How to deal with manipulative people in the workplace

How to deal with manipulative people in the workplace

1 December 2017

Almost every office worker has had to deal with a workmate who is manipulative, bullying, or who abuses their power. It’s easy to feel helpless in these situations.

Yet, as the Harvard Business Review explains, there are three responses you can use to effectively confront most garden-variety manipulators, even if you have less rank, power, or status.

1. Be sceptical about receiving too much special attention

Manipulators often present themselves as allies or confidantes, drawing you close to size up your soft spots. They’re skilled at assessing which employees are sophisticated and confident enough to stand on their own and which ones are eager to please or easy to shame.

If a powerful colleague or superior seems interested in you, but you’ve heard scary things about them, proceed with caution.

They may, for example, treat you as a favourite but make negative comments that make you feel bad about yourself, put you down when talking with others, or pressure you to do something you don’t want to do.

If you find yourself in this situation, ease back from the relationship and strive to maintain your own independence.

2. Be willing to risk small public confrontations

Sometimes the best way to expose a manipulator’s manoeuvrings is by confronting them in the moment.

This can be hard to do this if you’re the junior party. But if you have the backbone and the wit to intervene, you can put the manipulator on notice that their behaviour has been detected. It also lets observers see that it’s possible to intervene and keep others safe while moving the business forward.

To illustrate: Imagine that during an office meeting, a workmate uses negative body language to undermine your comments. He may raise his eyebrows in apparent surprise, shake his head in silent disagreement, or shrug his shoulders to indicate that he either doesn’t agree—all without him saying a word. How can you respond?

Why not ask the manipulator directly: “Was there something you wanted to add? You looked like you disagreed strongly with what we just heard. Did you want to counter either the conclusion or any of the specifics, or are you comfortable with what was said?”

Such tactful but direct questions put the manipulator on the spot, so they no longer lord it over or cast aspersions on you.

3. Refuse to keep secrets or normalise underhanded behaviour

Office schemers may treat you like a trusted insider, feeding you titbits about other people’s inadequacies, as if only you can understand what’s important.

Don’t be taken in by the implied flattery.

Be direct and straightforward and hold your ground.

Ask for specifics to flush out their intent: “I’m not sure I understand what you mean. Why are you telling me this? What is it you’re asking me to do?”

For example, imagine your boss asks you to convey messages that she is afraid to deliver. Rather than letting her hide her criticisms behind others, you could say: “You’ve been clear that you don’t like how James handled that matter. I’ll be happy to meet with you and James so that you can explain your concern, and then I can work with him to resolve the problem.”

This approach may help your boss to understand her request was inappropriate while offering her practical support address her concerns—without offloading uncomfortable situations to others.

What if you’re the boss and an underling is trying to manipulate you?

Begin a rigorous plan of corrective action promptly, using approaches such as the above. Then give them feedback until they either drop their inappropriate habits or you remove them.

If you hold less power or influence, these three approaches will help you protect yourself and minimise their negative impact both on you and on the rest of the organization, for as long as you’re willing to stay in the game.

At the very least, these three responses can help you assert yourself and regain a sense of control rather than suffering in silence while you figure out your long-term plan.