People & Human Resources

Five strategies for dealing with a manipulative co-worker

Eve Ash /

Manipulators in everyday life are not necessarily bad people. You might admire or even love a manipulator (they are frequently found in family contexts), but feel tormented by their constant conniving. 

I’ve dealt with a variety of difficult people over recent weeks, like the needy, controlling and aggressive, or the disrespectful, moody and procrastination-prone, but for many of us, the manipulator is especially challenging because they push our emotional buttons.

Why do people manipulate?

A manipulator is likely to have honed their skills from childhood, perhaps from living with a manipulating parent who used the victim card too many times. They have developed the knack of twisting what you say into something else, or making you feel emotionally in debt so you do something for them you really didn’t want to do.

They don’t understand or respect boundaries, they lack insight and sincerity, and they will often shirk responsibility and blame others. They are always trying to get you to do something they want. It can be because they’re unwilling to do the deed or confront a problem themselves, or because they enjoy watching you perform strenuous acrobatic feats on a high wire, while they’re safely below in the audience. 

They are close cousins of the narcissist, but usually stop short of their sociopathic tendencies. A narcissist habitually wants to control a situation and is always dissembling, whereas a manipulator doesn’t always predict the consequences of their scheming and often hides behind others. Narcissists deploy manipulation in their armoury, but manipulators aren’t necessarily narcissists.

How can you manage a manipulator?

It’s not easy to shame or change a manipulator, but you can alter your reactions and release yourself from such a person.

Admit it’s happening

If someone keeps sending you to buy coffees for the team without organising a roster, and that is not in your job description, you’re being manipulated. Perhaps they observed you know a good barista nearby, you enjoy a walk or you like helping, and they figured you’ll have the quality caffeine sorted. You have saved them unnecessary effort — that’s your responsibility now. You might oblige to begin with, but within a fortnight or so, you’re beginning to feel used. 

It may be you notice they often twist what you say into something you never intended, but it suits them to create the position for you. Or you see they simply don’t respect your boundaries.

Start by noticing this is happening — repeatedly.

Consider what’s really going on

Manipulators are always trying to effect an outcome. Usually, they want to somehow take the credit, or (more likely) engineer someone else’s downfall. If everything goes pear-shaped, you can be sure they won’t be in the firing line. 

Movie buffs familiar with The Caine Mutiny will remember the ‘real author’ of Captain Queeg’s career demise was not the rebellious officers. The ship’s communications officer (and would-be novelist) Lieutenant Tom Keefer had decided Queeg was paranoid (a popular mid-century term for mental illness) and therefore unworthy of his and his colleagues’ loyalty. He smoothly persuades the doubtful executive officer Stephen Maryck, an honest man who is troubled by growing indications of the unpopular captain’s instability. 

Call it out

Keefer’s eventual confrontation by Maryk’s lawyer Barney Greenwald is memorable. We would all like to do this to the manipulator who thinks they are safely hidden from retribution. Greenwald wasn’t really courageous in socking it to sneaky Keefer. He’d imbibed a few and readily admitted that torpedoing Queeg in the court-martial was “like shooting fish in a barrel”. 

Confronting a manipulator in real life requires some planning because not all stakeholders recognise manipulation when it’s occurring and might side with the wrongdoer (who could well be a convincing actor). 

If you believe it’s time to speak honestly, choose the right time, ensure you have your specific evidence and garner support (where possible and without telling the world) from others. Facts will score better results than an accusation. Be sure of your end goal, and be ready to walk away if necessary.

Draw a line in the sand

It’s difficult, but acknowledging how you’ve enabled a manipulator’s machinations is important. The real problem arises when something else might be at stake: a parent’s health, a team goal, a company KPI. 

If you know a broad objective needs prioritising, keep a record of what you’ve done and how you handled matters when someone’s covertly tugging at you to execute more aerial flips. 

You can always ask to be moved to another area away from the manipulator if working with the manipulator is stressing you and it is impacting your wellbeing. 

Idealism and hope will not extricate you from the manipulator’s clutches. You must take responsibility for yourself, especially if working at a company where there’s a fairness or equity deficit. 

Develop a greater sense of your own value, purpose and principles

It’s one thing to be helpful, but if someone is using this to their advantage, they are diminishing your worth in the process. 

Even if you avow being magnanimous is ‘who you really are’, don’t be surprised if another subterranean emotion is brewing: anger, especially if you’ve been short-selling yourself. 

Were you really put on this earth to forever carry out someone else’s agenda? Of course you weren’t. We are interdependent as a species, but there are and always will be limits, especially when the assistance given is never reciprocated.

Manipulators are hard to expose, much less dislodge. Some manipulators hang in there unchallenged for decades, so you’ll need all your reserves of persistence, patience and pluck for the manipulative personalities in your own life. Respect your rights and be assertive.

The good news is, eventually a manipulator’s actions catch up with them, in one way or another. You don’t want to be a casualty — stand your ground, impartially and with clarity.

NOW READ: Needy, controlling and aggressive: How to handle three types of difficult people

NOW READ: Disrespectful, moody and procrastination-prone: How to handle three types of difficult people

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Eve Ash

Eve Ash is a psychologist, author, filmmaker, public speaker and entrepreneur. She runs Seven Dimensions, a company specialising in training resources for the workplace.

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