Managers: Are You Leading or Manipulating?

Before we get into this topic let’s all agree that there is a place for manipulation in business, and there are times when teams and organizations must be manipulated to get them to a certain place. The idea of manipulation is not, in itself, negative. It is a necessary skill and tactic, but it is grossly overused in many organizations… especially sales organizations. Why has been it been overused? I think it is because manipulation is easy to do. It requires no homework or even an in-depth understanding of the people being affected. So, like any easy thing, it is done too much. This is especially true in big organizations.

I believe this is because the line has been seriously blurred between leading and manipulating. Let’s look at the seven contrasts see the clear distinctions between the two:

Leading = Influencing / Manipulating = Persuading

Leading = Developing / Manipulating = Directing

Leaders think: I believe in you / Manipulators think: I believe I can use you

Leaders think: How can we lead them? / Manipulators think: How can we make them?

Leaders say: Let’s do this together / Manipulators say: Do this for me

Leadership: Long term gains / Manipulation: Short term gains

Leadership: Hard / Manipulation: Easy

So why is so much of what is called leadership actually just simple manipulation? You can see the answer above on our list, it is just so easy to do. The truth is that only developed leaders really understand the difference between the two. I am certain that the leaders who employ manipulation routinely really believe they are leading.

This is also one of the least-understood reasons why many executives have such short periods of real effectiveness with new teams, they never learned how to lead. They really believe that the manipulative interventions they are executing represent some kind of active leadership. Their intentions are not necessarily bad, they are just not fully developed leader. Of course we all know that just shaking things up does not make people better, does not make customers happier, does not build a brand, and does not make businesses more valuable.

Let’s go deeper on this to eliminate all ambiguity. There is a time for both, but we want to know when we are manipulating and when we are leading. Here are a few common examples of each. None of these tactics and strategies are necessarily ‘good’ or ‘bad’. It is important for developed leaders to be deliberate with their choices, and not fall into the habit of using manipulation routinely like so many ineffective leaders do.

Manipulation Tactics:



Territory changes

Successive short-term promotions

Management threats

Leadership changes

Switching performance incentives

Leadership Tactics:


Shared accountability

Focused campaigns


Long-term strategies

Participative decision-making

Leadership development

Most of us work for a company that is clearly using one set of tactics or another, either manipulation or leadership. A few of us are in situations where we see a lot of both, these are usually organizations where the bulk of people report to more than one boss.

One of the most frequent observations we make in working with companies where the leaders have over-manipulated their teams, is that the people tend to be quite cynical. It is almost like they have become enthusiasm-proof. You can almost see “what now?” written across their faces. This is what over-use of manipulative tactics does to an organization over time. Passion and enthusiasm is replaced with cynicism and a jaded approach to change.

Another observation is that manipulative tactics always appear in high-pressure environments. The more job security pressure or investor pressure there is, the more short-term oriented the management becomes. This is where things can get really confusing for even the best leaders. Many will default under pressure to using manipulative techniques, even if they know the results can only influence the short term.

What kind of leader are you? Have you been guilty of over-using manipulative techniques? Think about it. As a developed leader you do not want to always do what is easy and expedient. You want to do what works. We are not in business to have a great month or quarter, so why would we employ short-term manipulative techniques that will gradually blunt our credibility and effectiveness over the long term?

Developed leaders know how to pick their spots and leverage situations. They employ occasional short-term tactics overlaid on a clear path of tangible and expected improvement. They are coaches who would never risk their biggest leadership asset, their credibility, for a temporary gain. Take some time to think through your approach, you may be overusing manipulative tactics.


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