Manipulation at work can be debilitating. Whether it is a manipulative colleague or a controlling boss, manipulation can seriously undermine our sense of self-worth and cause us to question our abilities. The effects of manipulation can be long-lasting, and it is essential to understand what it means to be aware of its impact.
What is manipulation?
Manipulation is the sneaky practice of getting what we want from others, often without their knowledge. We force influence over someone’s thoughts or actions to achieve a specific outcome that benefits us, all without their consent.
Examples of manipulative behavior include a person who uses guilt to persuade someone to do something for them. Another example of manipulation is someone who consistently flatters others in order to gain their favor or trust.
Sometimes manipulation can be used for a good purpose, like when negotiating a deal or persuading someone to see your point of view — depending on the person’s intentions.
However, regardless of one’s intentions, manipulating others is generally seen as unethical and can have negative consequences in the long run. So, here are more detailed examples of manipulation:
1. Saying you’re the only one capable
Someone might say, you are the only one who can perform a specific job. Imagine your boss walks over to your desk and says, “You know, you are the only one who could do this job right.
I cannot trust anyone else to do it.” It is easy to feel special. They appeal to your ego, and before you know it, you are trapped.
The truth is, the person is playing on your pride, making you feel like they need you more than they do. They are not. It is a trap. You may work harder, longer, or get exploited.
But you are not unique. While you might think that your colleagues need to gain the skills or experience you have, it is because they have never allowed them to learn to do the job. So, always remember anybody else can do the job if given a chance.
2. Playing the victim
Manipulation is a sly tactic that creeps up on you when you least expect it. Someone can play the victim card, to get what they want from you.
It is a tricky game that many employs to twist your arm into doing something you do not want to do.
They usually prey on your emotions, making you feel guilty for things that are not your fault. They make you feel like you owe them something, and before you know it, you are doing their work for them.
The worst part? They make it sound like it was all your idea. Remember that the victim is always the one left holding the bag when it comes to manipulation.
3. Giving silent treatment
The silent treatment is a mind game that chips away at your confidence. You feel alone and confused as you replay every conversation, desperate for clues about where you went wrong.
Was it what you said? What you did not say? Or was it just their mood? You try to apologize or explain yourself, but your efforts are met with cold indifference.
It is a power play by the manipulative manager or coworker who wants to control you. They know how much you value their approval, so they use the silent treatment to make you feel small and insignificant.
Meanwhile, they continue to wield their influence behind the scenes. It is a cowardly tactic, but it works.
4. Refusing to work with you
We say there is no “I” in a team, but some people seem to think that means there is no “you” either. When a team member does not want to work with you, it can feel like you are being left out to dry.
You might try to approach them with a task, only to be met with silence or obstruction. It is not just frustrating — it is downright manipulative.
We all have different strengths and weaknesses, but the whole point of a team is to create a collection of skills that complement each other.
When someone refuses to work with you, it is as if they do not think you are worth that effort. It is a power play, pure and simple.
And it does not just hurt you — it hurts the entire team because it deprives everyone of the full range of strengths each member brings.
5. Blaming others for your mistakes
Have you ever been blamed for something not your fault at work? It is frustrating enough when it happens between coworkers. Still, it feels even worse to be accused by someone in a position of authority, like a manager, supervisor, or team leader.
What about when that person is responsible for the mistake but refuses to own it up? It is one thing to make a mistake — we are all human.
But it is another thing entirely to try and shift the blame onto someone else. It is a tactic used by those who want to avoid consequences or protect their reputation at the expense of others.
6. Saying one thing and doing another
Many of us know that actions speak louder than words. But it is frustrating when someone says one thing and does the opposite.
It can make you feel like their words are just a smokescreen designed to keep you off-balance and unsure of where you stand.
It is a classic manipulation tactic — saying one thing and doing another. And it can leave you feeling frustrated, confused, and outright angry.
When someone says one thing to your face but then does something else behind your back, it can be tough to know how to react. Should you confront them? Or just let it go?
They might think they are being clever, but in reality, the person cannot be trusted — it is a sign they are willing to say whatever it takes to get what they want.
7. Pretending not to understand
Have you ever found yourself talking to someone at work, only to have them look at you like you speak a different language? It can be incredibly frustrating when someone pretends not to understand what you are saying.
The person is trying to make you feel your point is not worth making. They say, “I do not care about what you have to say, and I do not think it is important.” They try to make you doubt your ability to communicate effectively.
When someone pretends not to understand you, remember that it is not about you but their unwillingness to engage.
It is a sign that they would rather avoid working with you to solve a problem. Instead, they try to shift the burden onto you or avoid dealing with the issue altogether.
8. Being condescending
Many of us have experienced the patronizing tone, condescending words, and demeaning attitude. When someone speaks to us in a way that makes us feel small and inferior, it is disrespectful and manipulative.
A manager or team member may use condescending words to assert power and control over you to get what they want without actually listening or understanding what you are saying.
Whether it is subtle behaviors such as rolling their eyes or more aggressive tactics such as name-calling, speaking down to someone is never acceptable.
It can leave you feeling demoralized and voiceless like your opinion does not matter — but it does not have to be like this.
9. Pretending being busy
You know those types of people, the coworkers who always have papers flying off their desks, constantly taking phone calls and running around with a sense of urgency.
But in reality, they are not accomplishing anything at all. They are just putting on a show for the boss.
It is a classic manipulation tactic people use in the workplace to make themselves look important, hardworking, and indispensable.
It is also a way to hide incompetence and lack of productivity and make others pick up the slack. But the sad thing is, it often works.
The boss, who is often too busy to pay attention, sees this behavior and thinks this person is an invaluable asset to the team.
It is frustrating for those who see through the act and are left to do the actual work while the manipulative colleague takes all the credit.
10. Focusing on the weaknesses
Have you ever had a boss who only seemed to point out your flaws and weaknesses rather than your strengths? When someone focuses solely on your weaknesses, it can make you feel insecure and incompetent.
It is almost like they are trying to keep you down under their control. But the truth is, everyone has strengths and weaknesses — even your boss or colleague. Focusing solely on weaknesses is not only manipulative, it is also counterproductive.
Instead of tearing down your weaknesses, a good manager or team member should seek to build on your strengths and help you develop your skills.
11. Acting like doing you a favour
Have you ever had a boss who acted like they were doing you a favor by giving you work to do? It is a surprisingly common workplace tactic and can make others feel indebted or obligated to that person.
But let us be honest, they are not doing you a favor by giving you work to do. It is their responsibility as a manager to delegate tasks appropriately. Also, work should be a mutual exchange where you and a boss benefit, not a one-way street.
This kind of manipulation can be damaging to your self-worth and sabotage your career growth. You should never feel like you are in debt to someone just for doing the job you were hired to do.
12. Changing your voice tone
Changing your voice tone is one of the most subtle yet effective methods to get what you want. A manager might try to give you instructions softly and gently but with an underlying threat — “I’m asking nicely, but if you miss the deadline, then there will be consequences .”
A team member may feign innocence and confusion while attempting to make you feel like you are in the wrong during an argument. Or maybe a manager can speak slowly like whispering secrets in your ear. She does not want anyone else to hear.
You wonder why she does it. Is she trying to make you feel special? She adopts a persuasive, almost hypnotic tone when she wants you to do something. It is like she is putting you under a spell.
13. Making you feel guilty
Your team members can make snarky comments when you take time off work. They say, “Oh, we cannot all take vacations whenever we want,” or “It must be nice to have such an easy job.”
You tell your boss about having time off, and she says, “Well, if you need to take the day off, I guess that is fine.
But think about how much work we have to do.” You hear the subtle guilt in her voice and instantly feel bad for wanting time off.
You start to wonder if you are letting your team down or if you are replaceable. You feel like you cannot win — the guilt of taking time off, but you are also for not caring for yourself.
It is a trap. Your boss and coworkers are using guilt to manipulate you into staying at work.
They make you feel like you are letting everyone down if you take time off, so you work yourself to the bone. It is not okay. You deserve to take time off without feeling guilty.
14. Disguising insults as compliments
When someone tells you you are doing a great job but follows up with a “for someone in your position,” it is a backhanded compliment.
It can be a subtle way of letting someone know that they are not good enough and they can do better. Or someone who talks about your performance with a smile, yet their comments seem to cut you down.
The person may say, “You did an excellent job on that project. I never knew you had that skill in you,” or “Wow, you look great today!
You are usually so tired-looking.” Hearing those backhanded compliments from a coworker can leave you doubtful of your abilities.
You see, insults disguised as compliments are still insults, and they can significantly impact how someone performs at work.
15. Pretending not to understand
Imagine you are trying to express an idea to your boss. You have carefully crafted your thoughts and rehearsed in anticipation of this conversation.
As you begin to speak, you notice their eyes glaze over, and you know you have lost them. You finish your thought, and there is a brief silence before your boss says, “I’m not quite sure I understand what you are trying to say.”
You need clarification because you are confident in your ability to communicate effectively. But your boss repeats this tactic whenever they do not want to hear what you say.
By pretending not to understand, they deflect responsibility from themselves and avoid addressing whatever difficult conversations they try to avoid.
16. Feeling guilty asking for help
It is common to ask your colleagues for help when facing a challenge at work. But what happens when your boss makes you feel guilty for seeking assistance?
They might say, “I have so much on my plate, and now you are adding to it,” or, “I thought you could handle this on your own.” Or “What makes you think I have time for this?” or “I wish I had the luxury of asking for help.”
Often, such statements are intended to make you feel like you are not doing enough and burdening others with your problems.
But the truth is, asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness, and everyone needs a helping hand at some point.
17. Making false promises
Deception is an insidious force that can infiltrate even the most well-meaning teams. You trust your manager when they say they will be fair and unbiased in their decision-making, only to find out they promoted their favorite employee instead of the most qualified one.
You believe your work colleagues when they promise to have your back but later find out they have thrown you under the bus to save their skin.
Saying one thing and doing another is the bread and butter of manipulative or hypocritical people in the workplace.
They tell you what you want to hear, but their actions speak louder than words. Those are the people who talk the talk but do not walk the walk. Trust is fragile, and once it is broken, it is hard to repair.
18. Disguising criticism as a concern
When you hear unsolicited advice from a coworker disguised as a concern, you know something insidious is brewing.
People can cloak their negative criticism under the pretense of worrying about you. You might think it is for your benefit, but it is not.
Essentially, they use the so-called “concern” to fault-find — always pretending to care and showing unsolicited interest in your affairs, but they come with something different in mind.
These people only want to use your confidence to gather information against you. They might present themselves as your sounding board or confidant, but they are far from it.
Chances are, once they have planted their seeds of doubt in your mind, they will manipulate the situation to their advantage.
19. Using sarcasm to put someone down
Do you have a colleague or boss who likes to use humor to put others down? They may make a sarcastic joke about your work in a team meeting or poke fun at your ideas in front of others. Unfortunately, this tactic is all too common in the workplace.
The manipulative coworker or boss uses their wit to belittle others and make them appear inferior. Whether it is done intentionally or subconsciously, it creates a toxic work environment where people are afraid to speak up and share their thoughts.
20. Apologizing excessively
When someone constantly apologizes for things they should not even be sorry for, they may be manipulating you. It is a common trick they use to gain sympathy and make themselves appear more humble and likable.
But in reality, excessive apologizing can be a way to take advantage of your kindness and understanding.
Your boss might apologize excessively to make you feel guilty for not agreeing with them, or a team member might use it to get themselves out of trouble. It is a subtle way of playing on your emotions and making you doubt yourself.
Do not buy into such manipulative behavior. You may want to say, “I appreciate your apology, but you have nothing to be sorry about. Let us focus on finding a solution instead of dwelling on the problem.”
21. Claiming ignorance of wrongdoing
Ever caught someone red-handed only for them to pull out the “I did not know any better” card? It is a common tactic to get their way out of a sticky situation. Or it is a sly trick used to avoid responsibility and make you doubt your judgment.
Maybe your boss claimed ignorance when you questioned them about a questionable decision, or a team member said they did not know they were doing something wrong.
Either way, it is a subtle way of redirecting the confrontation and putting you on the defense.
But do not let them fool you. People who use this tactic know what they are doing and hope to pull the wool over your eyes. Trust your instincts and call them out on their behavior.
22. Downplaying others accomplishments
It is infuriating when you put your heart and soul into a project, and your coworker takes the credit. You go into the meeting hoping to hear some words of acknowledgment, but that never happens. Instead, your manager downplays your contribution and shifts the spotlight onto the other person.
It feels like a gut punch, leaving you feeling frustrated and undervalued. This manipulation tactic is commonly used in the workplace to undermine the achievements of others and position certain people as the stars.
It is done to exert control and gain favor, leaving the rest of us feeling ignored and overlooked.
In the end, it is not just the person whose accomplishments have been downplayed who is affected, but also the morale and productivity of the whole team.
23. Sulking and pouting
It is frustrating when someone sulks and pouts because they did not get their way. You might feel uncomfortable, guilty, or ashamed for expressing your needs, desires, or opinions.
Do not be fooled. This kind of behavior is a form of manipulation. The sulkers and pouters use their passive-aggressive demeanor to control and intimidate others.
They want to make you feel responsible for their negative emotions and you to give in to their demands.
If you encounter someone who uses sulking and pouting as their manipulative tactic, do not be afraid to stand your ground.
Hold your boundaries, express your needs, and tell them their behavior is unacceptable. Remember, you are not responsible for someone else’s emotions.
24. Using silence as a weapon
Silence can be deafening, especially when it is used as a weapon in the workplace. Imagine a scenario where a coworker confronts you about a mistake you made. You try to defend yourself, but suddenly, they go quiet.
You wonder if they have accepted your explanation or are quietly judging you. This kind of manipulative behavior can lead to paranoia and self-doubt. But it is not just your coworkers who use silence as a weapon.
When a manager wants to manipulate a situation to their advantage, they might use silence to unnerve their team members. They remain tight-lipped, offering no feedback or communication, just a sense of unease.
The team member is left feeling isolated and confused, wondering what they did wrong. Silence creates a power dynamic where the manager holds all the cards — it can be an effective way to put pressure on you to comply with their demands.
25. Playing mind games
Mind games at work can be a real pain. When a coworker starts playing mind games to get ahead, it can feel like you are caught in a never-ending maze.
Imagine a scenario where you are working with someone with a habit of playing mind games. They usually say one thing at a team meeting and then contradict themselves in private discussions with individual team members.
You will always need to figure out where you stand with them, and they use that uncertainty to manipulate you into doing what they want.
They make you feel like you are the one who cannot be trusted, and will use your insecurities to maintain control.
You might even start to second-guess your abilities, wondering if you can make the right decision without their guidance.
26. Charming out of a situation
It is always fascinating how some people have that natural charm to talk their way out of anything, especially in the workplace.
You know those people who can convince you they have done no wrong, even when their behavior is outrageous.
It is effortless for them to twist your words, making them appear faultless while you feel confused and guilty.
These charming people are experts in bending the truth and hiding behind their ‘professionalism’ to justify their deceitful behaviors.
You can hardly blame them, though — some people are just born with the gift of the gab.
27. Bringing up past mistakes
When someone uses past mistakes to manipulate you, it can feel like a never-ending cycle of guilt and shame that has nothing to do with your progress. It is like trying to climb a mountain with a boulder tied around your waist.
The person will not let you forget your past mistakes no matter how hard you work to turn things around. It is a way to keep you stuck in the past and constantly feeling inadequate.
The sad part is sometimes such manipulative behavior comes from a close coworker or, even worse, a manager.
It is not easy to move forward and grow when someone constantly pulls you back into the past. Your work should be evaluated based on what you have accomplished recently, not on mistakes you made long ago.
Read also: 15 Examples of Difficult Work Situations
Sometimes, it can be difficult to distinguish between manipulation and genuine persuasion. Manipulation can be used for both positive and negative purposes, depending on the intentions of the person using it.
However, regardless of one’s intentions, manipulating others is generally seen as unethical and can have negative consequences in the long run.
Manipulation preys on vulnerabilities and exploits them for personal gain, which is why it is considered unethical.
Whether we are on the receiving end or the one manipulating it, we must be aware of its existence and take steps to avoid it.