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  • Eve Coker, PhD, LCMHC

Manipulation: We all fear it.

Updated: Apr 3

As I'm writing about treating employees with dignity and respect, I realize that a lot of managers, supervisors, and other leaders may feel as though the element of manipulation from employees may be left out of these kinds of conversations. In our society, we're seen as weak if we allow people to manipulate us, and yes - some employees do use manipulation as a tactic. Any leader is also not immune to the use of manipulation, but the leader is expected to shut down any manipulation coming from employees. This can be especially difficult to do when we're not sure what is manipulation and what is not manipulation.


Why do people manipulate others? They're trying to have their needs met and they've learned that direct or honest methods don't work. Sometimes those needs are understandable.... like if an employee just needs a day off to rest after stressful encounters, but they fear that saying "I just need a day to chill" will make them sound lazy. They might lie and say that they have an illness or emergency in this case. However, there are other people who will use manipulation for selfish or greedy reasons, such as competing against a colleague for ego-driven purposes or trying to get away with a mistake or bad behavior that they're too afraid to be honest about.


When someone chooses a dysfunctional reason to manipulate, it indicates severe problems with their way of thinking, their personality, or both. Maybe this person doesn't know any better, such as a person who hasn't received much guidance or caring correction in their lives and has been allowed to get away with a lot of anti-social behaviors. Maybe this person has been traumatized and developed dysfunctional communication as a way to get their needs met. In either case, it's possible to help a manipulative person learn to communicate more honestly and forthright.... or maybe their path is for them to learn some hard lessons. From these hard lessons, they can either choose to look inside themselves and become better people, or they can continue blaming everyone else, using everyone else, and/or seeing themselves as victims.


I personally believe that we can try to help people as much as they want us to help them. And if we can't help them, that's their life. It's up to them to decide what to do with it. We all must take responsibility for our actions. And this includes us - we have to take responsibility for our actions in dealing with a manipulator. We can be the bigger person and do what we can to help - what we are responsible for - but we can also know that the other person is also on their own path of learning and being.


How do we shut down manipulators? We set boundaries. We let them know that we'll help and support them up to a point, but then the expectations to do well rest with them. If they don't do well, we can hold them accountable with the knowledge that we were fair and intending to do right by everyone involved. Also, we shouldn't punish people for telling the truth (which can be tricky if you need to respond to other behaviors associated with the truth).


I like to apply Miller's Law when dealing with people: "Listen to people as if what they are saying is true. If it is not, realize they are still trying to tell you something." It's like if you held the idea that it COULD be true in the front of your mind, but you know in the back of your mind to be skeptical of everything you hear. However, you must respond to the other person as if it would be true.


Let's say a person is trying to tell us something, but we're skeptical that it might be manipulation.


What if this person is telling the truth? If I act like everything that person says is true, and treat them with dignity, then s/he will come to trust me and confide more details to me. This person can start to feel confident in being able to communicate honestly with me. It may take some time for the trust to fully form, but they'll appreciate that I took them seriously and treated them well.


What if the person is telling me a lie? If I act like everything that person says is true, they'll eventually reveal their lie. Someone who can read body language, facial expressions, and verbal content will see it happen - there will be a shift when the person who is embellishing or lying may think that you believe them. The shift might happen even when you start talking to them. If they're really good at lying, it might be more difficult to see the shift - however, you can still set up boundaries to protect yourself. The manipulating person might be less likely to fight against or contest your boundaries if they think you believe them, which gives you more protection.


Would pretending to believe someone be a manipulation? Only if you don't know whether that person is telling the truth or not.


I used to perform investigations on employee behavior. Sometimes the employee misbehaved, but there were many times when it was a customer/client who either misbehaved or made a false allegation against an employee because they didn't get what they wanted. I always treated every interview as if the person was telling me the truth, and that's where the dishonest people got tripped up. The dishonest ones were expecting someone to fight them or disbelieve them, so they often became complacent in their story-telling when they actually thought I was a naive and gullible helper who would believe anything. Some of them would even embellish their stories with details that they thought helped their cause, but actually gave me more information that was easy to disprove - It was so easy to pull their stories apart with contradicting evidence when they did that.


One of my favorite instances was when a client claimed that an employee had been threatening him; the initial claim was that it was just verbal harassment, but upon interview, the client claimed there was physical harassment as well. What did the security cameras show? A silent employee, sitting with his arms crossed while the client verbally abused him and physically towered over him. I enjoyed showing the client a still image of him leaning over the employee while in the midst of angrily yelling at the employee - and letting him know that we were dropping his case.


On the flip side, the truthful people I interviewed often showed a sense of relief that someone was caring about the stressful situation that they endured and to help them make it right.


There are plenty of malicious-intended people who may be smart enough to hide their manipulation, but that's where the act of believing that their communication could be truth is a way to get past that - they eventually reveal themselves because they have no critical feedback against their behaviors and therefore they show evidence of their maliciousness. For example, I once knew a CEO who was incredibly charismatic and appeared very intelligent. However, his ego couldn't take any constructive feedback - he needed to be worshiped and praised at every interaction. He bullied anyone who didn't feed his ego. Because he never allowed himself to receive constructive feedback, he made some very unwise decisions that showed his true colors. The honest people in the company left, whereas his true "followers" saw this as an opportunity to manipulate him back in order to get what they wanted out of him.


If someone is dumb enough to act horribly against other person, they are often dumb enough to reveal themselves. Integrity is aligned with honesty and doing what's right, and that does not unravel in the same way that malicious behavior does. In other words, behaving with integrity is a much more sustainable business practice than behaving without it - and integrity involves treating all employees with dignity and respect, and treating them as if what they say is worthy of treating as truth. And, as explained above.... if it's not truth, you can set up your boundaries and allow their untruths to unravel. That's when you can document the untruths and manipulations in order to take effective and ethical action - where punishment is merited, unless there is evidence that this person can be taught to do better.






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