Getting Over Good Girl Syndrome

By Lindsey Townsend

Do you find yourself trying to make everyone at work like you? Have difficulty saying no to any request? Always do the grunt work no one else is willing to do, waiting patiently for your efforts to be noticed and rewarded with a raise or promotion?

Watch out: you could be committing career suicide. Those people-pleasing rules you learned in grade school--avoiding confrontation and risk-taking, following instructions, keeping a low profile--were probably applauded by your parents and teachers, but they can hinder you from achieving maximum career success. “The Pleasers is no gimmick or cute label,” says Dr. Kevin Leman in his book Women Who Try Too Hard: Breaking the Pleaser Habits. “It’s a way of life for many-if not most-women who live in a culture that subtly and not so subtly trains them to be the ones who keep everyone happy.”

You probably learned to be a good girl a very long time ago. Social scientists Myra Sadker, Ed.D. and David Sadker, Ed.D., who conducted twenty years of research on sexism in schools, found that girl students receive less praise for the intellectual quality of their ideas, are taught to value neatness over innovation, and are rewarded for being nice and being quiet.

Back when you first joined the workforce, being a good girl appeared to work, too--for a while. Bosses patted you on the back for a job well done; co-workers complimented you for following the rules, doing extra work, and not taking risks.

But the truth is, while the goody-two shoes routine might make you a reliable manager, it will never help you break out of the pack and become a star. The real career rewards go to women who make their own rules, take big chances, toot their own horns and don’t worry if everyone likes them, according to Kate White, author of Why Good Girls Don’t Get Ahead But Gutsy Girls Do.

Studies show that leaders take risks, stir things up, think long term, and don’t worry about what everyone else thinks, while managers tend to avoid risks, focus on the short term, and work at balancing everyone’s interests. “You’re dooming yourself to the ranks of middle management forever if you don’t stop trying to please everyone,” says Harriet Braiker, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and author of The Disease to Please: Curing the People-Pleasing Syndrome ( “Managers are responsible for implementing a strategy, but leaders are the ones who create it. And when you’re a leader and a creator of strategy, you’ve got to be able to follow your vision without worrying about whether or not everyone likes you all the time.”

It’s important to recognize that there is a difference between being a nice person who occasionally goes too far to make others happy and being a chronic good girl who has become addicted to gaining the approval of others. The stress of never saying “no”--of feeling responsible for making everything happen and everyone happy--can even make you physically and emotionally sick.

People-pleasing behavior can sabotage your career in another insidious way. Knock yourself out staying late every night and trying to do everything yourself, and chances are your colleagues won’t think you’re just a hard worker: they’ll think less of your capabilities, too. “Effort and ability are considered compensatory factors,” Braiker explains. “If you’re a person with very high ability, the perception is that you ought to be able to exert less effort to get your job done. So if you’re always stressed out, working till 7 or 8 p.m. while your male colleague leaves at 5:00, your colleagues may perceive that you are working harder to compensate for a lesser ability.”

Many executive women today are notorious under-delegaters because they are hooked on people-pleasing and avoiding conflict, Braiker says. For example, a vice president may take her own presentation to the copy shop instead of having her secretary do it. “So many women take on the tasks they should assign to subordinates, because they think it will be appreciated, but it’s not. And striving to please everyone and under-delegating doesn’t give the people who work for you a chance to develop their skills, so it makes you a bad mentor, too,” she says.

Once you give up the tendency towards people-pleasing, life actually gets easier. Career opportunities will open up, and you’ll become less a prisoner of your work at you learn to delegate and take shortcuts. But be prepared for the consequences: others may be annoyed when they learn they can no longer take advantage of you all the time. “Learn to say no in appropriate and assertive ways, but realize that changing other people’s expectations of your behavior will take time,” suggests Leslie Levine, author of Ice Cream for Breakfast: If You Follow All the Rules, You Miss Half the Fun. “If someone puts you on the spot with a request, give yourself permission to say ‘I’ll get back to you on that’ instead of always saying yes as a knee-jerk reaction.”

Here are four ways to learn to give up your good-girl behaviors and polish your leadership skills:

  1. Focus on one clear goal or mission.
  2. Do only what’s essential.
  3. Learn to ask for what you want.
  4. Stop worrying about whether or not everyone likes you!