are saying. That’s a low trust position. Professionals can (and should) disagree at times.
- You apologise often
This is sometimes a default habit. If your opinion, or leadership call, is made thoughtfully, you have zero to be sorry for. This doesn’t mean it’s OK not to care, but your best decision is your best and that’s nothing to apologise for.
- You often feel burdened by the things you have to do
Despite the reality that you are in charge of your own schedule, it’s possible that you are doing some things merely to please others. As an example, if you ever stay onsite later than you need to, because of what people might think if you left earlier, then that’s a red flag.
- You struggle to say “no”
This is a common one – your calendar is already full of things but when that keen sounding person asks if you will do something, you feel bad saying “no” – regardless of whether the new thing meets the definition of important work.
- You feel uncomfortable if someone is angry at you
Anger is a complex emotion and often has very little to do with the person it’s projected onto (you are probably innocent!). It’s also true that many leaders find it very uncomfortable if others are annoyed at them – fairly or unfairly.
- You frequently need praise to feel good
Praise makes everyone feel good. However, some of us like that external affirmation so much that we change our behaviours to get it. Not necessarily a good thing.
- You avoid conflict at all costs
Conflict at some level is a part of making change and if you aren’t willing to offend anyone, you may easily become ineffective in pursuing the important work.
Can you see aspects of yourself in this list? I certainly could, and at some level still can!
For myself, I have made significant change in how much (or not) energy that I put into trying to please people. It’s taken time, and at certain points in my career some deliberate effort to get a better balance. The key for me has been around being clear about what’s important because once I did that, many of the negative emotions or feelings I would once have tried to avoid became so much easier to manage. Clarity gives purpose.
And of course, none of this is meant to say you should aim to be “tough” or unkind. The complete opposite really – a school leader’s important work is always to do with people, and seeking better outcomes for them comes with the strong possibility of disapproval from others.
The real question isn’t, “how can I keep everyone happy?” but, “who am I willing to offend?”