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"Manipulation, fueled with good intent, can be a blessing. But when used wickedly, it is the beginning of a magician's karmic calamity." Author TF Hodge

To manipulate is to "control or influence a person or situation." And, make no mistake, we all do it. Maybe we ask for a favor in a social setting, so the individual is less likely to say "no." Perhaps we mimic another's body language to create rapport; or we help someone advance towards their goals, knowing they'll owe us a favor.
The reality is that we seek to control or influence people and situations every day. But some people cross the line: their behavior is unscrupulous. Malicious. Abusive. Insidious. They tear down individuals and destroy cultures. How do you spot the signs of a manipulator - and then break free from their mind tricks?

Manipulators at Work

Manipulative people can cause widespread unrest in organizations. As Joyce E.A. Russell, vice dean and professor at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business, writes, "Not only can they push talented employees out the door, but they can also pit employees against each other, set employees up for failure, and make strained relationships even worse."
They have the ability to hijack their workplaces and create chaos emotionally. Learning how to spot these individuals and their twisted behavior is critical.

Red Flags

Skilled manipulators employ a variety of techniques to distort and exploit situations to their ends:

  1. They sense your weaknesses - and use them against you. Manipulators establish a baseline when they talk to you and ask questions; they're not caring or considerate - they're using your words and body language to detect weaknesses. Then, they will use these for their gain - or simply for their amusement.

  2. It's always your fault, and never theirs. Nothing is ever the manipulator's fault. They are adept at twisting situations, ducking responsibility, and placing the blame on anyone but himself or herself. For example, you ask a colleague to complete a report needed for a team project. When the deadline rolls around and the assignment is incomplete, the manipulator turns the tables: "You never told me about this." Or, "I didn't agree to that."
    In extreme cases, they can make you question reality. "Gaslighting" is an insidious manipulation technique that causes victims to doubt their sanity. According to Counseling Resource:
    Sometimes, a person can assert something with such an apparent intensity of conviction that the other person begins to question their perspective. Other times, vigorous and unwavering denial coupled with a display of righteous indignation can accomplish the same task. Bringing up historical facts that seem mostly accurate but contain minute, hard-to-prove distortions and using them to "prove" the correctness of one's position is another method. Gaslighting is particularly effective when coupled with other tactics such as shaming and guilting. Anything that aids in getting another person to doubt their judgment, and back down, will work.

  3. They are bullies. Like any bully, the manipulator is insecure and masks it with a need to be in control. Your insecurity feeds them.
    They'll use any means necessary to coerce you into submission, whether passive - silent treatment, guilt, cruel "jokes," ("Hey, I was just kidding; why are you so sensitive?") or active - threats, raising their voice, belittling you in front of others, sabotaging your work/meetings/presentations.

  4. They're deceptive. Manipulators are described as "wolves in sheep's clothing." Initially, they may appear warm and open. They may share personal information. This is calculated; they're building your trust, hoping you'll disclose your personal information, which they can then use against you.
    At the same time, they loathe to reveal any vulnerability of their own. They perceive it as a weakness; to stay in control, they arm themselves with an impenetrable persona.
    This mask gets in the way of real connection. Manipulators do not desire authentic relationships or wish to engage in honest communication. If for instance, you call them on bad behavior, they'll shut you down. "I don't know what you're talking about." "You're too sensitive." "You're overreacting."

  5. They're masters of the mind game.Manipulators are excellent at reading situations and adapting. Often, they have a fully-stocked toolbox that enables them to influence and control others, including:
    • Twisting words to get their way or avoid blame.
    • The "quasi-apology." (e.g. "Sorry, but it's your fault, not mine.")
    • Overwhelming you with statistics, facts, procedure, and/or red tape to purposely create confusion.
    • Feigned ignorance. They often "play dumb" to get you to do their work, take on their responsibilities, or deflect blame.
    • Victimhood. The manipulator always has it worse than you. This enables them to play on your sympathies. At the same time, they diminish your difficulties: there is only room for one victim here.

Disengaging from a Manipulator

For the health of your organization - and your sanity - breaking free from these toxic relationships should be a top priority. Making yourself aware of the signs of a manipulator is step one. Here's a few more you can take.

  • Distance yourself. Maybe you see the manipulator engaging in highly aggressive behavior with one person, and appearing helpless with another. Maybe you've heard one too many insincere apologies or your words have been perverted and used against you. If so, avoid dealing with the manipulator unless it is an absolute necessity. If they're a direct-report, carefully document behaviors and complaints, so you can make the case, if necessary, for termination.
    Manipulators are energy vampires; they feed on drama, trouble, and discontent. If you deny them the opportunity to interact with you, you essentially deny their source of nutrients.

  • Don't fall for the guilt trip. Avoid internalizing or personalizing the manipulator's behavior. These people love to make others feel guilty - as though you need to solve their problems or make them feel better. You do not. Once you become aware that they are only trying to manipulate you into acting as they wish, it is easier to disengage.

  • Document expectations and outcomes. A favorite trick of manipulators is to say, "You never told me that," or, "That's not what you said before." Avoid this by committing your instructions to writing and requiring them to sign and date. Keep copies.

  • Check yourself. Are you engaging in any of these manipulate behaviors, even if unconsciously? Examine your interactions with direct reports. Are you using guilt? Shame? Badgering? Insecurities? Be aware of your tendencies.

Manipulators thrive in the dark. When you shine a light on their behaviors and learn to recognize classic signs of manipulation, you can arm yourself with the tools and the confidence to disentangle yourself from their grasp.


Larry Hart

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