Freshman seminar with Miss Minchin
In Sheep's Clothing: Understanding and Dealing with Manipulative People
George K. Simon, Jr., Ph. D.
The most dangerous of all workplace dangers, the manipulative coworker has mastered the art of aggression disguised as helpfulness, good intentions, or working "for the good of the company". These people are brilliant at hiding their true motives, while making you look incompetent, uncooperative, or self-centered. They can make you lose your job, do their job for them, or even get you to apologize to *them* for trying to confront them about their own bad behavior. As Dr George K. Simon explains in his book, without the ability to recognize these "wolves in sheep's clothing", you are at risk of becoming their next victim.
Recognize who they are and what they want
In order to deal effectively with manipulative coworkers, managers, etc. you must first understand what they are all about. This involves letting go of preconceptions you might have about why they do what they do.
Jan Wiley* had had enough of Susan's sniping during team meetings. Susan regularly singled her out and critiqued her efforts to the most trivial detail, while practically sleeping through the presentations of others. Jan decided to address the issue with Susan in private, and get the problem squared away. She was not prepared to see this seemingly strong woman burst into tears at the mention of the issue, sobbing about how hard she has it at work and how she puts in so many hours because she just wants to company to do well, and never gets to see her family.
Jan thought 'Wow, Susan is really under a lot of pressure, that's why she lashed out at me in the meeting. I must have made her feel threatened or insecure in some way. I'm being really hard on her and she's just trying to make this group successful.' Jan backed off and dropped the matter. When the sniping continued, Jan tried to be understanding and ascribed the behavior to Susan's over-worked state, even though it was difficult and unpleasant. Jan felt she was being personally attacked, but could find no objective evidence that this was Susan's intention. She felt guilty for being angry at Susan, who clearly worked very hard for the sake of the company, sacrificing her own personal life.
Jan didn't trust her gut feeling that she was being attacked and over time the sniping took its toll. Jan's coworkers began to doubt her competence, why else would Susan be so hard on her, questioning her every move? Jan's boss also started to believe Susan's "suggestions" that Jan was not on top of things. Jan's manager stopped trusting her with important assignments, and her workload was reduced. Eventually her work environment became so unpleasant that when an opening came up in another department, she jumped on it, leaving behind the job she had loved for so many years. So many years before Susan came along, that is.
Jan fell prey to a master manipulator, who intentionally and subtly attacked her until she achieved her desired result. Jan didn't realize until much later that Susan was merely employing some of her favorite techniques to avoid consequences for her actions, while being allowed to continue her insidious assault undetected. Dr. George K. Simon identifies these people as covert-aggressives. These are people who fight for what they want, often indiscriminately, in their "unbridled quest for power", but do so in a covert way. Whereas overt-aggressives are very easy to recognize, openly fighting with you for something they want; covert-aggressives will do everything in their power to mask their aggression, and to throw you off their trail. This is what makes it so difficult to first identify these people, and then to effectively deal with them.
But they must be hurting inside to act this way, right?
Most of us have been indoctrinated with the Freudian psychology popularized in the age of the TV talk-show. We believe people only act out because their inner child has been damaged or because they were abused as children, and 'it's not their fault'. Thus we feel it is our duty to forgive and be understanding when faced with someone behaving in an irrational or inappropriately emotional way. We feel we must have done something to make them feel threatened or insecure, and not wishing to trample their fragile sense of self. While this is true for many, Dr. Simon points out that this theory of psychology which originated in a very inhibited time has been over-generalized in the present day. In today's permissive society, the majority of problems being treated involve too little inhibition of our urges and desires. Compulsive eating, gambling, or shopping, sex addition, and drug addiction are nowadays more typical than the neuroses of Freud's day.
For covert-aggressives, their tactics are merely the way that they have learned to aggressively pursue what they want in life. They don't distinguish when things are worth fighting for and when to sacrifice their immediate desires for a better outcome for all in the end. They trample over the rights and needs of others in their desire to always "win". To them, life is a constant battle to win, and will do anything to not “submit”. Winning to them means getting their way, maintaining a position of power over you, or removing and obstacle from getting what they want. Covert-aggression is a way of dealing with obstacles that has proven to be effective for them, at least in attaining their immediate goals. In order to deal effectively with covert-aggressives you have to first understand and accept that they want something, and that they are fighting you for it.
By failing to identify Susan's manipulative tactics, Jan did not react like someone who was being attacked. She allowed the bad behavior to continue, to her own detriment, out of sympathy or fear of hurting Susan's feelings, and guilt for adding more pressure to Susan's hectic job. In reality, she played right into Susan's plan. Susan played off of Jan's sympathy to continue her assault, unfettered and undetected. In the end, as Dr. Simon points out, Susan's reasons for her bad behavior are irrelevant; the bad behavior is not acceptable and should stop.
Know when you are being manipulated
Once you can recognize a manipulator for what she is, and realize that she is fighting you for something, the next thing you need to be able to do is identify her techniques for manipulating you.
Sharon Gutierrez* was tired of David's way of treating her differently. Sharon was one of two women out of 13 employees at a rapidly growing start-up company. While David enjoyed loudly joking around with the guys, he only spoke to Sharon when he needed her to do some work for him, and only in a "special" gentle voice reserved for women and little girls. He would go out of his way to "shield" her from the men's talk together, and would act as if he was being chivalrous by removing her from the scene just when the conversation was getting good. David also had a way of monitoring what Sharon did around the office, glaring at her when she would spend a few minutes chatting with "the guys", or shaking his head in disapproval if he felt that she let the phone ring too many times before answering. Sharon felt that David's "special" treatment put her on unequal footing with her peers, and it felt not only exclusionary, but patronizing. She wanted to fend for herself as an equal with her colleagues, and she wanted to confront him about his behavior.Sharon left that meeting bewildered, doubting herself and the legitimacy of her feelings. She felt as if she had just lost a big fight, but yet guilty for having so misjudged David's character. In her gut she knew this person was mistreating her, but was so confused by his ability to flip the situation around, that she started to question her sanity. In reality Sharon had just been put through a gauntlet of manipulators’ favorite tactics.
When the conversation finally took place, in private, David first denied that he did any of these things that Sharon experienced. He claimed to have no knowledge of this behavior and acted hurt that she would even accuse him of it. He gave a long rambling speech about perception vs. reality, and how sometimes what one perceives to be true can become that person's reality. David was angry that she could think this of him, because he said he thought they had a good working relationship and expected better from her. Because the behaviors he exhibited were so subtle, Sharon struggled to point to tangible actions that offended her. Every example she gave was brushed aside as a misunderstanding on her part. David acted so wounded, and victimized by Sharon's feelings, that in the end Sharon was apologizing to him.
Learn to identify their tactics
Dr. Simon identifies 14 tactics that manipulators use to get you do what they want. He points out the importance of recognizing these tactics are offensive moves employed by the covert-aggressive to either maintain a position of power, gain power, or remove an obstacle from getting what she wants. In order to deal with manipulators, you should memorize this list of tactics, and identify them when they occur:
- Denial – playing innocent, refusing to admit they have done something harmful.
- Selective inattention – playing dumb, or acting oblivious; refusing to pay attention to anything that might divert them from achieving their goal.
- Rationalization – making excuses or justifying their behavior, often in very convincing ways.
- Diversion – changing the subject, dodging the issue, distracting us from the real problem.
- Lying – deliberately telling untruths, concealing the truth, lying by omission.
- Covert Intimidation – intimidation through veiled threats; hints that “it’s a tough job market out there.”
- Guilt-tripping – using the conscientiousness of their victim against them to keep them self-doubting and anxious.
- Shaming – using subtle sarcasm and put-downs to make the victim feel inadequate, unworthy, and anxious.
- Playing the Victim role – playing the innocent victim to elicit compassion; convincing the victim that he/she is hurting in some way so that the victim will try to relieve their distress.
- Vilifying the Victim – making the victim the “bad guy”; pretending he’s only defending himself.
- Playing the servant role – disguising their personal agendas as service to a nobler cause.
- Seduction – flattering and overtly supporting others to get them to lower their defenses and be trusting.
- Projecting the blame (blaming others) – shifting the blame, scapegoating.
- Minimization – a combination of denial and rationalization, “making a molehill out of a mountain”.
Now that you know how to recognize a covert-aggressive, and you are familiar with the techniques she is using to get the better of you, you can begin to change the rules of engagement with the manipulator. Dr. Simon suggests focusing only on what is within your power to change. Get to know your own weaknesses that may help the manipulator exploit you. Then know what to expect from the manipulator, and change how you conduct yourself with him.
Know your weaknesses
Manipulators have no tolerance for weakness, and are attuned to these traits as opportunities for exploitation in others. He will make it his business to get to know your flaws in order to ascertain which techniques will be most effective against you. Therefore, it is in your best interest to know your own weaknesses and work to overcome them. Dr. Simon lists the following as potential weakness to watch out for that put you at a higher risk for victimization:
- Naivete – you find it very hard to accept that people are truly as conniving and ruthless as the manipulator in your life is, despite being faced with abundant evidence. This can make you prone to being victimized several times over before accepting the reality of the situation.
- Over-conscientiousness – you are your own worst critic, and may be too willing to agree with the manipulator’s attempts to shame you or make you feel inadequate. This only amplifies the effectiveness of the manipulators tactics.
- Low self-confidence – you are unsure of your right to pursue your legitimate needs, and overly self-doubting. This prevents you from feeling you have a legitimate complaint and asserting yourself.
- Over intellectualization – you try too hard to understand things and think if you can just uncover the “real reason” for the manipulator’s behavior, which must be legitimate and understandable, things will be different. This can cause you to spend too much effort trying to “figure out” your manipulator, rather than protecting and asserting yourself against his aggression.
- Emotional dependency – you may fear being alone and gravitate toward these seemingly strong and confident people. Once involved with a manipulator you are likely to let him run you over for fear of being rejected for standing up for yourself.
Recognizing these qualities in yourself, and working to overcome them can make you a harder target for manipulators. It can also set you up to more readily identify when someone is trying to manipulate you.
Change how you behave with the manipulator
While you probably would like to make the manipulator change and pay for her bad behavior, this is fighting a losing battle, and a waste of energy. No one has the power to change anyone else, and the effort will just lead to frustration and anger. Instead, Dr. Simon suggests focusing on changing yourself and how you deal with the aggressor. Doing so can be empowering and confidence-building. Dr. Simon’s suggestions include the following:
- Be prepared
- Be honest with yourself: Know what your needs are and own your agenda. Don’t deceive yourself about what you want out of the situation (e.g. you want to feel valued or need approval).
- Set personal limits: Decide what you are not willing to tolerate, and decide what action you are willing to take when your limits are exceeded.
- Be prepared for consequences: Anticipate what the covert-aggressive might do in response to your actions and take steps to protect yourself. Secure a strong support system.
- Judge actions, not intentions: When the aggressor behaves inappropriately, don’t get caught up trying to figure out what is going on in their head. That makes it easy for you to get side-tracked from the real issue. Judge the behavior itself, and deal with that.
- Accept no excuses: no matter how much of an explanation the aggressor gives you for their behavior, don’t accept it. Remember that they are trying to hold a position from which they should be backing away. The minute they start “explaining” they are resisting giving in to you, fighting to make you submit to them. The ends never justify the means, and you should dismiss any “reasons” they give you as irrelevant. Keep the focus on the inappropriate behavior.
- Make direct requests: Be clear and specific about what you want, and use “I” statements: “I want you to…” or “I don’t want you to … anymore”. This technique makes it difficult for the manipulator to distort what you are asking, and if they don’t give you a direct and reasonable response, it is a sign they are fighting you.
- Request direct responses: When you don’t get a clear and to-the-point answer, respectfully ask again. Anything else is a signal that they want to avoid the issue and are trying to manipulate you.
- Keep the responsibility with the aggressor: Don’t let them sidestep the issue, and ask what they will do to correct the behavior.
- Avoid sarcasm, hostility and put-downs: Confront without attacking the aggressor.
- Avoid making threats: Don’t threaten, just take action. Be careful not to counter-aggress.
- Speak for yourself: Deal with the manipulator on a one-to-one basis. Speaking for others makes you seem insecure.
- Stay in the here and now: Keep the focus on the issue at hand. Don’t bring up past issues, and don’t let the manipulator divert you by doing the same.
- Make reasonable agreements: Make agreements that are appropriate and enforceable.
Aggression in itself is an innate survival tool. When used judiciously, it is healthy and necessary. Use this newfound knowledge responsibly. According to Dr. Simon, you can avoid being a manipulator by understanding the following:
- Know when it is and is not appropriate to fight at all. Fight when there is a legitimate personal need, a moral value, or circumstance worth fighting for. Recognize when there is no point in fighting at all.
- Use alternatives to getting what you want without fighting. Know the difference between fair constructive competition and destructive rivalry.
- Know the difference between aggressiveness and assertiveness. Go after what you want with appropriate restraint and appropriate regard for the rights of others.