manipulation tactics

In business, manipulation tactics can be subtle or blatant. They can be a part of cultural norms, or press uncomfortably into the realm of the unacceptable.

We can argue that almost all of business, indeed almost all of life has elements of manipulation. A good report card might net an ice cream sundae for an elementary school student. Outstanding work performance might be rewarded with a raise or bonus. Desirable behavior is rewarded.

The Danger:

On the other hand, sometimes the model is overturned. Sometimes an individual chooses to use negative behavior to manipulate the system and gain their own ends.

As a manager or supervisor, it is easy to be caught up in the drama, often without realizing it. Manipulators are, well…manipulative. They have had success in employing their tactics, and have honed them to a fine art. Their manipulation tactics are subtle and subversive, because a blatant, outrageous and immediately obvious ploy isn’t manipulative at all.

A manipulator can have years if not decades of success in bending outcomes to suit their own ends. Managers and co-workers assume that “that’s just how that person is.” And if there is no negative impact, then the dynamic can continue, with no harm done.

The Potential Impact:

Sometimes, however, the impact is significant, but hidden. Co-workers may recognize maniuplation and be frustrated by the gullibility of management. Morale may sag, taking with it productivity and tarnishing the corporate culture. Decisions may be influenced by manipulative personal agendas, to the detriment of the organization.

On occasion, the impact is significant and manipulation tactics are called out. The emboldened manipulator steps too far, or is so outrageous that the ploy becomes obvious. Or there is a catastrophe, and in winding the scenario back, the self-serving impact of the manipulator is exposed. Unfortunately, often, by this point, the damage is done.

So how can you avoid being caught short by a self-serving individual? Consider the data source, consider the following manipulation tactics, and be aware of them in action.

Manipulation Tactics 101:

  • Ingratiating behavior: The ingratiating manipulator is charming, understanding and supportive. You are their idol and they look upon you with stars in their eyes. You can do no wrong; all your decisions are wonderful, and to them, anyone who questions you is jealous and ignorant. They’re your protege; they’re your pet. Certainly someone who has the judgement to see your wonderfulness obviously has superior insight on all things. So when they shyly suggest something, it only makes sense that they of course have your best interests and those of the organization at heart. Or not. Beware of the flatterer.
  • Redirection: The redirector is a master of evasion. You approach them to correct behavior or call out an error. And the redirector immediately alerts you to a crisis that requires your immediate attention. Another employee is doing something so horrendous that the redirector’s minor flaw pales in comparison. The typical dialog is “Well, what about Susie? Are you just going to let that go?” And of course, if you get sidetracked to research the alleged horrendous threat, there is no substance. And the redirector has escaped punitive action. Don’t be misled. Stay focused. Susie can wait until you’ve addressed the redirector.
  • Hyper-sensitivity: The hyper-sensitive individual meets every challenge with extreme penitence. The eyes are downcast, the shoulders hunched. The lower lip quivers and tears well up. You are the most evil person on earth, to put them through such emotional grief. The hyper-sensitive manipulator uses tears as a tactic. Pause, hand over the box of tissues, wait for the tears to pass, and proceed. Note: there are times when anyone may respond emotionally, due to factors unknown to you. When appropriate, direct the individual to assistance for the underlying issues.
  • Outrage and intimidation: You begin a discussion and are interrupted by a fist slammed on the table, or a stack of papers tossed aside and scattered. This may be followed by the clenched fist, an indignant huff, a head shake trying to clear away your incomprehensible ignorance. They’re trembling with rage and disbelief. How in the world can you be so oblivious to the truth? Their goal is to get you to back down, to modify the statement, even to apologize as you try to calm this person down. Hold your ground. Wait silently. And when the smoke has cleared, and the individual has run out of steam, repeat your position and proceed.
  • Nuances, implications and innuendoes: This is the employee who always seems to be “in the know.” They toss off tantalizing random bits of information implying that something is happening that “everyone” knows, except, of course, you. Catch phrases are “Well, of course…” “It figures…” and a sarcastic, “What a surprise.” They can create their own version of reality, and convince you and others to believe it. When confronted, they can legitimately respond that they never said anything. Respond with a gentle challenge. “That’s not what I heard,” “I disagree” and “That’s not really true.” Neutralize the manipulator.
  • Projection: What the manipulator wants is what “everyone” wants or has. Their argument is typically, “Well, Joe and the guys are saying that we absolutely need this,” or “Everyone in other departments gets this benefit.” When you look into it, Joe never said anything of the sort, and one other department made a special exception for an exceptional circumstance. Don’t make promises and don’t take action on the word of this manipulator.
  • Influencing the influencer: An employee has an agenda they want to promote. It may be for a new product or service or process. And your response is “no,” or “not right now.” Not to be stopped, the employee seeks an influencer, perhaps your peer, supervisor, or customer, and suggests the idea. Ideally, the employee gets them to think it was their idea all along. They approach you with this great idea they have, which sounds suspiciously like your employee’s fixation. Beware of these amazing coincidences. Tell both the influencer and the employee how interesting it is that they happened to have the same idea at the same time, and repeat that the answer is still “no.”
  • Stonewalling: This most often occurs between peer managers. You have an assignment or a new initiative that involves another department. And all your inquiries are hitting a brick wall. Emails aren’t answered, and phone calls never returned. You try to set up a meeting, and their schedule never seems to be open. You see them in the corridor, and they’re rushing off to an important meeting, and assure you they’ll get back to you soon. And of course, they never do. As manipulation tactics go, this is one of the most frustrating. While the project at hand is critical to you, your peer sees it as either totally unimportant, or, more likely, detrimental to them. If there is a benefit to them, remind them of that. If this project is to their detriment, as, for example, if it means they will be fired, find an alternative to their cooperation. You will never get cooperation under those circumstances and may instead be sabotaged.
  • Lies, half-truths, evasion and denial: This person lives in the twilight zone between fact and fantasy. The manipulator mixes absolute, accurate, truthful statements with biased interpretations, misinterpretations and outright fabrications. When confronted or questioned, they shift their position, or deny they ever said such a thing, and helpfully clarify your “misunderstanding.” These individuals may or may not be intent on manipulation; they may simply have a fanciful view of reality. Be careful to separate their facts from fiction, and be cautious about taking action without substantiating their claims with a more reliable source.
  • The naked emperor’s tailors: These are the individuals who, like the tailors in “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” convince you that, of course, someone with your credentials and position and experience can certainly recognize what is so obvious to them and everyone else. They may be promoting an “unbelievable opportunity,” or pushing you to buy a life-changing product. They cite researchers and experts with “documented proof” of their position. Upon examination, the unassailable research is flawed or non-existent, and the individual promoting the position or product has much to gain from your agreement. Trust your gut. You do have the experience and credentials, and even if there is widespread acceptance, the mob is not always right.

Manipulation tactics can be blatant or subtle. They can be innocent or purposeful. Be aware, be alert, and be prepared to counter them effectively.

Read more: 4 Time Management Traps to Avoid in 2021