Picture this: Your colleague, Jerry, shows up 5 minutes late to the weekly staff meeting – again. He isn’t dragging his feet, but he isn’t in any hurry, either. Like always, he says he was on a very important call that simply couldn’t wait. He has a steaming cup of coffee in his hand, which would only have been available to him if he took a 3-minute walk, in a direction opposite of the meeting room, to visit the coffee station. And, like always, your supervisor has waited to start the meeting until Jerry arrived. Jerry isn’t merely late – he has successfully manipulated everyone in the meeting – again.

Here’s what we need to know: as adults, we can only be manipulated if we permit it.

The first definition for “manipulate” that pops up on Dictionary.com is: “to manage or influence skillfully, especially in an unfair manner.”

When manipulative behavior occurs, there are two parties to the interaction: a giver of the behavior and an intended receiver of it. You can choose not to receive or respond to the behavior. The hard truth is, nobody can manipulate you – or me – unless we let them.

To be completely fair and honest, many people do not even know they are engaging in manipulation of others. Consider a minor passive-aggressive action (which is just one type of manipulative behavior) like rolling eyes behind somebody’s back. Do you think the person who acts in that way realizes they are doing it? It’s tempting to say, “Of course they know!” But, if you take a minute to really think about it, I believe you’ll have to admit that it’s very possible to engage in the behavior out of sheer habit.

One of the problems with manipulative behavior is that it is hard to recognize. We are so accustomed to doing it, seeing it, and reacting to it, that it can be very hard to spot in others (not to mention how hard it is to admit that you and I might be doing it, too).

So, to help you recognize it, here is a list of some common manipulative behaviors we see at work: 

  • Showing up late for meetings repeatedly (like Jerry)
  • Befriending a colleague for the express purpose of getting an unearned reward
  • Doing excessive favors
  • Gossip, when it is intended to sway how you feel about someone else
  • Forming “cliques” or “packs” and deliberately excluding a person or persons
  • Pretending not to have a skill set to avoid a type of work
  • Abusive behavior, such as name-calling or inappropriate physical contact
  • Threats
  • Withholding critical information, like budgets
  • Providing only half of the available data to shift the meaning of information
  • Exaggerating physical symptoms or injuries

Which leads to this question: how do you handle manipulative behavior at work? 

I recommend dealing with each occurrence using the following three steps. I can’t promise it will be easy, but it will give you the ability to take action and make decisions based on your own knowledge, experience and understanding.

  1. First, notice and recognize the manipulative behavior (see above list for a good starting place).
  2. Second, you can either disregard the manipulative behavior, or you can talk to the person and state the problem so you can try to determine the facts of the situation.
  3. The third step, then, is to act according to your own wishes and best judgment, regardless of the manipulative behavior that was directed at you.

Remember, you are an adult, and you have the right to choose whether or not to be influenced by a manipulator. 

Struggling with manipulative behavior in the office? Change it where it hurts the most: meetings. Click below to get our short scripts to disrupt damaging meeting behavior (you’re welcome).

your guide


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