Leading a Manipulator

June 19th 2017

All of us have known someone like this: 


  • the really smart person who seems even smarter, because he is so good at complicating even the simplest matter; 


  • the one who’s constantly spinning reasons, excuses, and explanations rather than taking responsibility — and we believe him;


  • the one who’s constantly working the back doors and alleyways of your firm to get what he wants;


  • the one who’s constantly at the center of attention, all the while proclaiming his desire to be on the sidelines.


This guy (and believe me, it isn’t always a guy) is a classic manipulator.  The difficulty in leading and managing him is that he can color even your clearest thinking. This can lead you to make poor leadership decisions with consequences that reach far beyond the manipulator. 


For me, the most disconcerting thing about manipulative people is how likable they can be. More than once, I’ve been sucked into their strange view of reality, trying and failing to please them unless I give them their way. It takes a toll on my mind, my spirit, and my productivity. I’ll bet it’s no different for you.


Following are a few perspectives that might help if you are dealing with a manipulator in your firm.


  1. Master manipulators can make you doubt yourself. They can cause you to stutter intellectually and emotionally. You must fight against this. Remember that you do know the difference in truth and lies, simplicity and complexity, and right and wrong. These are the basics of human existence, and you would be unlikely to be in a leadership position if you consistently made poor decisions, as a manipulator might have you believe.
  2. Give him credit for consistency. The manipulator is nothing if not predictable in his need to manipulate, obfuscate, and complicate almost everything. It is in the very fabric of who he is to operate this way. Judging him for it and, more importantly, making any decisions in reaction to it, is not productive.
  3. Remember your power: the power to embrace, the power to reject, the power to feel utterly neutral. All are within your purview. As a leader, you may have to choose all three, depending on the situation.
  4. The moment you let a manipulator take up too much space in your head, you have let the balance fall in his favor. A manipulator wants nothing more than to occupy your every waking thought, wondering what he’s up to. It’s why he creates complexity and chaos. Just like someone with a physical disability, he will likely live with it all his life. Unlike someone with a physical disability, he might never know he has it. It is not your job to fix such a deeply rooted personality train; it is your job to mitigate it where necessary.
  5. Try a little arrogance. Manipulators often will respond productively to strength and clarity, so be sure you are always clear about what you expect, and the consequences for not meeting your expectations. Most firm leaders I know (the good ones, anyway) are humble and rarely play the Managing Partner card, but it may be in your best interest to do so with a manipulator. He will march to your tune if you insist on it and if you show him that it’s in his best interest.


Manipulators are not by definition bad people; in fact, they can make significant contributions to your firm if you lead and manage them with clarity, strategy, and strength. Above all, remember who’s in charge and who bears responsibility for the firm as whole. There’s a reason you are the leader and the manipulator isn’t.


leadership, coaching, communication, management


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