13 Jan 2014

How to prevent your office becoming a house of cards

Kevin Spacey’s turn as the manipulative and self-serving Frank Underwood in the brilliant TV series, House of Cards, is a sharp reminder that organisations that allow manipulators to run free are going to find themselves in trouble.

A manipulator will work quietly behind the scenes to sabotage good projects or promote ideas that might not be for the good of the business. They are experts at getting people to agree with them as they will play on the emotions of others and can be flattering, charming or bullying as the situation demands. But regardless of how they go about achieving their goals, manipulators can affect workplace morale, form power groups within organisations, and pull leadership away from the leaders.

Few organisations are as large as the United States government, of course, and the typical manipulator will lack the resources and capabilities for the kinds of grand schemes that Underwood undertakes. But even the smallest of businesses need to know how to recognise, and then manage a toxic manipulator type, because most organisations will at some stage wind up with one.

Recognise a manipulator

A manipulator will be capable of, or regularly caught doing the following: lying, cheating, denial, rationalisation, selective attention or inattention, diversion, evasion, guilt tripping, shaming, victimisation and feigning innocence and confusion.

Being aware of the range of tactics available to a manipulator uses is important, because it allows you then to moderate the impact that they’re going to have on the business and proactively anticipate their strategies. Working under the assumption that they can’t be trusted to do right by the organisation and you’ll be able to work with the rest of the organisation to make sure that the manipulator isn’t getting under the skin of the other people they’re working with.

If someone in the organisation always ends up being “right” and is identified as the leading force in every project that they’re involved in, are they really a stand up employee, or a manipulator? It’s entirely possible that it’s the former, but it’s also worth considering it might be the latter.

Once identified, it’s also important to understand what a manipulator will want to achieve. If you’re able to identify what they’re looking to achieve, and they’re achieving them more often than not, it’s likely their manipulation strategies are working.

Managing a manipulator

Once identified, manipulators can still be productive assets to an organisation. It just means that they need to be carefully watched so that they don’t become the true power behind the throne.

  • Limit topics of conversation. The more that a manipulator has to work with, the more they’re going to spin things to their benefit. When working with a manipulator keep interactions with him/ her sharp, focused on a clear end result, and documented so that new truths can’t be written in after the date.
  • Keep communication within the rest of the organisation flowing. A manipulator will be able to take advantage of a lack of communication within an organisation to spread half-truths and outright lies. The more transparent management can be within an organisation and the fewer private conversations that happen around work matters, the better.
  • Don’t accept excuses or blame shifting. The manipulator is a master of never being wrong, and there will always be a reason excusing them if something has gone wrong. Make sure your organisation is one where expectations are clearly laid out and employees are expected to take personal responsibility for their work.

Be pleasant. The other basic reality about manipulators is that they thrive in hostile environments where emotions run high and cloud both reason and judgement. Remaining cool, calm and pleasant takes a lot of the manipulator’s power away from them.