Serving vs. Pleasing

Photo by Adam Jang - Pleasing

Serving vs. Pleasing

“People often confuse serving people with pleasing people. The Owner mindset is serving, and the Victim mindset is pleasing.”

I heard this quote from Steve Chandler recently, author of The Prosperous Coach and Time Warrior, and I thought, ‘Wow! What a great concept’ and then, which one am I?

I knew it was wise to reflect on my intention before beginning any coaching relationship. When I first started as a continuous improvement practitioner facilitating kaizen events and coaching A3s, my intention was to teach, but I also wanted the learner to feel motivated, excited, positive and to like me.


Pleasing is a habit about which I have to be very conscious.  Otherwise, I’ll end up analyzing current condition data for the learner, coming in on my day off, and agreeing to coach 20 people, when I only have time for 10.

In the past, I rationalized my pursuit of likability because I assumed it would lead to more buy-in from the learner. If the leaders I was coaching like me, they will listen to me. However, I started to wonder what was lost by pursuing a ‘like’ instead of being focused on deep understanding. I wondered whether I was avoiding hard conversations and holding back from confronting bad habits and poor procedure out of fear of negative reactions.

Shortchanging the Learner

I started to reflect and recognize how a pleasing mindset shortchanges the learner. There is a YouTube video showcasing Jim Stigler from UCLA discussing how we learn new concepts. One of the most important components of learning is something called the productive struggle. Without effort and even some degree of suffering, it’s likely that learning is only superficial, and concepts won’t be internalized deeply enough to be generalized to other contexts.  I realized if I’m uncomfortable pointing out errors, but instead make the corrections myself, I’m not giving the learner an opportunity to feel that discomfort and to wrestle with errors and do-overs that lead to deep understanding of new concepts.


After hearing Chandler’s quote and thinking more about how people learn, I decided that I could be even more effective if I approached learners with a ‘serving’ mindset. That meant giving feedback someone needs instead of the feedback that they may want.

I meet bi-weekly with an executive who is coaching 10 of her managers in Improvement Kata. We reviewed an assessment tool where I pointed out where I thought a few of her learners were struggling. The conversation was uncomfortable for us both as I gently revealed the gaps in her teaching and asked her to consider whether her directive nature was inhibiting learning. I could tell she was annoyed and a little defensive. I too felt uncomfortable but stayed silent while she digested the information.

Didn’t Like It, But it Worked

At our next coaching cycle, the executive had internalized my comments and asked more questions to understand how her learner was thinking where she had previously been directive.

A few weeks later she referenced the conversation and said,

“Can we do that again? I didn’t like it at the time, but it really helped me.”


Photo by Adam Jang on Unsplash

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