Manipulative people in the workplace really do exist.  This blog will help you to understand who, why and what they mean to us in HR.  

Rose tinted spectacles.  I pride myself in wearing them.  I'm definitely a glass-half-full type of bloke, especially when it comes to dealing with people.  I personally believe it is one of those qualities HR people must possess; the ability to see the best qualities in people.

But regardless of how rosy I like my world to be, it's also important to keep my feet firmly on the ground of reality.  Much as I hate to say it, this reality tells me that there are some people in the world that just aren't nice.  Turn on the news channel on any day where you’ll find firm evidence of this.  Stories where someone, somewhere in the world, has conducted themselves with nothing but ill-intent for those around them.

I'm always amazed, shocked, surprised and in some counts devastated to hear that a version of this ill-intended behaviour also exists within the business world.  People, who fortunately are in a minority, that are so self-centred that they have no interest in anything other than their own needs.  They’re often scrabbling for promotion, status or some other worth for themselves.  I'm not talking here about those with career ambition and drive to succeed.  That's healthy.  Nor am I talking about those conflicts and disagreements that occur in the workplace.  Conflict is also a healthy part of everyday living.  Think back to the last time you saw two children arguing over a toy and learning how to share.  Think back to that interesting debate that you had on a business issue where different parties had different points of view.  Conflict is part of our society and must continue to be present to aid our development.

What I am talking about though is those that don’t work with others, with a team-spirited approach.  I’m talking about those that are so focussed on what they want they will quite happily, without regret or remorse, tread over anything and everything that stands in their way.  They are an especially disturbed bunch of people that George Simon describes as covert aggressive in his book “In Sheep's Clothing: Understanding and Dealing with Manipulative People”.  These are people who are sneaky, deceitful and will stop at nothing to get what they want.  They often lie, hold back important information, try and frame others to look incompetent and a whole host of other manipulative tactics.  The consequences are disastrous.  Stress and confusion are a bare minimum effect of dealing with these people.  Being dismissed or feeling that there is no option but to hand in notice and leave the job that used to be enjoyable are others.  These people stop at nothing to get what they want.  It could be a boss, a co-worker or even a member of someone's team.  It could even be someone outside of the working world in a personal relationship.  Whoever they are, wherever you bump in to them, let me make it clear that these people have no care and absolutely no respect for those around them.  I’m not saying these people are in themselves bad, but their behaviour certainly is.  The likely cause according to the book is deep routed issues within their internal values and beliefs.  If there is any chance of these being corrected, it can only really be done by professional psychotherapy treatment.

Before I come on to the good news, let me give you one more hard hitting fact.  These people do not conduct themselves in an obvious overtly aggressive way.  Society has taught us that there is no place for aggression.  If they use these blatant ways of getting what they want, they know they’ll soon be found out and removed.  So what they do instead is conduct themselves with a persona of charm and charisma.  They are on the face of it, the most personable, friendly people you may come across – just like the wolf in sheep’s clothing and probably the inspiration for the title.

So what does this mean in the world of HR?  Well sadly, according to the book, this type of behaviour is becoming more and more common place.  As our society and culture continues to strive to be a harmonious place where there is no place for aggression, it would make sense to these people to find discreet, covert, manipulative ways of getting what they want.  They do so, in order to go under the radar.  What this means is bullying in the workplace; victimisation or whatever you choose to call it by these people isn’t really that easy to detect.  Very often, even the victims themselves don’t realise what’s happening to them before it’s all too late.

So the good news.  These people, once you’ve spotted them, are really easy to deal with.  They don’t look so great without their fluffy coat!  The book leaves no stone unturned in terms of recognising and dealing with these types of people.  Whether you’re a victim yourself or you’re helping someone to deal with their own situation, this book will leave no doubt in your mind in terms of what action you should take.  The techniques involved in dealing with these people are far from being complex.  They are the best practice things that we all do every day.  They are skills that you as a HR professional or the victim themselves are likely to already possess.  But one word of warning.  If something I’ve said strikes a chord with you, please read the book and do it soon.  The book concludes with much advise in terms of dealing with these people because be aware, when you challenge this type of person, they have a whole armoury of smoke-screen tactics to help them disappear back under your radar and remove the spotlight.  They really don’t have a place in their agenda for losing so the book is really helpful in terms of helping you or whoever you’re helping to take the right action.  Action that isn’t going to make a situation worse.  It really is important to have the skills to recognise and challenge this behaviour either for yourself, or those you may support through these situations in your HR career.

The link for the book once more, is here.  There’s an audio version too.

Please comment below, or contact me privately if you prefer, if you have a personal view you would like to share.


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Ady Howes - Community Manager, DPG

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  • Thanks for this Rachel. The good news is, you more than likely already have the skills to deal with these people. The book will no doubt confirm this for you.

    I heard something today that relates to this. There are two ways to own the tallest building in town. 1) Build the tallest building in town or 2) Tear down every other building so you're left with the tallest!

    There's loads of competitive people out there. The difference between competitive people and manipulative people
    is how they fight for what they want. It's either overtly obvious (competitive) or covertly manipulative (nice and charming on the outside but a wolf within). I guess the skills in dealing with both are the same. Assertiveness is the key. Definitely no place to meet them with aggression but no good place for passivity either.

    Once you've figured out the best approach, your confidence soars to great new heights.
  • Is it a little bit strange that in reading this there are certain members of my company that came to mind!! As a person I am very trusting (bit too much sometimes) and like to see the good in everyone and at times in the past I have been shocked that people have done things for their own personal gain and not considered the impact this has had on other individuals. I think the older I have got I have become less naive and I am more cautious around certain people and also find that has an impact on the way I behave.

    This is a great topic Ady and will certainly adding the book to my collection as I don't know how to deal with these people!!


  • Hi Both.  And thanks for your comments.  

    It's a really interesting topic isn't it.  Not one that I would have particularly gone for ordinarily, but when needs must!

    I loved your blog "One Bad Egg" too Mike and yes, every word of it resonated.  Particularly the points you make on:

    2) Don't Lie

    3) Divide and Conquer is NOT the best strategy

    4) Don't push your own agenda

    5) Listen to feedback

    1 and 6 no doubt are still very relevant too.  I also strongly agree with your assessment that these people tend to be in the 0.01% of the population.  Thankfully!

    Jill makes a great point that HR needs to be able to recognise them in the workplace and address the issues formally.  I think one way of both recognising and addressing these issues is through the recognised appraisal process as well as informal "how is it going" type conversations.  Informal discussions to identify issues are useful as is the formal appraisal/performance review process to deal with them.  "How would you describe your relationship with..." are particularly powerful questions to be used.

    Jill - I have to say, I'm in full agreement with you on the point you make on the difference between people reverting to type and those that purposefully manipulate others.  I know there are plenty of times where pressure can cause even the best of us to behave in a way that we ordinarily wouldn't.  But I believe there is one key difference between the two.  A genuine person with a genuine heart is usually devastated to learn that their inappropriate behaviour has caused offence and upset.  The wolf however, cares not one bit, will try to minimise this feedback, suggesting it's not as bad as it sounds and others have perhaps taken things too much to heart.  The wolf thinks nothing of making themselves out to be the victim to turn off the pressure on them, leaving them to rule another day which perhaps would be even more sneaky, subtle and manipulative in the future.

    The words so far that's come up in this discussion that are perhaps some of the antidotes required are RESPECT and COLLABORATE.

  • Hi Ady

    Great blog, i read it this morning then felt i needed to go away & reflect on it before i commented.  Definitely food for thought :)

    It really is terrible that there are people out there who behave in such a manner but unfortunately that's the harsh reality of the mainly individualistic society we live in.  So it's great there are books being written on the subject & tactics developed for dealing with such people and obviously people like yourself for sharing this.  Totally agree that HR as a function needs to be able to support people who are dealing with a wolf in sheep's clothing but also needs to be able to recognise them in the work place & address the issues formally.

    I pick up on Mike's point of people changing under pressure & i have to kind of disagree.  I think there's a difference between people who "revert to type" (Myers Briggs) or behave differently in pressurised situation to those that purposefully manipulate others in the way Ady describes.  I think the key point there is that their internal values & beliefs differ from most other peoples with destructive consequences.

    Mike - sorry to hear about your bad experience, read your One Bad Egg blog (enjoyed the accompanying egg photo) & have to say it sounds like you couldnt of done any more than what you did.  If you've raised an issue several times and nothing changed than at least you can hold your head up high & know you behaved appropriately. 

    I think Respect isn't high on a lot of people's agendas these days, perhaps they need to listen to a bit more Aretha?


  • Great post Ady, thanks for sharing and I'll definitely take a look at the book....

    I, like you, am also a half-full type of guy. I enjoy working with a variety of people and working collaboratively to achieve good things, things that I want to be proud of and that make a difference.

    I have come across challenging individuals before and have seen how people can change when under pressure or when personal glory comes before team achievement. I have been able to flex my style to work with all these different types of people and having had a number of roles where I have changed things quite dramatically which tends to bring resistance, fear and a sense of the unknown.  I have had to do a good amount of influencing (not manipulating) to achieve the goals I set out to achieve but also work with the people involved rather than against them.

    I like to see the good in everyone outside of the work environment so why should that be any different in the workplace. I have only come across one person in my professional career where I our working relationship became untenable and I disagreed with the methods and approach of this person so much I was moved off a project and subsequently left the organisation. This wasn't the sole reason I let however it became clear as part of this whole experience that my vision was at odds with the organisation. I also left at the right time as most of my old colleagues have since been made redundant...

    I won't bore you with the details but I blogged about some of the things that really got my 'goat' - on reflection it might have been a rant as it was something that frustrated me didn't have to be like this. This person was definitely a wolf in sheeps clothing and VERY manipulative. I'd welcome your thoughts to see if any of this resonates 

    One Bad Egg

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