Dealing with Manipulation in the Workplace

Dealing with manipulation in the workplace

Conflict at work will occur from time to time. But if there is an ongoing conflict with one person, and when you walk away from every interaction feeling the above, it is highly likely you are being manipulated.

Many years ago, I became a target for a manipulator who worked for me. Over a long period of time, I often felt sick, angry and constantly frustrated simply because I was not aware that I was being manipulated.

Although I am an independent, strong and intelligent person, I lacked personal boundaries. As a result, I allowed this person to make decisions and make changes - basically doing what she wanted. I did this because I thought that she was a great worker and motivated to grow the business. The truth was that this person was intimidated by anyone who was smart or assertive. And so, anyone who had these skills was unfairly shafted until they either left the company.

Once I realised what had been happening, I was motivated to study and research the motives behind manipulative behaviour and the tactics used, and developed strategies to deal with them.

The goal of a manipulator is to control and influence the behaviours and action of others. Because it’s about control, manipulation is prevalent in the workplace, which usually has a hierarchical structure. To control others, manipulators can abuse their positions, authority, or responsibilities; and they will not overstep accepted boundaries in the workplace.

The control gestures manipulators use include emotional blackmail, dishonest yet persuasive language, discrediting others around them, deflecting the issue at hand when confronted; concealed threats; and lies or distortion of the facts. What’s interesting is most manipulators don’t realise they are doing this because their behaviour is fed by their own insecurities or a view of life as a struggle for survival, a series of battles

So how do you deal with manipulation when it’s your staff or co-worker? People do what they do because they can, and so firstly it’s important to define our limits and set boundaries by being assertive always.

Manipulators are masters at the emotional game, and will use any emotional reaction on your part as evidence that you are the abuser. It’s very important therefore that you always deal with the behaviour, not the person. This will ensure you disengage emotionally and think rationally – unemotional assertiveness is an attitude a manipulator cannot match.

The role of HR in dealing with manipulation

A company’s human resources department is key to dealing with manipulation in the workplace. HR creates the policies and procedures and when they are enforced consistently, they soon create a culture. It’s important to set company values, and create policies and procedures for “Conflict Management”, “Access, Abuse, Sexual Harassment & Bullying”, “Attitude and Behaviour”, “Employee Grievances” and “Disciplinary Actions”. Depending on the size of your company, I would even recommend creating a policy exclusively for middle management with guidelines on how to deal with frustrating situations, people’s attitude, and other sensitive situations.

The idea with policies is to make manipulation (covert or open aggression) very difficult. While it would be difficult to set procedures directly for manipulation, you can set them for the behaviours used by manipulators. One of the interesting things about negativity or gossiping, for instance, is that these manipulative tactics cannot exist if no one agrees to listen.

Naturally, company rules don’t have to be inflexible. Dealing effectively with manipulation is, at its core, about thinking differently, which is very easy on a rational level, but daunting on an emotional level.

Dealing with manipulation in a subordinate or staff

In my own company – which has 200 employees – I worked closely with our HR department to develop policies and procedures that focussed on the company culture and on assertive communication. All employees were also required to attend communication courses that focussed on dealing with conflict and manipulation. Seeing the change in our company procedures – and that she would no longer be able to manipulate others with the new learning they received – the manipulator in my business voluntarily resigned.

When you want to avoid hiring a manipulator in the first place, the first difficulty is spotting it when someone is in front of you for half an hour. I would suggest allowing the candidate to start working while monitoring their trial period very closely for negative behaviour. Another idea is to also get feedback from other staff.

How to Deal with Master Manipulators

Dr Mary Casey’s informative course on DVD and workbook helps identify manipulators at home and work, presents strategies to deal with them effectively, and methods to use to ensure we are never a target. Includes various scenarios, role play and case studies. Available from

Dr Mary Casey (Doctorate of Psychology) is founder and CEO of Casey Centre, an Australian integrated health and education service. Visit