Manipulative vs. Persuasive Leadership Styles


As kids, we learn how to manipulate the people around us - using tactics like tantrums, bargaining, and aggression to get what we want. Most of us mute that impulse as we grow older but some take it into the office.

Manipulative leaders rely on power and control to get results. They find out an employee’s triggers and push those buttons in order to make teams more productive. Does it work? Maybe in the immediate-term, but manipulative management is a self-defeating strategy. Employees will quickly become disgruntled and demoralized negatively impacting their work and making it more likely that they’ll go elsewhere.

In today’s economic climate, companies can’t afford to lose good talent. Keeping staff satisfied, engaged, and productive means cultivating a leadership style based on positive psychology rather than negative stressors.

What does manipulative leadership look like?

Good management is, of course, about getting employees to perform tasks to the best of their abilities. That may involve some gentle manipulation but trouble arises when that manipulation is more aggressive than persuasive.

Managing by persuasion involves encouragement, positive reinforcement, and inspiration. In other words, positive emotional stimuli. Manipulative managers turn to more toxic tactics.

Competition - this involves pitting employees against each other to assess their performance, make them vie for a promotion, or drive them to work harder. It exploits an employee’s insecurities, making them feel that they can’t measure up against their teammates. This strategy also fuels division within teams, which damages communication, trust, and productivity.

Guilt - playing the guilt game allows bad managers to make employees feel like they owe them something. Examples include, ‘work hard because I’ve put so much effort into training you,’ ‘if you don’t do this, you’re letting down your colleague,’ or ‘you messed up and now your whole team is behind schedule.’ This unfair allocation of blame is particularly stressful for conscientious employees who are more prone to guilt.

Secrecy - withholding information from employees is another form of manipulation. It may involve sending employees into a meeting without properly briefing them, expecting teams to be mind readers and somehow inuit their instructions, or simply keeping back details as a way of keeping employees off-guard. Managers play the secrecy card for all kinds of reasons - to punish employees for behavior they don’t like, to make themselves feel more secure - but the end result is the same: employees who don’t trust their leaders.

Coercion - Manipulation can be passive, but it can also be very overt. Bullying leaders may threaten to fire employees, report them or remove their work privileges as a way to get what they want.

Dealing with manipulative managers

How your workplace responds to manipulative leadership has a lot to do with its demographics. 

The youngest cohort, Generation Z, are more demanding and much better at calling out toxic workplaces than their older millennial or Gen X colleagues. This demographic places a high value on emotional intelligence and trust in the workplace and if they can’t find that, they’re prepared to move on.

Gen X and older millennials are more likely to quietly put up with terrible leaders…until they aren’t. These workers may be more patient and less vocal, but that doesn’t mean they won’t quit when they get a better offer.

For any cohort, the antidote to manipulative leadership is polite, but direct, confrontation. Employees should look to their Gen Z coworkers and match their forthright feedback style.

How to avoid being a manipulative manager

Generally speaking, manipulative leadership styles are most commonly seen in the baby boomer and late Generation X cohorts.  

These managers rose through the ranks in an era that valued achievement, authority, competition, and individualism. While these are valued attributes in the right context, taken to their extreme they can hinder collaboration, lead to employee burnout, and destroy trust.

Modern-day managers should be aware of the pitfalls of “old-school” management tactics and unlearn some of the above behaviors, minimizing competition and coercion in favor of a more persuasive approach.

At its core, manipulative management is about getting employees to do something that benefits the individual manager, while persuasion is about encouraging them to do something that benefits everyone. This encouragement comes from:

  • Active listening
  • Respectful communication
  • Empathy
  • Relationship-building

The major difference between manipulative managers and persuasive managers is that the latter have positive intentions. They want to see their team succeed, not take credit for their success. 

Managers can help their team smash their goals with Employee Productivity Monitoring solution, Prodoscore. The innovative platform monitors how employees are using their company’s digital tools to generate  individual and team productivity scores. This level of visibility provides real-time data on who’s engaged in the right way and who needs extra support. Talk to our team today to find out how Prodoscore can help boost productivity in your workplace.

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