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Do you have a manipulative coworker or work team? In a fast-paced, competitive environment it’s not always easy to spot the signs of manipulation. Often, office culture can legitimize manipulative behaviour to the extent that it becomes folded into the fabric of certain workplace relationships.

Whilst certain outcomes might justify some manipulation in a work setting, the routine manipulation of employees disempowers individuals, hurts workplace morale and can ultimately impact your business targets. It even contravenes the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal to promote a safe working environment. To protect yourself in the office you need to be able to identify your manipulative coworker and take action. Here’s how.

1. Know Your Rights

Manipulation erodes your basic rights as an individual. Thus, to thrive in any environment it’s vital that you understand your rights. Whilst we’re familiar with some human rights, such as the right to a fair trial or to freedom of religion and belief, your rights are actually more broadly construed to provide you with a comfortable working atmosphere. These include:

  • the right to be treated with respect
  • the power to express your opinions
  • the right to assess and determine your own priorities

Often, manipulators begin by eroding these rights. Understanding that you have a fundamental right to respect, your own opinions and setting your own priorities will enable you to defend yourself when you encounter a manipulative coworker at work.

2. Spot The Signs of Manipulation

A manipulative coworker doesn’t have to be your superior – manipulation is a psychological tool that anyone can use and often colleagues who appear supportive and friendly can turn out to be bad actors. Therefore, watch out for anyone who appears to be using you as a means to an end rather than treating you as an autonomous individual.

Oftentimes, manipulators can be identified by certain characteristics. Selective charm, for example, is often used by manipulators to bring individuals on the side. Effective manipulators often persuade others around them that they’re at fault – these seeds of doubt and blame become control mechanisms.

Manipulators often effectively disguise their behaviour so it’s important to stay alert to the telltale signs. When you’ve identified your manipulative coworker, you need to take steps to protect yourself. Here are some key strategies for standing up to office manipulators.

3. Learn How to Say No

Manipulators modus operandi is to get you on the side – that way they can influence you to do their bidding. Therefore, the main form of defence against a manipulator is to learn how to say no. This can be challenging within certain cultures, but a diplomatic “no” is an important tool in your arsenal against manipulators. Draw on the authority from the United Nations Sustainable Development goals which make explicit that it’s your human right to say no.

4. Take Your Time

An effective tool of manipulation is forcing people to make decisions quickly. Therefore, by reducing people’s time to consider an option, manipulators can enforce their views.

In the office, however, you should be able to think it over. So, don’t let manipulators force you into making a decision. Four simple words: “I’ll think about it” can reinforce your autonomy from a manipulator.

5. Don’t Blame Yourself

When manipulators meet their match they can turn nasty. If you’re standing up to problematic colleagues by saying no, they might start pushing, bullying or blaming you for poor performance. This is a challenging situation to find oneself in and can be exceptionally harmful if you internalize these perspectives.

manipulative coworker

6. Shift The Focus

When a manipulator sets their sights on you they’ll put you and your behaviour in the spotlight. However, try to shift the focus back to them with a series of probing questions that shine a light on their behaviour. As a result of which you will have room to breathe and your manipulator need to reconsider their strategy. Asking questions like “Does that seem reasonable to you?” or “Do I get any say in this decision?” will force them to evaluate their behaviour and make it clear they can’t get away with what they are demanding.

7. Enforce Consequences for Manipulative Behaviour

Manipulators are used to getting their way. They achieve this by shifting blame and responsibility onto others. You can undermine a manipulator and protect yourself and your coworkers by enforcing consequences for manipulative behaviour. Consequences don’t have to be confrontational. Gently calling out a manipulator can initiate a reset in the office environment.

8. Make A Record Of Their Behaviour

Often, just by standing up to a manipulator, you’ll neutralize their strategies for control. Ultimately this forces them to cooperate or to move on. However, unfortunately, there are times when manipulators push their abusive tactics despite resistance. If you’re put in this position, it’s vital that you speak with your supervisor about taking further action against this bad actor in the workplace.

To facilitate this, it’s helpful to start making a record of their behaviour so that you have supporting documents in the case of a disciplinary process. The earlier you start recording a manipulator’s actions, the stronger a case you’ll have should you ever need to rely on these accounts.

9. Introduce Distance

Being manipulated can be incredibly claustrophobic. Working closely with a manipulator can impact our ability to see clearly the mechanisms through which they’re controlling our behaviour, and often obscures the fact that their behaviour is unacceptable. If you suspect you’re being manipulated at work, try to find some distance from the bad influence. So, you could request to work on other projects or take some time off to travel, finding a new headspace for reflection.

10. Speaking From Experience…

Remember, manipulators don’t just operate within traditional office hierarchies – your peer or even subordinate can leverage manipulative behaviour at work. When I first became aware of this habit it was through the actions of a colleague. Someone with whom I was frequently collaborating and who had no direct authority over me. Despite this position of supposed equality, this individual was effective at leveraging a cycle of support and blame in order to shirk their responsibilities in the workplace. Once I started standing up to this manipulator, however, they quickly backed down – never forget that manipulators don’t hold any real power over you, and that through powerful choices you can regain control of your experiences at work.

11. Stand Strong

Manipulators often seem like effective workers at first, but their influence turns out to be toxic in a workplace as a culture of blame sets in. You may discover a manipulative boss, shifting blame for their own failures down the hierarchy, but it’s equally possible to be manipulated by coworkers or even subordinates. Therefore, look for the warning signs, stand firm in your interactions and keep a record of their problematic behaviour for future reference.  Stand strong and you’ll protect yourself and your colleagues from manipulators. Your career and your wellbeing might be at stake.

Lauren Groff

Lauren Groff is a tutor and writer at PaperFellows. When she’s not writing she finds inspiration through travel, connecting with new cultures and discovering new ways to see the world.

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