Are you a master influencer or a master manipulator? (There’s a difference.)

Blog | October 19, 2021

Master influencer… or master manipulator? (Here’s how to tell the difference) 

No one likes to be layered. 

So when Tom, a recent client, hired someone above Emily, his VP of Engineering, … She, predictably, saw it as a betrayal and a demotion. 

Emily was pissed. Which, by the way, is a completely fair and normal immediate response. It’s difficult for us NOT to take being layered personally.

Tom’s intent was to foster Emily’s talent and leadership, bringing in someone who could help mentor and support her. The bottom line was, his future plans for his company included Emily.

But, Tom’s threshold for dealing with her reaction, her anger, was extremely LOW. He just needed her to be okay with it and move on.  Why couldn’t she see his longer term vision included her?

Even though he dedicated his time to having weekly 90-minute conversations with her about how she was feeling about the change, they weren’t very effective—because all he wanted was for her to STOP feeling angry.

On the surface, it looked like he was giving her space to express her feelings. In reality, he was trying to “manage” her.

Tom had unknowingly crossed the line from influence into manipulation. 

And so the vital piece necessary for her to “get over it” was missed: the space for her to truly feel heard and respected.  

This is not an uncommon problem. People don’t always realize when they’ve veered from influence into manipulation, because the difference can be subtle

Unsubtle manipulation is easy to identify. Folks who use their “sharp elbows” to get stuff done at work rarely, if ever, develop teams who will follow them anywhere and colleagues who will back them up.

And we all know that “Do what I say because I’m the boss” won’t get you very far for very long. (Just ask any parent.)

But no amount of bullying or manipulation really works, even the less “obvious” kind—not in the long-term, anyway. 

When we are working to get buy-in from our people, whether it’s for the way we’re directing a project, or accepting a decision to layer them, it’s about getting their willing cooperation—less about consensus and more about consent—even if, ultimately, they disagree.

But Tom’s less-than-effective handling of his VP’s layering is a perfect example of how even good intentions can go off the rails, if we’re not careful. The fact that Tom didn’t handle it so effectively had a lot to do with why Emily ultimately left.

And to be fair, when a senior leader gets layered, they often leave. Truly, whenever you do this as a leader, you must assume and prepare for this very possible outcome.

So, it’s a tough situation to handle well, even with great intentions and skills. But there is a better handling of the conversation, and one that burns fewer bridges.

To facilitate a difficult conversation like this one requires a different skillset: emotional intelligence and the ability to coach people, all of which require your own inner work and self-awareness. (Exactly the skills we help our clients master, btw.)

To give Emily the space she needed to feel seen and heard, and therefore respected, would require Tom to sincerely validate her experience, and be open to compromise, with statements like: 

“I hear you.” 

“I know it’s really disappointing.” 

“Let me give you context and background about where this decision came from.” 

Then, presenting why the move is of service to her and the organization.

“Tell me what you are most disappointed about. Maybe we can help solve for that.”

“This is what I think we can do.” 

There wasn’t very much of this type of dialogue, because Tom was just trying to manage her anger so that Emily could get over it, basically. 

There is a process to sincerity—which is the key difference between influence and manipulation.

You have to be open. And you have to know what you are willing to compromise. As in: 

What am I willing to let go of here so that I can get the bigger thing of what I want? 

It’s connected to caring about what the other person needs. Because if I understand and respect what you need and I know what I can compromise on, then I can accommodate your needs so that I get my bigger goal.

What matters in this situation is that each person feels like they have a voice and like they’re heard. That they feel that they matter. 

Sincerity and intention are so important here—and make the difference between success and failure.

It’s also the critical difference between shifting from a dominant “power over” approach, to a collaborative, cooperative “power with” approach that is an integral part of being inclusive and respecting all perspective—our responsibility as leaders. If you are determined to stay on the right side of influence, we can help. MettaWorks coaches are certified in our signature approach to success from the inside out. Schedule your complimentary discovery call today.

Rachel Rider
Executive Coach, Leadership Consultant