Among my female friends and colleagues, it seems like we’re always going to great pains to avoid making enemies (openly, at least). And we spend a lot of time stressing out if we fear we have.
Case in point: the other day, a friend of mine spent an hour explaining to me why she wanted to pursue a potentially lucrative side gig. The gig would not interfere with her current job, where she works hard but sees no opportunity for advancement. Still, she seemed deeply uneasy about it. Maybe because she was so used to giving 150% to her employer. Or because she feared, in an odd way, that the side gig would go too well, and then what?
What struck me was not the fact that she wanted to prioritize her own goals, but that she felt such an intense need to justify it to me, a completely unaffected bystander. I think the person she was really trying to convince that her actions were okay was herself.
The siren call of becoming so successful that she could eventually leave her day job was tantalizing but scary. And while it might be everything she’s ever wanted, it would inevitably make someone else unhappy.
Discomfort around upsetting others (hell, even slightly inconveniencing them), is a feeling I, like my friends and colleagues, know all too well.
In her memoir Untamed, author Glennon Doyle taps into that internal tension – and challenges it.
“Every time you’re given a choice between disappointing someone else and disappointing yourself, your duty is to disappoint that someone else. Your job throughout your entire life is to disappoint as many people as it takes to avoid disappointing yourself.”
Doyle goes on to tell the story of how she “blew up” her nuclear family when she left her husband for the woman who would eventually become her wife. As she grappled with the guilt, especially around the idea of letting her children down, she realized that allowing them to believe that they were the reason she’d stayed repressed and miserable would be a much worse burden for them than the temporary disruption of divorce.
As a new mom myself, Doyle’s story haunts me a little like the lucrative side hustle haunts my friend. It makes me wonder what choices I’m making or will make in the future that betray my preferences in favor of my family’s (or anyone’s).
I’ve put others’ interests before my own at work and can see how that’s led me to stay in certain jobs for too long.
Once, when I finally mustered the courage to leave a job, I was so nervous to share the news with my guilt-tripping manager that I took a swig of booze beforehand (it wasn’t even noon). Conversely, when I was a manager, I dreaded, and in some cases avoided, firing people, even when they were clearly not meeting their quotas and being blatantly disrespectful.
And while I think anyone can be influenced by a fear of upsetting others, there’s evidence that women are given the message that this is the “natural” way for them to behave.
A 2019 analysis at Northwestern University found that while people generally view women and men as equally competent, they still view women as more communal, compassionate, and sensitive, while men are viewed as more ambitious, aggressive and decisive.
As we’ve talked about before, these gendered expectations can perpetuate the idea that men “should” be strong, aggressive and dominant — traits that align with power and leadership. While women “should” be nurturing, warm and supportive — traits that align with subordination. Defying these expectations can carry penalties for women who prioritize their own needs that range from being labeled “unlikable” to being denied job and leadership opportunities. In that environment, it’s not surprising that many women feel their only option is to default to appeasing others, even when doing so hinders their own potential.
This self-perception affected me as a new manager because I believed that my value largely hinged on my ability to make other people feel safe and happy, both at work and in general. I think that on some level, I felt that upsetting people (by say, firing them) would mean losing a big part of my value. And that the cost of that would be higher than the cost of having to make do with mediocre employees, or to work harder myself to compensate for their shortcomings.
My fears weren’t exactly unfounded. In a study led by a New York University researcher, it was found that women managers who are seen as strong, determined, and decisive are “decidedly more disliked” and “found to be less desirable as bosses.” So, yeah, I was judging myself harshly for just doing what bosses do (hold their employees to a minimum standard), but it’s likely that others were, too.
On the one hand, I think that telling women to adopt what we perceive to be more “male” traits is misguided. If anything, our culture could probably benefit from emphasizing more of the traits we associate with women like kindness and consideration. On the other hand, a life totally ruled by fear of stepping on toes seems almost guaranteed to limit one’s potential.
Off the top of my head, I can imagine a short list of ways in which it would hold me back in the future: not writing about important topics for fear of offending people; moving forward with a strategy I disagree with; agreeing to social commitments that leave no time to pursue my own goals, and so on.
Of course, most of us want to do right by those around us. But where is the line between good old-fashioned work ethic and self-sabotaging people-pleasing? And is it possible that the desire to be liked (or at least, not actively disliked) is just a different kind of self-interest? A kind of self-interest that values short-term comfort over long-term achievement? For people like my friend and myself, perhaps the question we should always be asking ourselves is, “If I only make choices that don’t cost anyone anything, am I the one paying the price?”