Ruth Penfold-Brown


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  • Creating Balance as a People Pleaser in a Startup

We hear a lot about purpose these days and how much it matters. It is exciting to jump on a mission which we feel aligned to. That’s what a lot of startups seem on the surface to give us and it feels good. We feel validated to be part of something that we believe and, deep down, secretly hope that other people will be impressed by it too. 

Working in startups is intoxicating for many, even those without the obvious link to purpose. There’s something about building something that can appeal to the full spectrum of personalities and ways of being. 

It has a particularly profound impact on people pleasers. 

What I mean by people pleasers is someone who has been coded in a way that we feel we aren’t enough, so we set about working really hard to prove to the rest of the world that we are, in the hope that we start to believe it too. I know it well as it is something I am in ‘active recovery’ from. 

There’s something about working in a startup that feeds into the very worst parts of us and means that we work really hard, fail to understand what our boundaries are, overwork and often experience burn out. 

Our low self esteem is fed by the fact that when scaling a company, your work is never truly done, so we do a horrible job (for the most part) of celebrating successes and building self esteem. 

People pleasers are typically shame based

Shame, done well, is a fleeting feeling that helps us to course-correct from a mistake and then is something we let go. Done badly, shame courses through our veins, paralyses us and weaves into the fabric of the companies we exist in. 

Shame is both a noun; a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behaviour.

Similar: humiliation mortification embarrassment indignity discomfort (I add these so you feel them too)

And also a verb; (of a person, action, or situation) make (someone) feel ashamed.

Similar: humiliate mortify make someone feel ashamed humble take down a peg or two (as above)

Shame is the micro-aggression within companies that keeps us playing small, when we are struggling to feel like we are enough. It exists as a noun, the way we feel ourselves and also as a verb, used as a weapon against others. 

When used against others, it might be hidden in the way you ask whether a project has been completed. It might be disguised as a joke about someone else’s performance. It might be carried out more openly when you see someone ‘thrown under a bus’, or frankly, simply shamed openly in a meeting. 

This is the stuff that has to stop if we want to build truly great companies. Not just for people pleasers, for all of us. 

People pleasers can thrive in startups

I believe that we can build something better with self awareness and psychological safety at the core of the companies we are building. To get there, we need to create a shared belief in each company that we are safe to take risks and get things wrong. 

With people pleasers, our work on this is even harder. We are up against our nervous system on this, and those nervous systems are trying to keep us safe the whole time. 

As companies and leaders, we can create safety together, as inspired by Amy Edmondson, Netflix and others, by:

  1. Building true transparency. If we can trust people to be a part of our company, we can trust them with privileged information. I love the Netflix approach to radical transparency here. Trust me folks, whatever you think you are hiding from your people, you aren’t and you are just feeding our insecurities. 
  2. Truly invite different perspectives. We do this by making it difficult for each other to stay silent. Asking a question twice is a great way of doing this. Or simply; is there anything you aren’t saying here? Is there anything we are missing here? Is there anything on your mind that we haven’t covered yet? 
  3. That we learn to hold space for each other and our reactions. This is where self awareness is everything. The way we react to challenge or feedback can literally make or break our relationships. No one is perfect, but if we can respond with honesty, vulnerability, and gratitude, we will go a long way. 

To my people pleasing peers and low self esteem-ers, I just want to remind you that: 

  • You are worthy even if you don’t over deliver on a project.
  • You have the right to make mistakes and be responsible for them – response-able. 
  • You can say you don’t know and you will not be rejected.
  • Your needs are as important as everyone else’s.
  • When you start to have boundaries, you give the rest of us permission to do the same too.


About the Author

I help Founders and People leaders to build and scale purposeful businesses, whilst scaling themselves at the same time.

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