Nobody likes being manipulated. And despite what manipulators may believe, the act of manipulation always has a diminishing outcome.
Think about when you may have visited a car dealership when you were ready to buy a car. If you've ever encountered the stereotypical pushy car sales person then you've met a manipulator - someone forcing their agenda on you by using your words in ways you didn't intend.
Encountering that kind of sales person is not pleasant. He or she is not really listening – only acting like it to catch the right words from you and spin them back at you.
Manipulation in the workplace often occurs the same way. Employee needs and perspectives are ignored despite what appears to be genuine interaction. Manipulators don't care what you say, what you want, nor what you need. That is, unless they can take something you say and use it to their advantage.
The late psychologist Harriet Braiker, author of "Who's Pulling Your Strings", pointed out some facts about manipulators that all non-manipulators should know. Here's an abbreviated list:
You cannot out-manipulate a skilled manipulator, so don't even try.
It's useless to ask a manipulator why he or she is acting a particular way, because you won't get an honest answer. Manipulators will deflect or disguise their motives and avidly deny being a manipulator. But take comfort in this: However how hard they try to convince you otherwise, you are not wrong for perceiving that you're being manipulated.
You can't change a manipulator by pointing out that his or her approach is one-sided.
Most manipulators are incapable of empathy. Therefore, trying to get them to understand your point of view is pretty much a waste of time.
I see a lot of truth in Braiker's descriptions and warnings. But, as a believer in miracles and second chances, I also believe manipulators can learn to change - if they want to.
My perspective on this is reinforced by comments from people who've recognized their manipulative tendencies. Here are a few examples from an online message board of people discussing the subject:
I practiced manipulation as a form of surviving in what I regarded as a painful world to live in. But what I regarded as self-preservation was actually causing me more harm than good.
It [manipulation] was a survival tool. I was quite unaware as to the extent of it in my life. Now, it jumps out at me and sometimes I just have to sit on my hands!
I learned to manipulate in order to survive my childhood. It was the only way my needs were met, not just my wants. Now I try to examine my motives about everything. To catch myself before I use manipulation. I'd much rather come out and ask for my needs and wants now.
From these and other comments, it becomes apparent that manipulation is commonly developed as a survival technique in childhood. That doesn't justify its use in adulthood, but at least we can understand where it comes from.
So with all this, the question becomes "how much leeway do we give a person who is using manipulation and dragging down the workplace in the process?"
Great question. Tough question, too.
I like what Robert Bacal writes at work911.com:
First get workplace policies in place.
Second, abide by the policies.
Bacal also suggests getting people involved in answering such questions as "how should we treat each other in the workplace?" Whatever input you receive is almost always accompanied by some level of buy-in.
Of course, manipulators often seek to re-interpret policies to fit their agendas. Then what?
Marilyn Pincus, in her book "Managing Difficult People", says it's likely you'll have to repeat yourself. No matter how much it sounds like a broken record, stick to the rules.
She also suggests bringing in another party - such as HR - for backup. Manipulators "might be inclined to hang up the boxing gloves" when they're not so sure they can come out on top.
Another piece of advice is to verify whatever you might be told. This principled action allows you to check whether or not you're being deceived.
In my opinion, these are good starting points, but die-hard manipulators seem set on surviving by what they do. In other words, it's very much a part of their survival strategy, and it's going to take integrity and persistence to hold your ground.
Bottom line, manipulation in the workplace is a huge detriment to employee commitment. And employees know, if only intuitively, when they are pawns in someone's agenda. To prevent or reverse any diminishing outcomes, become a student of how to stand your ground in the face of manipulators.