Is Your Boss A Bully…or a Manipulative Leader?


Bullying from the Top?
Recently someone called me for help with what he believed was a workplace bullying situation. This situation involved a boss who was harassing most of his team by “dividing and conquering team members”. The employee felt alienated and confused. He believed that the boss was working against their goals with this behavior. He also felt it was time to leave and find a situation where he was respected for his abilities and could count on the support of his boss and team members. Was he being bullied?

Bullying vs. Manipulative Leadership
In general workplace bullying is defined as repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators that takes one or more of the following forms:

  • Verbal abuse
  • Offensive conduct/behaviors (including nonverbal) which are threatening, humiliating, or intimidating
  • Work interference — sabotage — which prevents work from getting done

While this definition is helpful, it does not get at the heart of the type of workplace aggression the caller reported. In this case it became clear that the boss believed it was good business practice to frighten his employees and pit them against one another. Such behavior is what I call Manipulative Leadership rather than bullying. It feels like bullying, but does not have the important variable of targeted and deliberate sabotage, and the person isn’t singled out for threats and humiliation.

More Details About Manipulative Leadership:
The boss intimidates and threatens everyone on the team because he believes it is good business practice to do so. He does not think that sharing information, working together and team support are good for business and he thinks that intimidation is speedy. The boss prides himself on controlling the team, and his totally unaware that he is reducing productivity instead of stimulating productivity.

When people ask the boss about her employees and their complaints, the boss says it makes good business to keep people “on their toes”. The boss does not believe that people would perform to the best of their abilities if he or she were not “riding them”.

These behaviors define a Manipulative Leader: someone who uses manipulative aggressive behavior to manipulate others to succeed. They are using bullying as a leadership tool.

Manipulative Leaders Confuse Top Management
A Manipulative Leader honestly believes this is the right strategy to motivate workers, and when confronted with complaints will defend their behavior as good for the company bottom line. In fact, the team may be producing, so top management thinks: “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. But it is broken and costly because your best employees will not stay with your company. Some may file complaints, others might transfer, good will may be lost and while there might be profits, it is likely that the team may be underproducing as a reaction to the manipulation.

In What Types of Organizations Does Manipulative Leadership Take Place?
Manipulative Leadership most often takes place in organizations or departments with time and performance pressures, such as sales, IT, research, or finance. Medicine, law, academia aslo all have high instances of Manipulative Leadership. The more intense the pressure, the more likely a manager might try a Manipulative Leadership strategy.

What are the Consequences for You, the Employer?
The consequences you must face are huge. For a while, it may look like the Manipulative Leader is effective, but research indicates that such behavior reduces productivity. All the intimidation, inter-office competition, and scare tactics can lead to a toxic atmosphere and low morale. If left unchecked, it can lead to high turnover and your key employees leaving your business. Many organizations fail to grasp how Manipulative Leadership impacts their bottom line.

Why it Pays to Deal with Manipulative Leadership:
Among other things, ending Manipulative Leadership will increase productivity, and ultimately give you a better return on investment. And, you will keep the upcoming leaders who would otherwise move on to get away from the bully thus improving your bottom line.

The Five Types of Conflict
There are five types of workplace bullying. Manipulative Leadership is one type. Each type requires its own tailored solution. If you treat all workplace conflicts the same way, then there is a 1 in 5 chance of success…from any perspective, that is not good enough.

I’m Kathleen Bartle, a strategic consultant on workplace conflict to executives worldwide for more than 20 years. My work brings individualized solutions to your teams’ lost productivity, loss of key personnel, low morale, and the high costs resulting from bullying, abrasive behaviors and interpersonal workplace conflicts. You can contact me here.