Sunday, 23 June 2024

Pitfalls in ‘people-pleasing’ in wealthy families and financial advisories

5 min read

By Zita Nikoletta Verbényi

In the world of the wealthy, people-pleasing is common across family, staff, advisors and communities, but its adverse effects on personal growth, family dynamics, and decision-making call for a balanced approach with open communication and diverse perspectives

  • People-pleasing delays genuinely-needed advice
  • Servile next-gen may be perceived as ineffectual
  • Understanding, evaluating, and validating family expectations

Pleasing happens on various levels in ultra-high net worth families (UHNW) and for many reasons, marked by cultural differences and sensitivities influencing family dynamics.  Advisors and service providers who are unable to communicate their thoughts to their clients may delay offering the advice they genuinely need.

Individuals may be ‘overly accepting’ due to assumed expectations, validation, approval-seeking, a feeling of inadequacy, or avoiding the limelight. They either do not feel the need to share their perspectives, feedback, and opinions on what is being proposed, or are afraid of any conflicts this may cause.

People-pleasing delays genuinely- needed advice

Spotting people-pleasers in a family is an easy exercise due to the conditioned expectation to be more than just amiable, but simply agree with everyone. An Italian next-generation member recounted that her parents’ focus on their businesses led to family decision-making being primarily directed, instead of discussing options with other family members. The next-generation got used to just nodding, understanding that this was expected. Things imploded when they started sharing opinions in their late 20s.

Being people-pleasers as next-gen members can lead to a lack of diverse points of view, and a growing divide between family members and even family branches, when family practices get accepted without thorough engagement, consideration, and direct feedback. People-pleasing influences family dynamics, structures, businesses, and activities such as lifestyle choices and estate planning. Acceptance within a family may be based on assumptions, and family members trying to remain in the good books of those in power.

Servile next-gen may be perceived as ineffectual

The people-pleaser trait may also be a double-edged sword, such as influencing a leader’s crucial consideration of heirs for a family business. A Singaporean senior generation member found her successor too amiable and lacking in leadership qualities. Her son would not understand the mother’s hesitancy for years to come, but had acceded to her choice of successor, assuming he would become the heir eventually.

Enhanced generosity and constantly bowing to the wishes of family members may turn into self-neglect to avoid confrontation, disapproval, or rejection. A family member, considered the black sheep, said that he was always one of the good boys—accepting, giving and pleasing. He began to notice how family harmony was disappearing and no one seemed to care. However, he refrained from offering any observations, feeling that others would have let him down if he waded in to ‘help’. Instead, he watched the family feud, with siblings fighting, causing him to shut down and seek therapy.

Understanding, evaluating and validating family expectations

Acts usually happen based on assumptions without the parties carefully understanding, evaluating and validating a specific situation, perception or event. Some individuals may hyper-adapt or over-correct their behaviour to serve the collective good, or to be seen in a more favourable light, leading to tensions and feathers getting ruffled within the group. Due to the fragility of the socio-emotional ties, many decide not to walk on the family tightropes, even if imaginary.

This line of behaviour could become entrenched in family dynamics, hindering the personal growth of individual members and fracturing family bonds. Not only are families in danger of missing out on relationships with significant others, children and siblings, but also valuable input about the business, for example, how innovation is harnessed, if ideas are not welcomed and presented at all.

People-pleasing HNWI families also have significant reach in relationships outside the family in communities where they employ large numbers of people. They may end up bearing the consequences of a stale business that does not invest in good ideas organically generated from within the families they work for. Successful businesses tend to be run by families that foster good relationships within their circles, collaborating fruitfully, and strengthening their businesses, not just for personal gain but for the well-being of all the people who inhabit their spaces.

People-pleasing wields a damaging effect over the wider private-client industry when advisors aim to please clients by offering services they ‘think’ the clients might ‘like’, instead of what they actually need. Clients may also put on a mask to be seen to need something, when in reality, they have no intention of accepting advice. Advisors sometimes feel that clients are spoilt for choice, and would not appreciate direct, personal opinions. It takes careful balancing to navigate around when pleasing and flattery work in family frameworks, and when direct approaches are needed.


Zita Nikoletta Verbényi is the founder and legacy aesthete at The Legacy Atelier™, and she also sits on Wealth & Society’s Global Advisory Board.

Institution: Capgemini, WealthX, Credit Suisse, UBS, Henley & Partner’s, Goldman Sachs, Investopedia
People: Zita Nikoletta Verbényi
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