Working with highly manipulative managers

Often senior managers are highly skilled in the act of manipulation.  As a matter of fact, it  is one of the very reasons that senior people reach the top.

Highly manipulative leaders/manager often commission consultants when manipulation is no longer effective. Most frequently this happens upon being promoted, or when there is a need for rapid change.

Influence and manipulation may look similar but there are major differences-

  • lack of intentional functional transparency
  • lack of consistency, e.g, measuring X and demanding Y. (Talk quality and measure speed)
  • built in need for escalation to get things done (very very common)

I do not want to quibble about what manipulation is because, like pornography, we know it when see it.

In this post I will give 6 guidelines about how to work with highly manipulative managers who commission consulting work.

  1. Be open about your own agenda. (I want to make money. I want to build my reputation, I hate failure) Exposing agendas models migrating away from manipulation.
  2. Do not be judgmental about manipulation. The client must understand that while manipulation may no longer work, it is not useful to  knock what he/she thinks brought him up through the ranks.
  3. Use the here and how to “expose” each and every manipulation that your client uses with you.
  4. I have found use of paradoxical interventions most useful with this population
  5. Provide useful  alternatives to manipulation, acknowledging that the alternatives to manipulation have unwanted side effects. (Kipnis and Pois are still relevant).
  6. Be fully transparent. Transparency is the ultimate mitigation mechanism of manipulation.


Helmut commissioned me to work with him on implementing an organizational change which is moving too slowly. Helmut has been  CEO for 6 months, and previously he was head of the European Sales Division.

Helmut has succeeded in every role he has had until now. His results have been  impeccable. This is no longer the case.

Helmut plays his various team members against once another. He gives the same task to  5 different people.He is purposely vague so that everyone is always guessing what he means.

In our initial meetings, Helmut was vague about what he wanted. Two other OD consultants were also involved, all with vague overlapping mandates. Helmut blamed me that I was not practical. In a long and heated 2 hour discussion, I called him on his manipulation and resigned. He re-hired me two days later, and he even  oked that I publish this post. Things are moving.  But I watch my back. 

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One thought on “Working with highly manipulative managers

  1. Good one, Allon. Over the years, I have on occasion found myself reporting to, or working for, senior level managers that I did not trust. Right now, for example, I am dealing with one of these minor Machiavelli’s. A tip I’ll offer is one I learned from a CEO some years ago who used to say “Keep your eyes open.” In other words, stay alert. Be aware of what is going on around you. Be attuned to nuances. If you get sleepy, you’ll get rolled.

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