“We used to call him ‘Toxic Tony’. He caused absolute chaos at work until we realised what he was up to. Tony was the best manipulator ever and it took us 2 years to accept it! He was very clever but once we saw the signs they were everywhere. Thank goodness he doesn’t work here any longer.”
Sometimes the manipulation of data to communicate a topic clearly, or influencing in a manipulative manner for the good of those involved, is effective. But where it concerns working relationships, manipulation is usually wholly negative and detrimental to doing business well.
If you’ve ever found yourself feeling wrong-footed, looking uncooperative, selfish or rubbish at your job and you have no idea how it happened, it could be down to a master manipulator. They’re there, behind the scenes, stirring people up, playing mind games, subtly criticising people and persuading others to do their dirty work.
The English dictionary definition of to manipulate is: to negotiate, control, or influence something or someone cleverly, skilfully, or deviously.
Someone who is subtly manipulative can easily stir up a happy, enthusiastic workforce into a group of disparate people who don’t trust one another and begin to dislike their jobs. As a non-manipulative leader, how do you spot a manipulator, and how can you prevent their influence?
What does psychological manipulation involve?
Manipulation in the business world and work cultures often depends upon hidden agendas. It is usually an attempt to coerce or subtly control another person into giving in or doing what the manipulator wants them to think, feel or do.
Psychological manipulation is where someone uses underhand, deceptive techniques, disguising aggression as good intentions and who is an expert at keeping their own motives under wraps. Here are a few of the most common signs of a manipulator at work:
- Superficial charm and false sympathy
- Negotiations that don’t feel fair, with no win-win solutions
- Verbal intimidation or insincere praise
- Meetings where you unexpectedly leave loaded down with work – with an unfair number of monkeys on your back
- Passive-aggressive behaviour
- People kept in the dark about important decisions, with vital information withheld
- A climate of distrust where there is a perceived need to tread on eggshells
- Gossiping, setting people against one another, spreading rumours
- Less clarity, more growing confusion
- Poor morale increasing at work
- Refusal to admit wrongdoing, attempts to rationalise, making excuses and acting surprised when confronted
How to recognise a manipulator
A manipulator may flatter you as the leader and initially appear very supportive of all you do. If they can nurture your trust, you may well want you to treat them as a listening ear or a trusted advisor. If this happens, then you have played right into their hands. Being in control of shaping how you see things will be highly important to them. Withholding information or spreading snippets of news, based on some ‘truths’ but which create the wrong impressions. In their hands, information can be a weapon. Little lies or ‘almost’ lies will be a part of their conversations.
Manipulators give off mixed messages to those around them. They use selective attention, giving it to others when it serves their purposes but often absent or giving little attention in other circumstances. For their colleagues, this can be confusing and frustrating.
Skilled manipulators don’t want to fight their own battles or do their own dirty work. They will look for someone else to do it for them, ensuring they’re not in the front line. Manipulators will work hard at positioning themselves advantageously in groups.
They will rarely take responsibility for their actions or hold themselves accountable in the same way others do. Also, they have ‘Teflon’ characteristics. They can be great victims, generating guilt, support, care and lots of attention. In this way, they make others take responsibility for them or cover work that they should be doing themselves. They can evoke the need to be rescued.
Commonly they’re are adept at sowing guilt and confusion, making people feel they’re somehow in the wrong or should be doing more. They influence the emotional climate around them and use their moodiness to do it. Above all, they take themselves very seriously and react to everything extremely personally.
Why do they do it?
What do people gain from being manipulators? It’s most often down to getting what they want, something like a promotion or pay rise, and behind that sits a craving for power, a need to feel superior, to always be right, to win no matter what it costs. But it isn’t about strength, it’s actually all about emotional weakness – a good thing to remember.
How does manipulation affect the workplace?
A manipulator can send talented staff to the nearest recruitment firm looking for a new job. They pit people against one other, set their colleagues up for failure and drive already-strained working relationships over the edge. Manipulators ruin projects and kill deadlines, change the emotional climate profoundly, make their colleagues miserable and keep people in a state of upset for as long as they want. They rely on secrecy and on other people’s good will and discretion.
Do they know they’re doing it?
Some do, some don’t. Whether they’re self-aware or not, a manipulator’s behaviour is often compulsive. They tend to trip themselves up over time. Once they reveal their hand and their behaviours are exposed, they may then decide to move on or need to be moved on. One way or the other things don’t stay the same. Either way, after they have left there is some emotional mopping up for everyone else to do.
How to defuse a manipulator?
As a professional, how do you deal with a manipulator? Your first step is to realise that while they might seem like a potent threat, most manipulators are actually very dependant upon others to bolster their identity. Once you and your staff stop being fearful, these weak characters can lose most of their power. With this awareness, you can start to gain strength and begin to muster up the courage to act differently.
Your best strategy is to consciously recognise what’s going on and not deny it. Once you’re aware of their tactics you can push back. Pushing back often means talking to someone you trust. You might be surprised to find you’re not the only one who feels that way. If the manipulator is particularly skilled you’ve probably been wondering if you’re going crazy. Identifying and talking to others in the manipulator’s field of operation, will make it clear you’re perfectly sane!
It’s important to keep yourself steady and safe. Don’t trust anything much that the manipulator says, and never give them any personal, work-related or confidential information about yourself or your role. This can be tough since they’re notoriously good at generating trust. Just remember that any information you give them, they may eventually use against you.
It can be tough when you’re in charge, but it helps to minimise the interactions you have with your workplace manipulator, keeping the encounters you can’t avoid, short and professional. If they stop by your desk to share other people’s problems with you, hoping you’ll join in, don’t get involved. Gossip is one of their biggest weapons, so don’t engage with it. If you like, simply say, “I don’t do gossip” and turn away.
Taking a strong stand
As a leader you might have to take a firm stance on your team’s behalf, since you’re responsible for their well-being at work. Be straight yourself. Let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ be ‘no’. At first the manipulator might push back even harder, but at heart these people are cowards. Stay firm, stay calm, and never take the bait if they try to wind you up. Don’t respond to attempted guilt trips. As a leader this is the time when you need to stand your ground and definitely act from your own solid integrity base.