How to Mentor Someone Who Has Manipulative Tendencies

“It’s getting to the point where I can’t trust anything she says,” lamented Beth, the president of a $7B business unit and a client of mine. “I have people coming to me with stories about Gail embellishing or cherry-picking information.”

Gail was Beth’s direct report, and she was leading the division’s overhaul of the product development process. The initiative was fraught with political and financial risk, and huge growth bets were behind it. Gail had been viewed as the perfect leader to take it on. She was smart, dynamic, and driven, and her track record spoke for itself. But this was the largest initiative she’d led. Two previous attempts at transforming the process had failed. Another change would inevitably be tumultuous and resisted.

Beth continued venting. “She drops my name to those who outrank her, publicly extols those who give her what she wants, and talks until people give in,” she told me. “She’s charismatic in presentations and passionate about her cause, but she’s leaving a slew of untrusting bodies in her wake.”

Many leaders struggle with employees who blur the fine line between persuasion and manipulation when the stakes are high. Although ethical misconduct should never be tolerated, talented professionals like Gail can have long and successful careers if they are coached to learn healthier approaches to influence.

Behavioral science tells us that manipulative behaviors, such as engaging in excessive criticism, offering fake flattery, distorting information, pretending helplessness, and inflicting guilt, are often mechanisms for surviving an especially difficult or competitive environment. They’re particularly enticing when a person feels they lack sufficient power and control. Sadly, in many organizations manipulation has become an acceptable replacement for positive forms of influence. Worse, it is often reinforced by organizational systems and culture. My own research bears this out. When decision-making lacks transparency, people are 3.5 times as likely to embellish the truth.

So how can you coach someone who — knowingly or not — leans on manipulative behaviors and help them find more-productive ways to influence others? Sometimes you can’t. People’s instincts may be too deeply ingrained to dislodge. But if you’re working with someone you believe has the capacity to change, consider the following approaches, which Beth used to help Gail succeed.

Consider organizational factors. Before she approached Gail, I asked Beth to think about what aspects of the organization might be encouraging Gail’s behavior. The company’s culture was highly performance-driven and often felt competitive. Notoriously hierarchical, the organization weighted the influence of those with a VP title or higher more than that of others. Gail was a senior director — one level below VP, making the challenge of “influencing up” harder. She was a woman of color in a male-dominated organization, creating an even greater challenge. And the deadlines that had been announced to Wall Street for unveiling the new process were very ambitious, attracting the close watch of analysts.

Beth reflected on these factors and realized that the pressures surrounding Gail’s initiative would naturally intensify anyone’s instincts to be excessively persuasive — although in this case, “persuasion” and “manipulation” were overlapping to a fault.

Other organizational factors that may promote manipulative behavior include:

  • Incentive systems that reward highly individualistic results
  • Cultures that prize secrecy and make information difficult to access or in which passive aggression subverts healthy conflict
  • Evaluation systems with forced distributions into narrow performance categories
  • Siloed structures that protect divisional loyalty
  • Competing or unclear goals that make exploiting ambiguity the only way to get credit for results

If factors like these are operative in your organization, recognize that they will discourage mutual, authentic influence, leaving manipulation as the default approach for efficiently getting things done. Doing this analysis before coaching someone will help you see that many people aren’t manipulative by nature but may be influenced by context.

Present the data. Confronting people who are practicing manipulative behavior is inherently difficult, because they are often skilled at convincing others of their motives, even if that means twisting the story. When challenged, they may become defensive, offering blustery, sarcastic declarations such as “I’m sorry if others are misinterpreting my intentions, but I’m working my tail off to deliver this under difficult conditions. But hey, if I’m the wrong person, I’m happy to let someone else try.” Being direct and sticking to the facts is the best approach.

I encouraged Beth to get to the point quickly with a statement like this: “Gail, we need to talk about the ways you are influencing the organization as you lead the new product development process. I’ve received several strong concerns about the ways you are using data to support your recommendations, how you are building alignment around your views, and how some important stakeholders feel you haven’t welcomed their feedback. Here are three examples.”

After sharing specific examples, it’s important to reinforce your goal: “My intent isn’t to question your motives or character but rather to help you recognize how others are experiencing your leadership and to find alternative approaches to this important initiative that won’t damage your career.”

Such a conversation may feel like ripping off a Band-Aid, so it’s vital to use a tone that conveys you are an ally and to reiterate your intent to help the other person succeed. Beneath their confident exteriors, people acting manipulatively are often fragile, and they may feel shamed when learning how their behavior is being interpreted. You’ll want to guard against their shutting down. Let them offer explanations, and actively listen. You may discover a side of the story you hadn’t considered before.

Beth heard things from Gail like: “What was I supposed to do? I only had 20 minutes on the agenda; I couldn’t present 50 slides.” And: “John was unreasonably stubborn about changing his part of the design; going above him was the only way I could meet the deadline.”

Beth helped Gail step back and consider how each of her choices had been interpreted by those on the receiving end. Eventually Gail was able to see why others were withdrawing their trust.

Explore marginalizing dynamics. Chronic manipulation often masks deep feeling of invisibility. Many people with manipulative habits have experienced being ignored, rejected, or excluded from critical conversations. When someone desperately wants to prove themselves worthy in order to stop the pain of feeling marginalized, manipulation may seem a reliable tool.

Feeling excluded or insignificant doesn’t excuse manipulation, but it offers an important explanation: that people who feel marginalized come to expect exclusion and may act in unconscious ways that lead to it. A leader’s job is to create an inclusive environment in which no unproductive behavior is needed to gain acceptance. To be clear, not all people in marginalized positions turn to manipulation, and not all people who manipulate have been marginalized. But the potential correlation offers a critical lens through which to examine someone’s behavior if you want to offer effective coaching.

Ideally, you should consider these factors before starting a coaching conversation so that you can lead it with greater empathy. In Beth’s case, she had failed to consider some of the obstacles Gail was up against.

Gail confided in Beth: “You know what it’s like being a woman in this organization and how much harder we have to fight to be heard and respected — especially not being a VP. On top of that, I’m a woman of color. So yes, sometimes I feel I have to be overly assertive or tell people what I think they need to hear just to make progress. I’m sorry if at times I’ve taken it too far. But I’m exhausted from feeling like I’m carrying a boulder uphill by myself.”

Gail’s vulnerability opened the door to an important conversation between the two women about gender, race, rank, and inclusion at their organization. Beth expressed deep appreciation for Gail’s honesty and empathy for her struggles. She took responsibility for not considering those factors in advance, while keeping her expectations of Gail high.

“I’m sorry you’ve had to face those challenges — and even more, I’m sorry you’ve felt alone in facing them,” Beth responded. “That’s clearly my failure as your leader and sponsor; I should have been more attuned and proactive in checking in. You have my word that I’ll make supporting you in this a priority. And I need you to raise your game when it comes to how you work with our key stakeholders. I want them to see the best version of you that I know. If it takes longer to bring them along than we’d hoped, let me worry about that. Don’t let any deadlines pressure you into compromising critical relationships.”

If you are coaching someone who has been disregarded in some way, either in their life or while at your organization, explore how that experience might shape their choices. Ask questions like:

  • Do you worry that people won’t see you as credible?
  • Have I, or has anyone, made you feel as though your contribution isn’t important?
  • Do you struggle to feel confident in the merits of your viewpoints?
  • Do you frequently fear being rejected by those whose support you are trying to gain?

“Yes” answers might indicate that someone feels like an outsider. If that’s the case, make sure you are doing everything you can to create a sense of belonging. Coach them on how to build relationships across the organization. Check in regularly to make sure they are making positive connections and are feeling respectfully treated.

Express support and agree on commitments. It’s important to maintain empathy during and after this conversation. The person whose behavior you are addressing will leave feeling anxious about their status in your eyes. Emphasize your commitment to their success as clearly as you do your expectations for change. The person must believe you are an ally and ready to help.

For example, if you discover skill gaps in the person’s influence repertoire, agree to provide the necessary development. Beth committed to getting Gail an executive coach and training on being persuasive using data. She and Gail agreed on healthier approaches for influencing the organization, and Gail committed to coming back with specific tactics for influencing key stakeholders, noting places where she needed Beth’s help. Beth agreed to give direct feedback to her executive peers about some of the unconscious biases they might be exhibiting in their interactions with Gail, asking them to redouble their efforts to be more welcoming and supportive of her.

Being on the receiving end of manipulative behavior can feel demeaning and infuriating. You might conclude that coaching someone away from such behaviors is a lost cause, or that they’ve forfeited the chance to redeem themselves. But as was the case with Gail and Beth, if you’re willing to take an empathic approach and get to the bottom of someone’s manipulation, you might set them on course for their greatest contributions yet.

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