You've felt their presence at work, even if you never heard them say anything in a public forum. You know they are there, behind the scenes, stirring the pot, getting others to do their dirty work or play their games -- pulling the strings of unsuspecting co-workers. They don't want to be seen as the ones publicly criticizing progress or new initiatives, so instead, they make sure others carry the torch for them.
Are they manipulators? Bullies? Possibly both.
Psychological or emotional manipulation involves using underhanded, deceptive and abusive techniques. The manipulative co-worker has mastered the art of aggression disguised as helpfulness, good intentions or working for the good of the firm. They are great at hiding their own motives, while making others look uncooperative, incompetent or self-centered.
Some use positive reinforcement such as superficial sympathy or charm to control others; others may use verbal abuse, explosive anger or other intimidating actions to train their victims not to confront them. Often, they refuse to admit that they did anything wrong or they use rationalization or some spin to make excuses for inappropriate behaviors. They might play dumb and pretend that they don't know what the person is talking about or act surprised or indignant.
The dangers they can cause to a workplace are numerous. Not only can they push talented employees out the door, but they can also pit employees against each other, set employees up for failure and make strained relationships even worse. They can have a tremendous impact on the emotional climate of those around them. When they are upset, everyone is upset, until someone gives in to them and makes them feel better.
Manipulators have a number of motivations for their behavior. Generally, they want to advance their own agendas and individual gains (i.e., gain a powerful position with a fancy title or higher pay.) They want power and they have a deep need to feel superior over others. They also want to always be right and to win, even if it means turning off or alienating others.
What can you do about emotional manipulators?
First, recognize that they exist. This contradicts our desire to believe that people are genuinely honest and not ruthless connivers.
Be aware of the tactics they use. Then, you have a better chance of not falling prey to them.
Find someone you trust at work to share your thoughts about what the person is doing. Often, they will also be aware of it and have their own stories. Then you won't feel like you are going crazy.
Be on your guard at all times when around a manipulator. You really can't trust them and should not reveal personal or confidential information. Yet, this is tricky since they are clever at getting you to trust them and open up to them. They will, however, use that information against you, possibly sharing it with others in the firm.
It is also critical to limit your interactions with them. They often like to stop by and share what they see as problems with other people's work (hoping you will agree). It is important to not get caught up in their conversations since they will use your comments when talking with others (e.g., "Bill said Karen's performance was really bad").
Trust your gut when dealing with an emotional manipulator. If it seems like they are lying, they probably are lying. Challenge lies and half-truths.
Don't let them guilt trip you. If they try this ("You don't care about all the work I am doing for you."), you could turn it back on them ("I do care, and now it seems like you don't appreciate how much I care").
Check or verify what they say with the original sources. They will often tell you what others have supposedly said.
Be clear and specific about outcomes. Often, they may act like they are willing to do anything. If this is the case, then hold them accountable.
Document any manipulation. Look for trends (with certain colleagues or situations). Keep a log of what was said because they often will say one thing and then later assure you that they never said it.
You may have to take a firm stance with the manipulator, and let them know that disciplinary actions (or some consequences) will be taken. While your firm may not have a policy about dealing with manipulators, it may have a policy for dealing with insubordination and challenging authority.
When you first start defending yourself against a manipulator, they'll try harder to control you. Remember this and stay firm, don't get defensive and don't take the bait if they push you.
Finally, sometimes the best thing to do (for your own sanity) is to walk away from the person.
• Russell is the vice dean and the director of the Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Program at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist and has more than 25 years of experience coaching executives and consulting on leadership and career management.