• Workplace manipulation happens when a supervisor or coworker uses guilt, shame, coercion, or other tactics to exploit another member of the team.
  • If your boss is a workplace manipulator, watch out for traits and behavioral qualities that indicate they might have dark personality traits.
  • Dark personality traits (narcissism, machiavellianism, psychopathy) are characteristics that can indicate manipulative tendencies.
  • Learning to identify dark personality traits could be beneficial when trying to understand and empathize professionally, especially with a boss who is a workplace manipulator.
  • We all have the capacity to be manipulative but can avoid acting on it at work by being candid and remaining mindful.
  • And when we’re unsure of whether we’re truly being manipulated by someone at work, it’s helpful to consider whether we’re overthinking our workplace interactions.

It’s like a bad nightmare: Imagine having a supervisor that’s hellbent on making your life miserable, playing with your emotions and your sanity. Perhaps this is already a tempting fantasy to believe on our worst workdays, when we’re rushing to meet deadlines or sitting through tedious meetings. Despite the frustration and hair-pulling that occasionally happens with any job, there’s no way that anyone’s boss could actually be manipulative, right?

As it happens, workplace manipulation is real—whether we experience it, or do it to others. Even when we manipulate coworkers for what seem like the right reasons (like complimenting their appearance to persuade them to help us with something), there’s no real winner when we start playing puppeteer. Guard yourself against the string-pullers of the professional world and learn to cope with workplace manipulation. 

Identify the Signs of Workplace Manipulation 

If we made a habit of voicing all of our thoughts at work, most of us would get fired fairly quickly. Point in case, our work environments require us to communicate professionally. That means holding back from sharing or spreading unnecessary negativity with our peers, which includes manipulative behavior. If your workplace is feeling tense, uncomfortable, or hostile, look out for these signs that your boss or manager is a workplace manipulator: 

  • They’re using guilt or gaslighting as a way to motivate you: For example — asking you to stay late or take on extra work by convincing you that you don’t work hard enough or that you’re creating more work for them by refusing. And if they agree to things (like time-off requests or deadlines) but then go back on their word, be sure to watch out for similar gaslighting tactics, too. Denial of verbal abuses is a telltale sign, as well. 
  • They love to point out problems but aren’t interested in helping find solutions: Instead of lending any ideas or helpful criticism, a manipulative boss might use any mistakes you make as a way to insult your abilities. Completing your work tasks only because you’re driven by anxiety isn’t sustainable, nor healthy. A good boss should point out your flaws or areas that need improvement, and also offer ways for you and your coworkers to better yourselves. 
  • Communicating directly with them always feels difficult: Sometimes, workplace communication is difficult. We can get cranky, stressed, tired—the list goes on. But if you’re constantly feeling as though your boss or manager is giving you the run-around, don’t second guess yourself. Manipulators excel at withholding details or insights that might clue you in on their deceptive behavior. 

Dark Personality Traits Explain Why Some Manipulate at Work 

Workplace manipulation doesn’t always happen on purpose—and sometimes when it does, it’s not intended to be malicious. As children, many of us quickly learn which parent is more likely to say “yes” when we ask for something. We also start paying attention to the reasons why we get those “yes” or “no” responses. Other social relationships aren’t necessarily different, even though we’re older; we may choose to flatter a coworker before asking them later to take on additional tasks. Or, if given the option, we may avoid scheduling our performance review too early in the morning, before our manager’s mood has been brightened by coffee. 

This is the squeaky clean side of workplace manipulation. But manipulative tendencies are  associated with dark personality traits, traits that we all share. The dark triad, or the big three of dark personality traits, includes: 

  • Narcissism: Self-obsession and preoccupation with one’s appearance, accomplishments, or future plans are marks of a narcissistic personality. However, those who display narcissistic tendencies aren’t always extroverts who are masters at getting their way: While their behavior can be destructive, narcissists shouldn’t be demonized. Like anyone else, those with narcissistic personalities contain both light and dark personality traits
  • Machiavellianism: Machiavellians are often highly manipulative and are characterized by their chess player-like mentality in social interactions. Machiavellians are less interested in garnering attention than narcissists: In work environments, they’re usually more focused on chasing down their goals, sometimes at the expense of others and with little regard for ethics.
  • Non-empathetic tendencies: Those with psychopathic tendencies may have little ability to empathize with others, and are marked by blunted emotional responses to stimulus. Because of this disconnect from others, psychopaths may act impulsively and like Machiavellians, may have little regard for those affected by their actions. 

Be sure to talk with your HR department if the situation gets out of hand with someone who’s pulling your strings, if you’re feeling isolated, or if you’re being mistreated. Like many other discriminatory issues, people of color and women are at higher risk of experiencing workplace manipulation or coercion. 

While every day isn’t guaranteed to be picture-perfect, the bare minimum for our professional environment is to at least be safe and free from workplace manipulation. 

Better Workplace Communication Strategies For Bosses, Supervisors, and Coworkers 

Even if you’re attempting to manipulate in hopes of harmonizing with your coworkers and meeting your team’s goals, workplace manipulation can rub your peers the wrong way. And if you feel like you need to manipulate your coworkers in order to get along with them, it’s probably a good idea to reconsider your communication strategy—or look for a new line of work. Instead of flattery or passive-aggressive workplace tactics that lean towards moral ambiguity (and dark personality traits), try: 

  • Being more candid with your coworkers: Our own sense of guilt or fear for upsetting someone may cause us to try and persuade or manipulate coworkers or those we supervise when we need to ask something extra of them. Be straight up: If you need someone to stay late, pivot last-second on an important project or assignment, or accept criticism, be respectful but open. Your coworkers will appreciate your honesty, and giving yourself the chance to answer truthfully will eliminate unnecessary stress from your day.
  • Evaluating the ethics of your professional communication style: Do you give compliments so that others like you? Do you weaponize guilt to get the assistance of your coworkers? These are tactics you may use that may not seem obvious—because we often rationalize our behavior when we’re uncertain of what the right thing to do is. While your logic for being manipulative may seem benign, it’s a slippery road to travel—one that may lead to unnecessary harm and dissonance in your workplace. 

And if you’re unsure of whether you’re truly being manipulated by your boss or manager, consider whether you’re overthinking your workplace interactions. We often place considerable time and energy into scrutinizing how we or others interacted in previous conversations, at events, or in work meetings. It’s possible that the person you suspect is manipulating you isn’t actually doing anything. Their strange comment or behavior may have been nothing, or perhaps they’re simply having a bad day. It’s not always our business to know; that’s the beauty of professional boundaries. So give others the space they need to be human, too. 

Workplace manipulation is inevitable—the dark triad of personality traits (narcissism, Machiavellianism, psychopathy) are qualities that we all contain and may occasionally give in to. It’s hypocritical not to empathize with those who may be struggling with them and the temptations to manipulate, even if it is our boss or manager. However, we also don’t deserve to be exploited at work.