Workplace Wisdom

How to Work with a Manipulative Person

This article originally appeared on hbr.org.

Almost everyone who’s ever gone to work has had to deal with an office manipulator. Unfortunately, most employees hesitate to go public with their concerns. And with good reason: Even if they do, typical corporate responses range from wary or dismissive to actually retaliating against the victim, rather than the wrongdoer.

Unfortunately, many workplaces promote manipulators because they appear to be effective at getting things done, despite the significant costs their abuse can inflict on productivity and peopleover time. Particularly when you can’t get the hierarchy or other authorities to intervene on your behalf, it helps to have your own approaches for coping, short of legal action.

Over almost 30 years of consulting, I’ve encountered countless examples of manipulation, bullying, and inappropriate use of power. Three kinds of responses have proven to be consistently effective for confronting most garden-variety manipulators, even if you have less rank, power, or status. At a minimum, they’ll help you assert yourself and regain a sense of control rather than suffering in silence while you figure out your long-term plan.

First, be skeptical about receiving too much special attention. Manipulators don’t usually show their true colors at the beginning of a relationship. In fact, they often present themselves as allies or confidantes, because they need to draw you close to size up where your soft spots are and how much they can get from you. 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.

It’s exciting if a powerful colleague or superior seems interested in you, but if you’ve heard scary things about them, it’s sensible to proceed with caution. In particular, note if someone treats you as their favorite — but includes little digs that make you feel bad about yourself, puts you down when talking with others, or pressures you to act against your own interests to stay on their good side.

One C-level executive I worked with was hurt by a colleague who claimed to be her supporter and good friend but constantly pointed out imperfections and mistakes in a way that seemed helpful at first but eventually undercut her confidence. Over time, she began to doubt her own instincts and started acting like the manipulative colleague’s sidekick rather than championing her own causes.

By the time the weaker executive recognized what was going on, she had trouble separating herself from her colleague and lost a significant amount of status and clout with her peers. Her credibility and self-image were shaken, and she was not able to regain her footing or influence until she left the company.

Second, be willing to risk small public confrontations. Sometimes the only way to expose a manipulator’s maneuverings is by confronting them in the moment. It can be hard to do this if you’re the junior party. Even senior people can be stunned into disbelief, or might be unable to think of what to say when someone is subverting normal standards of behavior and fair play, despite the organizational damage they know is being done. So when someone has both the moxie and the wit to intervene, it puts the manipulator on notice that their behavior has been detected, and it shows observers that it’s possible to intervene and keep others safe while moving the business forward.

During one client meeting I attended, an executive was making a report by phone while the rest of the leadership team was physically present. At one point, a vice president who had an extremely self-serving and manipulative reputation raised his eyebrows in apparent surprise, shook his head repeatedly, and at the end shrugged, as if to indicate to his peers in the room that he either didn’t agree with what his colleague was saying or didn’t understand why he was saying it — all without him saying a word.

The vice president on the phone had no idea that his credibility and content were being disparaged. I asked 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 the report?”

The vice president in the room denied having any disagreement, but he was clearly uncomfortable at being put on the spot and could no longer lord it over or cast aspersions on his colleague. And his colleague was tipped off to the possibility that he had been undermined.

Third, refuse to keep secrets or to act as interpreter in ways that normalize underhanded behavior. Instead, be direct and straightforward and hold your ground. These schemers may treat you like a trusted insider, feeding you tidbits about other people’s inadequacies and failures, as if only you have the perspective and discretion to understand what’s important. Don’t be taken in by the implied flattery. Ask for details and 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?”

In another client company, I worked with a leader who was uncomfortable with direct conflict and who tried to get other people — including me — to convey messages that she was afraid to deliver. Rather than letting her hide her criticisms behind others, I would say things like, “You’ve been clear that you don’t like how James handled his team’s conflict. I’ll be happy to meet with you and James so that you can explain your concern, and then I can work with him on managing his team.” Now that she understands her own behavior pattern and has received support to change, she’s far less likely to offload uncomfortable situations to others.

If your position is senior to the manipulator’s, the most effective thing is to begin a rigorous plan of corrective action promptly, using approaches such as these and providing concrete behavioral feedback until they either drop their inappropriate habits or you remove them. And if you hold less power or influence, these three approaches will help you protect yourself and minimize 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.

Photo credit: Tang Yau Hoong/Getty Images

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