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Sunday, November 16, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

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Manipulative personalities can be disabled

By Shirleen Holt
Seattle Times business reporter

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Anyone who's ever held a job is familiar with the types.

She's the co-worker who punishes with the silent treatment.

He's the salesman who uses false flattery.

Then there's the passive-aggressive type, whom Gary Cole played to droll perfection in "Office Space." ("Ooh, uh, yeah. I'm going to have to go ahead and sort of disagree with you there.")

As different as their personalities seem, these people share a common trait: They're manipulators who use guilt, hollow praise, pressure and a host of other tactics to bend people to their will.

Of course workplaces are filled with people who control others — they're called bosses.

But manipulators hold a special place in cubicle hell. They're not supposed to be the boss of you, so they resort to covert string-pulling, a process that leaves the unwitting puppet feeling confused, resentful and frustrated.

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"It's influence by insidious means," says psychologist Harriet Braiker, author of "Who's Pulling Your Strings?" "It's indirect, and it's advancing the other person's interest."

In some instances this may mean getting others to do their work while the manipulator takes the credit. Or it may mean betraying confidences to raise the manipulator's status in an office clique. In many cases it's simply for the feeling of superiority that comes from controlling people.

It may take a while to spot a manipulator, says Braiker, who decided to write about the subject after researching their frequent victims, people pleasers, for her 2000 book, "The Disease to Please."

Manipulators' effectiveness depends on being covert, of hiding their true motives. But they do have common traits:

They're self-serving and dishonest. Ironically, manipulators lie often about how honest or even altruistic they are, Braiker says.

"If they're willing to manipulate, they're willing to lie."

Infamous office manipulator Linda Tripp convinced Monica Lewinsky that she had her friend's best interest at heart when she secretly recorded their conversations. The public proved to be less gullible.

They need to feel in control. This means controlling their emotions, controlling others' behavior and always being right.

"They will tend to over- or micromanage in business situations," Braiker says.

They need to feel powerful and superior. Some may try to assume power by making unreasonable demands — "I need a volunteer, and can I get an answer right now?" Or they'll mete out punishment by excluding their "victim" from meetings or e-mail loops.

Because few would tolerate such behavior for long, most office puppetmasters hide their maneuvering under some familiar screens: caring or generosity ("I'm telling you this for your own good"), expertise ("I know better") or what Braiker calls role endowment ("It's my obligation").

Working with manipulators can be frustrating. Unlike some other difficult office personalities, schemers are unlikely to change as long as their ploys get results.

"Everybody thinks that if they can just sit down with the person and talk, the manipulator will say, 'Wow, I never realized I was doing that,' and then they'd stop," Braiker says. "That, of course, is not the way it works."

So the only alternative is for others to begin rendering the manipulators' weapons useless; to disarm them. Braiker offers some advice:

Delay. When the manipulator makes a demand and wants an immediate answer — a common tactic — duck it.

"Instead of saying 'Yes,' you say, 'I'd really like to think about this.'When you start to exercise some autonomy it's unnerving. You'll see a disruption in the manipulative process."

It's important not to make excuses, offer explanations or open any cracks to give the manipulator a toehold. "Resistance is the name of the game."

Tolerate the discomfort. You may feel guilty or anxious about not doing what's expected of you, but capitulating only perpetuates the cycle, because it gives manipulators the reward they want, Braiker says. So live with the discomfort, and remember, the manipulator isn't feeling any guilt.

Call them out. Most manipulation is a "silent contract," Braiker say. Your most powerful weapon is to voice your objections out loud, beginning with, "Look, I see what you're doing."

Disable the manipulation. After you've told the manipulator you're aware of their ploys, the next step is to let them know they've lost their effectiveness, Braiker says.

"Look, I understand you're giving me the silent treatment, but this is counterproductive. If that's what you're going to do it's not going to work this time."

Just because a co-worker is influential doesn't mean they're manipulative. And a boss has a mandate to ensure things get done. The difference between the legitimate exercise of power and manipulation, Braiker says, is that the latter involves indirect, insidious pressure.

"You feel it. You feel you're being coerced, and it's not spoken in direct language."

Shirleen Holt: 206-464-8316 or

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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