The Netflix TV drama House of Cards has gained a passionate following recently, shocking viewers in every episode by the lengths main character Frank Underwood will go to for gaining power. On his journey up the political ladder, we’ve seen him lie, cheat, steal, and even kill to get what he wants. As a viewer, the motives that drive his behavior are sometimes unclear because he is thinking steps ahead of his current situation. He is a master manipulator, and uses the people around him in any way he can to get what he wants. As a TV character, he is a train wreck; appalling and horrifying in a manner that makes us unable to look away. We wonder if there are really people out there in the world who are as manipulative and deceitful as Frank Underwood. As it turns out, the truth is often stranger than fiction.
Manipulation is a particularly slippery type of leadershit. Unlike other culprits who exhibit obvious leadership shortcomings, such as the Poor Communicator or the Uninspiring, the Manipulator is a master of deception. More often than not, if people realize that they have been manipulated, it will be too late to reverse the consequences and results. The manipulator operates in secrecy and can only thrive when his true nature remains hidden. The Manipulator is calculated in shaping the people and world around him to get what he wants.
Chances are, you’ve been manipulated countless times throughout your life, most of which you didn’t suspect a thing. This chapter uncovers the most common forms of manipulation in the workplace, hopefully making it easier to identify when you are being used as a pawn in the Manipulator’s game.
Manipulators are astute at recognizing when situations could be spun to reap more personal benefits. Opportunists not only manipulate people, they are great at “working the system” to get what they want. Any lack of clarity or ambiguity is seen as an opportunity to do whatever they want. As children, they were the cause of many parents’ fights because their selective hearing repeatedly lead them to believe one parent gave them permission to do something, even if the other parent clearly disallowed it. As adults in the workplace, opportunists initiate projects, expenditures, and take actions without getting official approval claiming they “thought” it was compliant to policy. They thrive in chaotic and disorganized environments because it makes it easier for them to get away with whatever they want.
The Eternal Victim
Playing the victim is a sneaky way Manipulators use people’s emotions to get what they want. From requesting salary raises, additional vacation days, or being given another chance, the eternal victim leverages misfortunes to augment situations and take advantage of the system. Eternal victims are highly skilled at garnering sympathy from others, which often leads to special treatment. They use excuses to explain why they weren’t able to fulfill expectations or requirements, and can actually make others feel sorry for them, instead of reprimanding them. At the office, these are the people who just seem to have bad luck. You name it, the eternal victim has experienced it. People who are highly empathetic and make decisions based on feelings have to be acutely aware of eternal victims for risk of being abused by them.
The Puppet Master
This type of manipulator is strategic when it comes to influencing people. They are highly people-agile and know how to cater to different people to get what they want. First, they will quickly understand people’s motives, agendas and hot buttons. They can then morph into different personas like chameleons and will play whatever role is required to get people to act and react in a way that fits their needs. They excel at getting coworkers to trust them, while eroding the trust their coworkers have in one another. The most damaging form of manipulation, puppet masters work behind the scenes to make people think or do certain things to shape situations without bringing attention to themselves.
How to Know When You’re Being Manipulated
With so many types of manipulators, there are a wide range of possibilities when it comes to being taken advantage of. Here are a few signs to watch for in the workplace:
• You and your coworkers hear different things from the same person.
• A colleague refuses to document something.
• A colleague refuses to show documentation to support something he or she says is true.
• A process suddenly becomes bureaucratic, and you are blocked from doing something that was once easy to do.
While the people at the top of the food chain frequently get pegged for manipulation, it’s often the fault of their colleagues a few rungs down the ladder. Manipulators thrive on power, but most don’t need the highest title in an organization to achieve that.
Since manipulators play the same game, there generally isn’t room for too many of them within the same organization. When a company has a plethora of manipulators, its culture becomes incredibly political. The workplace turns into a game of who can outsmart who. This type of environment is unpleasant, unproductive, toxic and should be avoided at all costs. The goal is to create an environment that limits the amount of manipulation people can accomplish.
When it comes to exposing manipulators, lifespan is key. Most manipulators will eventually be identified by people the around them. When they are found out, it becomes much more difficult for them to use their power for evil. On the other hand, expert manipulators typically don’t get caught…they weasel their way out of every situation, often choosing to leave and organization or industry if the risk of being exposed becomes too high.
Thinking back to House of Cards, Frank Underwood is starting to walk a fine line of letting his hunger for power threaten his long-term manipulation abilities. It will be interesting to see how the next seasons play out.
Leadershit is being published by Hogan Assessments. It will be released in the summer.