How to Handle Manipulative Behavior

Regain control and begin to enjoy your work environment again

How to Handle Manipulative Behavior — abstract illustration
How to Handle Manipulative Behavior — abstract illustration
Photo by SvetaZi on depositphotos

Dealing with manipulators

Some people like being manipulators. They might try to instigate trouble, by doing things like spreading lies about coworkers to destroy their reputations, or they might simply play the victim to get sympathy or pawn off their own work. When acts of treachery and betrayal such as these are tolerated because the target of manipulation won’t confront the manipulator, bad behavior is likely to escalate.

If manipulators are never confronted, they will continue to target people. Manipulative people thrive on controlling the emotions and actions of others. That’s what gives them power. But if you can show them you won’t be controlled, they’ll lose some of that power. If you challenge their power, they may even stop the behavior on their own. But if you don’t assert yourself and say no to manipulators, you’re just another victim.

In general, when dealing with manipulative people, along with “don’ts,” there are important “dos” to keep in mind:

  • Do set healthy boundaries. You need to distance yourself emotionally in order to avoid getting caught up in the manipulative comments and behaviors. Cultivate detachment.
  • Do document your interactions. These records can be useful later on in a confrontation or if you need to make a formal complaint about the manipulator’s behavior.

Steps to deal with manipulative behavior

While these general dos and don’ts are good to keep in mind, there are also five specific steps you can take to deal with a manipulator:

  1. make sure you meet privately,
  2. gently confront the person,
  3. explain that the behavior is unacceptable,
  4. outline your expectations for future behavior, and
  5. state the consequences if those expectations aren’t met.

The first step is to meet privately to discuss the matter. A positive outcome to the confrontation is more likely if you don’t humiliate the person by discussing it in public. Try to find a private but somewhat informal or neutral environment. Non-neutral environments include standing in front of a large group of people or, if you are the person’s manager, sitting across from your desk.

Once you and the manipulator get to a private area, the second step is to gently confront the person. If you stay silent, you implicitly condone the manipulator’s behavior. Confronting manipulators lets them know you’re not an easy mark. And making the other person aware that you know what’s going on is often enough to stop the manipulation.

Either way, the manipulator’s power is reduced. In a confrontation, you need to be calm and not let your emotions show. In a soft tone of voice, clearly explain the problem to your coworker. Don’t get pulled into arguing. Listen to what your coworker says, but then leave the situation alone. You may have to agree to disagree, since manipulators will usually try to convince you their actions are justified.

After you’ve stated issues clearly and asked about the manipulator’s intentions, wait for a response — the next move is the other person’s. After this, the third step is explaining that the behavior is unacceptable. The manipulator may not intend to cause problems — or, at least, may not admit to such intentions — but either way, you need to make it clear that such behavior is not acceptable.

The most common responses you’ll get to your questions about intentions will be excuses, arguments, and accusations. Manipulators try to divert attention and minimize the situation. If the manipulator denies wanting to cause trouble — as often happens — you can put the person on notice without forcing an admission by saying “That’s good, because I can’t tolerate that.” If the manipulator does admit to causing the problem, you can then ask why. Either way, the third step in dealing with manipulative behaviors is to tell the person the behavior is not OK.

Once you’ve made it clear that the manipulative behavior is unacceptable, the fourth step is to outline your expectations for future behavior. Clearly define what behavior you want to see in the future. This includes asking the manipulator to do what you asked. Ask about the other person’s level of commitment to changing the behavior.

Regardless of whether the manipulator answers yes or no about committing to change — or even if the person agrees with you or not — the last step is to state the consequences if the behavior doesn’t change. Some manipulators will exhibit strong reluctance to committing to change.

Or they will continue to argue with you about it, even in the late stages of your discussion. Consequences will depend on the situation, of course, but could include bringing the issue up with the boss, asking for mediation from HR, or getting corroborative documentation to the appropriate people.

Knowing how to deal effectively with manipulative people at work will help you regain control and begin to enjoy your work environment again. It will also let you focus on work instead of on the manipulator, which helps you become more productive and effective.

You’ll gain the added benefit of being able to use the same coping skills in other areas of your life as well — manipulative behavior is not confined to the workplace. There are five basic steps for handling manipulative behavior: meet privately, tactfully confront the manipulator, tell the person the behavior is unacceptable, outline your expectations for future behavior, and state the consequences of unchanged behavior.

A consultant, trainer and author specialized in management, corrections and industrial relations

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