Recently I was listening to a manager complain about how her supervisor was not being upfront about her performance and on-going responsibilities. The manager took an extended vacation,and during that time her supervisor had reassigned some of her biggest projects to other team members. When the manager returned, she was surprised to learn of the changes.

She tried to get an explanation from her supervisor but hit a wall. The supervisor said that he was just trying to keep her work moving while she was gone. What’s more, without any real discussion, her supervisor asked her to focus on a different set of tasks, which to her seemed like pure busy work. The manager was completely bewildered and demoralized by the situation to the point of wanting to quit.

It all felt like a dirty trick to her.

An usual situation? Not really. Workplace manipulation has almost become an art form, particularly among organizational leaders, senior executives and mangers. I’m talking about intricate workarounds and deceptive maneuvers that leaders at all levels commonly employ to achieve an outcome in the face of real or perceived co-worker resistance. These manipulations can be extremely effective in accomplishing a desired goal or task but the organization pays a high price over time. Manipulation gradually chips away at employee cohesion, trust, organizational loyalty and ultimately, productivity.

The manager referred to above is still in her position, but now she is working with little energy and engagement. That’s what leaders can typically expect from workplace manipulation – a drain on your organization’s energy and ability to thrive.

Workplace manipulation can be defined as behavior where one co-worker knowingly misrepresents information or doesn’t reveal real intentions to another employee in order to achieve an outcome. We are all familiar with the “master manipulators.” These are the executives or managers who gin up nasty whispering campaigns to block decisions, pit one department against another, undermine a co-worker or maneuver a worker out of her/his job.

Then there’s the more subtle form of manipulation that’s tougher to spot. For example, members of an executive team uniformly agree that the organization must enact a hiring freeze. The decision is made but, when the time comes to share the news with their different departments, the executives tell their teams they tried to protect them from the freeze but the CEO ordered it anyway. Executives are trying to manipulate employee emotions to save face or avoid taking any heat for the decision.

The forces that perpetuate manipulation are powerful. Some include the fear of losing power and control, inability to handle difficult issues and conversations, a hyper competitive, “survival of the fittest” work environment, and a CYA (cover your a**) atmosphere where mistakes are frequently met with unnecessary harsh consequences.

If leaders want to get themselves or their organizations’ senior executives out of the manipulation game, they need to focus on shifting the work culture in four essential areas:

  • Positive work relationships – Leaders have to make creating positive work relationships a high priority throughout the organization by articulating it as an expectation and backing it up with their own behavior and support.
  • Openness and honesty – Leading by example, executives and managers must commit to operate with openness and honesty, particularly related to difficult decisions or issues. This requires leaders to have the skills and confidence for having productive discussions around tough challenges.
  • Shared decision-making – Seek broad organizational input on key decisions. This openness in communications limits crippling gossip, speculation and the impulse for closed-door maneuvering among executives, managers and the general employee base.
  • Accountability – Leaders have to be willing to refrain from or call out manipulative behavior when they see it taking place among their executives and managers. This goes back to creating a culture of openness and honesty.

As a leader, how much are you engaging in or tolerating the manipulation game in your workplace?