HR Pros – Helping Supervisors Handle Manipulative Employees

Don’t let employees manipulate you!

Who suffers when employees manipulate supervisors?

When I speak to supervisors about how to respond to toxic employee behavior I am often struck by the pain they feel when employees mount these manipulation attacks. There is usually a point where at least one supervisor cries.  It’s not because they’re sad, but it is actually relief that someone finally understands and validates what they’ve been through. They feel tremendous comfort sitting among others who have had similar experiences. It’s the power of the group. Of course the company also suffers as employees are distracted by the social turmoil caused by these difficult employees.

Vulnerable Supervisors

Manipulative employees are among the most challenging for any supervisor. However, inexperienced managers are especially vulnerable when supervising crafty long-service staff.  These super manipulators have antennae for finding your weak spots.  Maybe you care what others think of you.  Maybe you can’t stand to get the silent treatment from coworkers. Whatever it is, they’ll find it.  Building on what pushes your buttons, manipulators create fear and through that fear, control you and the actions of those around you. These strategies are all meant to prevent you from holding them accountable and they are often very effective. Supervisors need knowledge and strategies to see the manipulation in order to neutralize it.

Emotional manipulation in the workplace can involve:

1. Power – Arguments over who has authority to make decisions and enforce policies;

2. Personal attacks – mean, personal comments directed at the supervisor; and

3. Emotional blackmail – threat to become overly emotional, disruptive.

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These strategies actually work!

1.  Power – you are not the boss of me!

Here is and example of what I like to call “conversation stoppers” manipulative employees use to get their supervisor to stop the offense and get on the defensive:

“You didn’t say I couldn’t leave early.”

It works: supervisors will second guess themselves that they haven’t been clear, try to clarify their instructions and then feel guilty about enforcing consequences.

Try this instead: “I hear you but no supervisor is expected to make an exhaustive list of everything an employee can or can’t do.  What we are looking for is good judgment from all our employees. People who think about the company’s needs. We have two choices.  We can remove all your decision-making authority or I can provide coaching to you about the negative effects your leaving early has on coworkers and customers.”

“You didn’t warn me about this change”

Why it works: The supervisor feels badly that employees might have been caught off-guard. He/she will hesitate and again, may not feel comfortable holding the employee accountable.

Try this instead: “Yes. You’ve mentioned that before. I guess what we are looking for is for people who are flexible.  We also like it when employees think ahead and anticipate changes.  For the company to be successful in today’s business climate, we have to be prepared for rapid change.  We have to move with the markets. Maybe this just isn’t a strength for you. Maybe you might feel comfortable in a different, more predictable assignment.”

Here are some other “power and authority” proclamations you might encounter:

  • I was promised this schedule when I started
  • The CEO told me I could make my own hours
  • You told me I could use my discretion
  • You never told me my performance was a problem
  • My performance has always been evaluated as above average
  • My old supervisor was okay with it
  • You come in late, you leave early, too
  • Jane comes in late, she leaves early
  • We all discussed it and we decided we are going to do this differently

2. Personal attacks – no body likes you!

These can be especially painful for supervisors who care about whether people like them.  Here are some examples:

“We talked about it and we feel that you are the worst/meanest supervisor.”

Why it works: No supervisor wants to hear this.  The trouble is that it probably isn’t true.  When a manipulator wants others to hate you they tell people only the parts of the story that make you look bad.  And if people do hate you as you are the only supervisor actually making employees accountable it isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Another tactic used here is to exaggerate the number of employees who agree with them. “Everyone agrees that . . .” “Several of us were talking at lunch.” If you probe, you may find it was the employee and one best friend.

Try this instead: “It seems like you’ve been busy talking negatively about me and the company. You don’t seem to understand what supervisors are asked to do here by our bosses. I get paid to make sure employees contribute to company sustainability.  I guess if making sure employees get their work done makes me the worst supervisor, then oh well.  I need to correct you on the “mean” comment, though. If you experience a supervisors questions or evaluations of your work as “mean” you might want to rethink working here because that “mean” thing is going to happen every day.  We’ve established that you think I’m mean. What’s next?”  Move on to the next topic.

Personal attacks meant to control you or distract you from holding employees accountable include:

  • “No one” likes you
  • “No one” wants to sit with you at lunch
  • I heard the boss respects your work
  • “We” don’t think this is the right job for you

3.  Emotional blackmail – I’m starting to feel unsafe!

The use or threat to use “vulnerability” to control others is less common than the other two techniques but can be very effective. Using this strategy, supervisees become overly emotional (tears, rants, victim talk) at the slightest hint of negative feedback from their supervisor.

They loudly burst into tears and say, “I don’t feel safe here.  Why does my supervisor keep doing these things to me?”

Why it works: Over time, everyone walks on egg shells to keep the person from expressing their strong emotions all over the office. Crafty manipulators will go from office to office crying and talking about the horrible things the supervisor does to them. Most caring supervisors are horrified to have someone telling everyone in the office how bad they are. In the long-term, this gives the individual tremendous power.  First, it is just the emotional breakdowns. Then, the threat or idea that it might happen is enough to keep people from confronting them.  No one wants the employee to disrupt the office all afternoon. Before you know it, decisions that could result in their drama and upset are re-thought and what’s best for everyone else gets lost. It doesn’t happen all at once but over time others are less and less likely to make or communicate a decision that will set this employee off. This dynamic has a chilling effect on innovation and accountability because emotional employees are well-defended against any attempt to get them to accept responsibility for their disruptive actions. Supervisors know this individual will not accept feedback on over-the-top-emotionality as a legitimate performance problem.

Try this instead: “I understand that you were upset when we turned down your request to leave early today.  There are coverage issues this afternoon and my boss expects me to ensure we’re covered. The problem is that these things that cause you to be emotionally overwhelmed are things that most people in the office are able to take in stride. In addition, disappointments are a part of normal business and will continue daily. Every day, things come up that we don’t like or don’t want: interruptions, being turned down for things we want, etc. The way you handle this . . going around to everyone’s office and talking trash about me and the company; crying and loudly complaining, are enormously disruptive to everyone’s work and we are now getting complaints about it. I would like to work with you to come up with some strategies that will reduce the amount of emotional outbursts involving everyone in the office.”

Don’t take it personally

If you stay grounded and understand these remarks as manipulation attempts instead of factual statements, you can stay detached and keep your cool.  Bond together with other supervisors by discussing common tactics that can help them handle overly emotional employees and developing common strategies to address them. Staying united and supporting one another can be a powerful way to respond to manipulative techniques.  You may need to help others in the office with appropriate boundary setting when they don’t want this employee complaining in their offices during an episode. Finally, find ways to de-stress and associate with supportive healthy friends outside of work. If needed, see a coach or therapist to maintain healthy self-confidence and to prevent you from obsessing about being victimized by this kind of behavior. You are not alone in your struggles.

Note: This post addresses manipulative employees and does not address truly victimized employees working with an abusive supervisor. That requires analysis of the severity and more sophisticated boundary setting or damage control.

(c) Copyright Benoit Consulting, LLC updated 2022 all rights reserved

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  1. Thank you for this very useful article. I do unpaid supervisory work for a small non-profit, and we have some of the same issues, sadly…

  2. Thank you for your comments. These issues are, unfortunately widespread across industries. It’s not hopeless. There are things you can do!

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