In the Eye of the Beholder: What the Research Tells us about Why You Can’t Please Everyone

As a lifelong “people pleaser,” I can attest that there is a paralysis that comes with trying to please everyone all of the time. Saying yes to one person may mean saying no to another. Being the life of the party may be charming to one person, while it makes another person feel invisible. It’s easy to get trapped in a cycle of guessing and reinterpreting how your behavior will impact others, until you’re frozen by uncertainty.

In the workplace, a similar paralysis can occur – and with arguably much higher stakes. When a leader is trying to perform effectively, they must often appeal to many different constituencies around them to earn buy-in, gain support, and work collaboratively to move their ideas forward.

But what if your boss doesn’t respond well to the techniques that your direct reports seem to love? And what if those same direct reports bristle at the tactics that totally wow your peers?

It’s easy for a leader to get trapped in a cycle of second-guessing, trying to find the path that will please everyone.

New research sheds some light on how you can support leaders in trying to break this cycle. In a new study of more than 13,000 leaders in over 45 countries, MRG explored how different constituencies perceive leaders’ effectiveness.

The results can tell us some important things about how to approach leadership across constituencies:

  • It’s true: you can’t please everyone. As we looked at three critical competencies (overall effectiveness, future potential, and tolerance for ambiguity), we found noteworthy distinctions in the behaviors that different observer groups (peers, bosses, and direct reports) associated with effectiveness in these areas.
  • …but it’s not a lost cause. The study did not find evidence of what I’d call “behavior paradoxes” – there were no behaviors that a boss, for example, saw as more effective while a direct report saw it as less effective. So while there are some variations in which behaviors would make the biggest impact with different constituencies, the research doesn’t indicate that leaders need to completely change the way they’re behaving as they move from one group to the next.
  • Consider the context. Each competency we examined had its own unique set of behaviors that observer groups perceived as effective. As leaders consider adjusting their behaviors for maximum impact, they would be wise to think about what they are trying to achieve, and then whom it is most important to engage in that scenario. If a leader is looking to earn a promotion, for example, consider emphasizing the behaviors that demonstrate high future potential to bosses – production, control, persuasive, and excitement – since in that scenario, a supervisor’s opinion is likely to be most salient.
  • There are some behaviors with universal appeal. Constantly adjusting for audience and context may sound exhausting. The good news is that the research revealed several behaviors that appeared to universally have a positive impact. Placing more emphasis on strategic, management-focused, innovative and communicative behaviors appeared to have broad appeal across scenarios and audiences.

The full results of the study are available and well worth a read for leaders and those who develop them.

Download the full study here.

About the author

Lucy is the Head of Marketing at MRG. She's a passionate people person who talks with her hands even when she's on the phone. She will not rest until everyone on earth has taken their IDI.

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