Manipulative Leadership

Manipulative leaders are an interesting category because being a bully leader is so much a part of our workplace culture. It is in this category that the gap between traditional leadership models of command and control conflict with leadership models of cooperation and community.

I received a call from a person who was confused about his boss and her situation. She worked in a culture of cooperation and community but had a new boss who had a command and control mindset. The job was becoming increasingly difficult for my new client, Ben, because of this difference in approaches to work. Read on for an explanation of a Manipulative Leader and then more on this case study.


DEFINITION of a Manipulative Leader:

Manipulative: Influencing or attempting to influence other for one’s own purposes.

Leader: The person who leads or commands a group

Together: Manipulative and Leaders in the context of workplace bullying refers to those bosses who believe that controlling or influencing others is the most effective way to achieve goals. Manipulative Leaders believe and say that people only perform if you make them.

Manipulative leaders are:

  • Fearful
  • Sometimes competent and knowledgable
  • Sometimes not competent or knowledgable


Manipulative Leadership most often takes place in organizations or departments with time and performance pressures, such as:

  • Sales
  • IT
  • Academia/Research
  • Finance
  • Medicine
  • Law
  • Real Estate
  • Start-ups
  • Education

The more intense the pressure, the more likely a manager might try a Manipulative Leadership strategy.


  • Intimidate subordinates
  • Interfere with work flow with sudden meeting, new deadlines, new expectations
  • Verbal abuse
  • Competes with their own team-colleagues
  • Complains no one knows how to do it except them
  • Plays the victim-complains that no one on the team can do it “right”
  • Pits workers against each other
  • Manipulates facts and events to look good for his or her upper management
  • Can’t keep employees
  • Gossip about employees’ characteristics as a reason for their “failure”
  • Believes him or her self to be good motivator
  • Believes their strategy is best for bottom line
  • Hot tempered, frustrated, and anxious


  • High turnover
  • Lawsuits or legal complaints based on protected categories
  • Employee Morale Suffers
  • Work Productivity
  • Work Continuity
  • Time sucking Investigations.


  • Correctly Identify ML Behavior
  • Provide Coaching
  • Develop Structure
  • Hold ML Accountable


Manipulative leaders believe the proper way to motivate people is to use aggression, including scare tactics and internal competition because it improves productivity. They have a reputation for being difficult, making team members cry in public, setting tough and perhaps unrealistic goals. They manipulate the work process so that people are always confused and unsure of their progress. Oftentimes targets of manipulative leaders say that their job description is a moving target.



All ML’s are fearful. They are afraid of failure and being exposed. They live in fear that their “house of cards” will crumble.

Competent and Knowledgable

ML’s are sometimes competent at what they do but oftentimes they are in over their heads. For those who are competent, the aggression comes from a high need to compete and to take all the glory for successes. They tend to isolate their boss and complain about everyone else. They seem to believe that they are the true savior of the company and that no one can match their skills.

Not Competent or Knowledgable

For those who lack knowledge of the job, aggressive and chaotic management style comes from their inability to communicate goals and assignments or comes from not knowing those goals and assignments. These ML’s accepted assignments or were promoted into assignments that they don’t fully understand. Their fear of not knowing keeps them from asking for help and makes them unable to trust anyone. They fear being exposed.

Of these two types those who don’t know their job are the most dangerous to an organization especially if they are able to make the boss believe they actually know what they’re doing. They behave like the Tazmanian devil—swirling, creating chaos and making so much dust that it’s hard to sift through the dust to find the truth.

Whether competent or not competent, like all aggressive people, they are frightened and do not have good communication skills. They don’t trust others and so they don’t ask for help.

A Manipulative Leader honestly believes aggression 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”.


Intimidation of subordinates

A manipulative leader intimidates subordinates to get them to “toe the line.” He or she will intimidate subordinates with harsh words, unrealistic deadlines, unclear expectations. He believe intimidation is strength, and an excellent way to motivate and get the desired performance.

Interfere with workflow

Micromanagement is common – as manipulative leaders believe themselves the best qualified. They will often interfere with work flow with sudden meetings, new deadlines, new expectations. They may interrupt different working styles, withhold information to get the job done, or refuse to delegate.

Verbal abuse

Like an army drill sergeant, a manipulative leader may use verbal abuse as a way to motivate or “break in” a team. They may use name calling, insults, and references to protected classes (gender, race, etc.)

Competing with their own team

It is important for MLs to look good for their own upper management, so they will often compete to look better than his or her subordinates or downplay their accomplishments and emphasize his or her own. The will take over assignments from other departments, complain about colleagues. Claims he or she can “do it better”

Complains no one knows how to do it except them

An ML always feels surrounded by incompetence, whether or not that is actually true. The ML feels they are the only one that knows how a task in the right way.

Plays the victim – complains that no one on the team can do it “right”

When things go wrong, it’s always the fault of the subordinates. Somebody is always ruining it for them – but the reality is that they are causing the problems.

Pits workers against each other

If the subordinates are at each other’s throats, the ML believes this is best for the bottom line. Despite obvious evidence to the contrary, the ML thinks this will motivate people to perform.

Manipulates facts and events to look good for his or her upper management

MLs almost always have excellent relationships with their upper management and and are very good at convincing them they are doing a good job. They will manipulate facts and distort the truth In order to maintain the illusion.

Can’t keep employees

There is probably high turnover in the ML’s department. The ML will have a million reasons for it, and will not be able to see that it is his or her poor leadership which is causing people to leave.

Gossip about employees’ characteristics as a reason for their “failure”

An ML will gossip about a perceived weakness in his employees’ characteristics, and will sometime use racial epithets, sexism, homophobia, or other nasty tactics to explain their “failure.”

Believes self to be good motivator

Of course their strategy is always correct – and the ML will be very good at convincing upper management of the “success” of his motivational strategy.

Believes their strategy is best for bottom line

If the company sees results from his or her department, then the ML will proclaim this as proof that his way is the best for the bottom line – even though results are most often produced by his subordinates despite of or in defiance of his or her leadership.

Hot tempered, frustrated, paranoid and anxious

Because an ML feels encumbered and surrounded by incompetence – his or her demeanor may be prone to fits of rage, frustration, anxiety and paranoia.


Most leaders avoid the real costs of ML behavior and focus on the immediate complaints. However ML behavior, like all bullying type behaviors should be evaluated in the context of the overall costs to the organization.

High turnover

Qualified employees don’t tolerate ML behaviors and will leave the organization or transfer to another department. Employee turnover costs companies upwards of 200% of annual salary.

Lawsuits or legal complaints based on protected categories.

ML’s are know for losing their tempers and making racists and sexists comments which immediately bring in physical violence. Because ML’s have trouble with their anger they have been known to make physical threats or even push and shove other employees.

Employee Morale Suffers

ML’s destroy teams and negatively impact other teams. It’s hard to keep people motivated to do their best work when they feel they are being treated harshly.

Work Productivity

ML targets have been known to withhold vital information needed to complete projects. Lack of support and feeling vulnerable work together against the best interests of any project.

Work Continuity

Employee turnover stalls production and deadlines. Keeping a strong functional team in place should be a top priority for an organization.

Time sucking Investigations.

Formal complaints by employees consume the time an energy of investigators, HR, managers and all Chiefs as well as consultants hired to assist with investigations.


Identify the behavior

Review the characteristics of ML behavior and be sure that the behavior matches the general characteristics outlined in this module.


  • ML’s are well-liked by their boss and seem to deliver the goods but they don’t get along with other employees nor are they ever satisfied with their colleagues and subordinates.
  • They complain about people – sometimes making racist or sexist or discriminatory comments.
  • They seem like victims but in fact they are causing the problems.
  • Hot-tempered. Seem frustrated and anxious most of the time.
  • May be very good at negotiating deals with outsiders-always getting great contracts but inside the organization, they can’t get along.

Coaching & Advising

Hire a conflict consultant to work directly with the ML so that he/she has someone to talk to while they’re changing their behavior.

Ongoing coaching will help the ML to funnel their fears and frustrations onto someone being paid to deal with the aggression.

 Hire a leadership coach for the ML’s supervisor as this person probably needs to learn to set boundaries, limits, and expectations. Time and again ML’s have supervisors who are unwilling or unable to hold the ML accountable. They may be afraid of the ML or enamoured by the ML. In either case, it’s not in the interests of the organization to have the ML run amuck.

General Management/Leadership training. The ML needs to learn how to lead a team, delegate and supervise. These are not innate talents but learned behaviors. (See recommended reading.)

Improve Structure

  • Mandate the conflict coaching as a condition of employment.

  • Create clear and well defined job descriptions for the ML and everyone under the ML—good job descriptions remove ambiguity from conversation and create measurable deliverables for all involved

  • Consider removing line management responsibilities from the ML

  • Use carrot and stick supervision for the ML—that is reward good behavior and establish costly consequences for transgressions

Hold ML Accountable

  • Mandate the conflict coaching as a condition of employment.

  • Make the ML accountable for all deliverables—accept NO excuses. In particular, don’t let the ML blame others for failures.

  • Make improved behavior part of the overall supervisory plan. If the ML can’t stop making racist and sexist comments, for example, then that problem and it’s improvement must be part of their review.

  • Meet with the ML regularly to help defuse the tension that is building.


In the case of Ben vs. the Manipulative Leader, Ben had to recognize that his new boss believed that his strategy and tactics for being the boss were appropriate and effective. Since the boss wasn’t my client, my role was to coach the target to better handle his boss.

First, Ben had to shift his point of view from victim of bullying to man who worked for a manipulative leaders. This mindset shift empowered Ben to anticipate the boss’s behavior and so feel less vulnerable to the manipulation.

Second, Ben had to create a structure for his work thereby reducing the ways his boss could aggress upon him. This is tedious and annoying and feels like a demotion, but documentation of work, decisions, deadlines, etc. is a tactic that helps protect one from the Manipulative Leader.

Third, Ben had to learn how to depersonalize verbal attacks. Manipulative leaders like to keep their people “on the edge” so that they are anxious. Manipulative leaders use verbal attacks such as judgmental comments and insults. By depersonalizing verbal attacks Ben could focus on the issue rather than the verbal insult. For example, it’s common for a Manipulative Leader to say things like “What’s the matter with you?” I told you to do this and you didn’t listen.” In these cases we naturally want to defend ourselves but in so doing we’re focusing on the attack instead of the issue. Ben had to learn to respond to these attacks by pulling out his documentation and focus on the issue and not the personal attack. In other words Ben had to take himself out of the issue. His mantra “It’s not about me! I may be in the crosshairs but I have to focus on the work not on the insults.”

Fourth, Ben had to understand that Manipulative Leaders cannot be “managed up” (that is they cannot reform through the influence of their subordinate). So, if Ben wanted to keep the job, then he was stuck with the challenges of a boss who believes that scare tactics are good for the company bottom line. In fact Ben did his best in the short term but chose to move on from the company rather than work in such a toxic environment.

Recommended Reading

5 Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick Lencioni


What got you Here Won’t get you There, Marshall Goldsmith


Killer Bees and Worker Bees, Dr. Alan Hedman


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