4 Ways Employees Manipulate You

Radhika Sivadi

4 min read ·


Use these tactics to thwart four common dirty tricks that employees play on their bosses.

While most people are well-meaning, there is always a subset who thinks they can get a head by manipulating others to do what they want. Nowhere is this tendency more toxic than in the employee-boss relationship.

I've already written about the ways bosses (foolishly in my view) attempt to manipulate employees rather than inspire them. This post describe the four most common ways that employees try to manipulate a boss, and how a boss can avoid being manipulated.

1. Forcing a Card

When stage magicians have an audience member pick a card, they have numerous ways to ensure that a particular card is picked. This is known in the trade as "forcing a card."

Employees do something similar when they want a boss to make a particular decision. They prepare three alternative approaches to a problem so that it appears to the boss that there's a choice, but in fact only one approach makes any sense.

For example, suppose an employee wants a boss to hire his college friend. He recommends three candidates: 1) his friend, 2) an unqualified person, and 3) an overqualified person.

The Best Defense:

When presented with false alternatives, refuse to accept them. Say something like "I wanted three real alternatives and what you've given me here is one that's viable and two that aren't."

The employee will probably get defensive. If so say: "Be honest: are you trying to force my hand? Because I need some real choices." Your goal is to insert honesty into the relationship while letting the employee know you can't be manipulated.

2. Creative Goldbricking

When employees want to avoid difficult projects or even work in general, they'll often pretend to be so busy that you'd be insane to even consider putting something extra on their over-full agenda.

Such employees sport frazzled expressions, carry around huge stacks of papers, and complain–constantly–about how "stressed" they are. Even so, when you actually look into what they're getting done, it's not all that much.

Some employees, of course, may be spinning their wheels unintentionally, in which case you'll need to help them get out of a rut. But make no mistake, sometimes the "stressed to the max" shtick is only for show.

The Best Defense:

The difference between wheel-spinning and goldbricking is the intent behind the behavior. Since it's impossible for you to read an employee's mind, it's a waste of time to assess intent. Instead, address the behavior.

Tell the employee: "I'm clearing you of all responsibility, starting now." Give that statement a second or two to sink in. Then say: "We will now work on specific tasks that must be completed by a specific date."

Make certain that every task on the list has a concrete end-point, where there's no question whether the task has been accomplished or not. Think "get Acme to buy a product by end of month" rather than "increase customer communications."

3. Hiding the Skeleton

Suppose an employee wants you to remain ignorant of a fact but also doesn't want to be accused of holding back information. In this case, the employee may inform you of the fact without really informing you.

There are two ways to do this. The first is to bury the inconvenient fact near the end (but not AT the end) of a long report or email. Chances are you won't notice it, but the employee can claim you were "told all about it."

The second method is to hide the fact with weasel words and legalese. Example: "Pursuant to the inquiry dated 11/7, the conclusion was that the extirpation resulted from product usage." Translation: "Our product just killed somebody."

The Best Defense:

Whenever you receive a long report that might contain something problematic, click to the end of the document, then click back a few paragraphs. If there's a skeleton hiding in the report, that's where you'll find it.

When confronted with jargon, your best approach is to ask, point blank: "What does this mean in plain language? Please use words of one syllable." Note: this approach is a really fun way to drive corporate lawyers crazy.

In either case, hedge your bet by asking: "Is there anything here that, if I fully understood it, might alter my decision?" Then add: "Because I'm going to hold you accountable if there is."

4. Rat-holing

When employees don't like where a meeting is headed, they may try to change the subject by bringing up an issue that's guaranteed to distract your attention. This is known as "sending the meeting down a rat-hole"

For example, suppose the purpose of your meeting is to review project status, but "Joe" hasn't gotten much done. Rather than take the heat, Joe brings up (or makes up) a rumor that your biggest customer may leave for another vendor.

Suddenly, the project review turns into a planning session to avoid the impending disaster. The ensuing discussion consumes the remainder of the meeting time, thereby keeping the lateness of Joe's project off your radar.

The Best Defense:

Rat-holes only work when you're willing to jump down them. Have an agenda for every meeting and stick to that agenda, so that your meetings stay on course, even if employees surface distracting issues.

Whenever you sense a rat-hole, state that you realize that the issue is important (even if it's not) and then "table" that issue for later discussion. Eventually, employees will realize that, in your case, rat-holing is futile.

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Radhika Sivadi