Are You Being Emotionally Manipulated at Work?

Are You Being Emotionally Manipulated at Work?

By Luis Velasquez

Sarah, a former client of mine, was an experienced professional known for her dedication and hard work ethic. Her manager shared a personal story of their own struggles with workload and implied that if Sarah were to take on additional work, she would demonstrate true loyalty and commitment to the team and make an impression on leadership. Sarah began to feel an increased sense of obligation, in addition to guilt and stress. She felt manipulated into a situation where saying no seemed like a betrayal and lack of commitment, even though the extra workload affected her well-being and even her own deliverables.

As Sarah discussed the issue with me, a poignant realisation emerged: high emotional intelligence (EI) could sometimes be a double-edged sword, making her a compassionate leader and a vulnerable target for manipulation.

Like any other aspect of life, the workplace is rife with emotional interactions. EI, the ability to understand and manage our own and others’ emotions, can be a force for good, guiding empathetic conversations and understanding. However, the very attributes that make EI invaluable can also be weaponised for manipulative reasons. Here, we’ll discuss how to identify, prevent, and handle emotional manipulation at work.

Recognizing Emotional Manipulation

People with high EI may be able to recognise and exploit vulnerabilities and insecurities in others. While the majority might employ this understanding for supportive purposes, manipulative individuals could weaponise it, triggering feelings of guilt, fear, or obligation. They might project empathy when it aligns with their interests, giving off an aura of understanding and compassion and thus faking a sense of psychological safety, as Sarah’s manager did.

Research has shown that emotional manipulation (EM) can significantly impact individuals’ well-being and productivity. It can systematically influence cognitive control, which is crucial for effective decision-making and problem-solving, and can also affect individuals’ interpersonal relationships and overall mental health, further impacting their productivity and satisfaction in the workplace. Here are the most common forms of EM:

Strategic emotional displays

Manipulators may use their emotional displays to sway decisions, affect group dynamics, or paint themselves in a certain light. This could range from showing outrage to garner support to showing undue sadness to evade responsibility.

For example, Dr. L, a physician, is already stretched thin with her work commitments. Her hospital’s chief, aware of the burdens on the doctors, delivers a heartfelt speech about the importance of patient care and the hospital’s mission. The chief’s underlying motive is to coax the doctors into taking on more hours, sacrificing their well-being.

Strategic Emotional Displays

TacticDefinitionWorkplace example
ANGER AND AGGRESSIONUsing intimidation and aggressive behavior to manipulateA manager or colleague uses loud, aggressive behavior or threats during discussions to coerce others into compliance.
GUILT-TRIPPINGActing as a victim to elicit guilt and complianceA team member frequently reminds others of their sacrifices for the team, making them feel guilty for not doing more.
DARK CLOUDSDisplaying overt unhappiness to gain attention and sympathyAn employee consistently exhibits negative emotions to gain sympathy or manipulate the mood of the team.
EMOTIONAL BLACKMAILThreatening self-harm or making dramatic scenes for complianceAn employee threatens to quit if their demands or expectations are not met.
PLAYING THE MARTYRActing as if they’re always sacrificing for othersA manager often claims they’re overworked or constantly helping others, seeking sympathy or less scrutiny.

Disguised true feelings

Manipulators often hide their true feelings and intentions, portraying themselves as trustworthy or aligning with popular sentiment. They might share personal stories or vulnerabilities to appear relatable while using them to exert control, or express concern or empathy, creating a facade of understanding but using it to exploit your emotions.

For example, James, a senior manager, consistently voices his support for work-life balance in team meetings, emphasizing its importance for overall well-being. However, behind closed doors, he regularly pressures his team to work late, signaling that those who don’t comply might face consequences during performance reviews.

Disguised True Feelings

TacticDefinitionWorkplace example
NOT USING WORDSPassive-aggressive behavior instead of direct communicationA colleague speaks indirectly, uses sarcasm, or gives the silent treatment instead of addressing issues openly.
FEIGNED IGNORANCEPretending not to understand to avoid responsibilityAn employee acts as if they don’t understand instructions or policies to avoid doing certain tasks or taking responsibility.
BACKHANDED COMPLIMENTSCompliments that are veiled criticismsA supervisor gives praise that subtly undermines the employee’s confidence or highlights a flaw.

Subtle motivations

A hallmark of EM is guiding individuals toward decisions that might not be in their best interest. At work, this commonly manifests in two ways. Your manager might assign an overwhelming workload with impossible deadlines under the pretense of pushing you to excel, but ultimately setting you up for failure. Or they might provide vague or inconsistent feedback that keeps you in a state of uncertainty, making it difficult for you to gauge your performance effectively.

For example, Rachel, a team lead, suggests to Mark that taking on a specific project would be great for his career. What Mark doesn’t know is that the project has a history of issues and is known to be more trouble than it’s worth. Rachel’s motivation is to offload the problematic project, but she frames it as an opportunity for Mark.

Subtle Motivations

TacticDefinitionWorkplace example
SHIRKING RESPONSIBILITYAvoiding accountability, blaming othersA team leader deflects blame onto team members, refusing to accept responsibility for failures or mistakes.
DENYING PROMISESMaking and then denying promises, causing self-doubtA manager promises a promotion or raise but later denies it, making the employee question their own memory or understanding.
GASLIGHTINGMaking someone question their reality or perceptionsA leader consistently denies or twists facts, causing employees to question their memory or judgment.
MOVING GOALPOSTSContinuously changing expectations or requirementsEmployees find that the criteria for success or goals keep changing, leading to confusion and difficulty in meeting expectations.
SELECTIVE INATTENTIONIgnoring requests or communication in order to exert controlA manager or peer deliberately overlooks emails, messages, or direct requests, causing frustration and hindering progress.

How to Counteract Emotional Manipulation

If you think you’re being emotionally manipulated at work, try these five strategies to protect yourself — and your workplace.

Trust your gut.

Intuition is often your first line of defense. Over time, you’ve honed your instincts through experiences and observations. If something feels off or an interaction leaves you with a lingering sense of discomfort, don’t dismiss those feelings. Your subconscious might be picking up subtle cues or inconsistencies that your conscious mind hasn’t yet processed.

In his book Give and Take, Adam Grant categorizes individuals as givers, takers, or matchers. Takers often prioritize their own interests and can be sources of EM. Givers are more altruistic, while matchers aim to balance giving and taking. Trusting your gut can help you discern these types, especially identifying when a taker might be employing manipulative tactics.

For example, during a team meeting, a colleague excessively praises you. Later, they ask for a favor that deviates from company policies. They’re asking you to compensate them for the praise they gave you earlier.

Ask yourself: Why does this interaction leave me feeling uneasy? Does their behavior or request feel inconsistent or misaligned with previous interactions? Is it consistent with a giver, taker, or matcher?

Instead of immediately yielding to the request, take a pause, buy yourself some time to process the information, and decide what to do.

Seek external perspectives.

Sometimes, being in the thick of things can cloud our judgment and obscure our objectivity. When in doubt, lean on trusted colleagues, mentors, or friends. Sharing your experiences and seeking feedback can provide a fresh perspective, helping you discern genuine intentions from manipulative tactics.

For example, a team member frequently comes to you with emotionally charged requests. They approach you late on a Friday for the second or perhaps third time. They talk about their overwhelming workload and ask if you could take some of it on over the weekend, implying that you’re their last hope for relief.   

Ask yourself: Am I reacting to the emotional intensity of the request, or does it have genuine merit? How often does this happen? How would someone with no emotional stake view this situation?

Talk to a mentor or a trusted colleague. This is an opportunity to “think aloud”, a reflective strategy that can help you process your situation more clearly.

Rely on facts.

Emotional manipulators often amplify emotions to overshadow logical reasoning and critical thinking. It’s a tactic that plays on our natural emotional responses, potentially clouding our ability to see situations objectively. When you find yourself influenced in this way, it’s crucial to bring your focus back to the realm of facts and evidence. This shift involves actively questioning and critically assessing the situation based on hard data, concrete evidence, and factual consistency. Relying on facts will help ensure that your responses are anchored in reality, making you less likely to be manipulated by persuasive emotional narratives.

For example, imagine a team member offers a heartfelt explanation for a delay in their part of a project. While appearing genuine at first, you start to see that certain details seem exaggerated or inconsistent. Your colleague weaves a complex story about personal challenges and subtly implies that these issues could have been avoided with more support from you or the team. They might be attempting to elicit sympathy to deflect responsibility for the setback.

Ask yourself: What hard evidence supports their claim? Are there inconsistencies or contradictions in their explanation? Am I basing my decision on verifiable facts or primarily on my emotional response to their explanation?

Resist the immediate impulse to sympathize with or judge the team member. Instead, methodically review the project timeline, cross-check previous communications, and evaluate their historical performance in similar situations. This factual approach allows you to form a more balanced and objective view, separating emotions from professional assessment.

Practice emotional detachment.

While emotions are an integral part of human interaction, there are moments when it’s beneficial to detach emotionally to see things more clearly. Emotional detachment is a conscious effort to manage our emotional response to a situation. This doesn’t mean becoming cold or uncaring but rather viewing situations from a neutral standpoint. The goal is to maintain an emotional distance, allowing for a decision-making process that’s not influenced by emotional appeals.

For example, imagine you’re in a negotiation where a colleague uses personal rapport to influence the outcome, perhaps by sharing a touching personal story. They might share a detailed account of a family crisis they’re facing, emphasizing how the outcome of this negotiation could provide much-needed relief for them, in order to sway the terms in their favor.

Ask yourself: Am I reacting based on the emotional content of their story, or am I maintaining focus on the actual terms and objectives of the negotiation? How might my response change if I set aside these emotional influences and focus solely on the objective aspects of the scenario?

Engage in a moment of mindfulness. Take a deep breath and mentally step back from the situation. Acknowledge the emotional aspect of what’s being presented, but consciously choose to focus on the main purpose of the negotiation. The negotiation is not to provide relief to your colleague, so that outcome shouldn’t be taken into consideration. This mental shift can help you respond from a place of informed neutrality rather than emotional reactivity.

Set boundaries.

One of the most effective ways to safeguard against EM is to proactively establish clear, firm boundaries. By defining and communicating which behaviors and interactions are acceptable and reasonable to you (and which aren’t), you set a standard for how you expect to be treated. This clarity not only serves as a shield against potential manipulation but also fosters a transparent and respectful professional environment. If others understand your boundaries, they’ll be less likely to assume you’ll cross them for their sake.

For example, consider a situation where your manager regularly shares personal problems, subtly hinting that you should extend your working hours to accommodate their needs.

Ask yourself: Is this request infringing on my professional boundaries? Am I being subtly coerced into overstepping my job role?

Initiate a candid and respectful conversation with your manager. Acknowledge their situation, but also clearly express your professional boundaries. For example, you might say, “While I understand and empathize with the challenges you’re facing, I need to balance my professional duties and personal time. Let’s explore alternative solutions that will result in a win/win for both of us, like additional resources or support.”

. . .

Subtle as it may be, EM can erode the trust, confidence, and morale that you’ve worked hard to build. Identifying, preventing, and dealing with EM in the workplace is an act of vigilance, courage, and decisive action. In strengthening your resilience against these covert challenges, you’re not just preserving your own well-being, but also fostering a more supportive and safe workplace.

Luis Velasquez, MBA, Ph.D. is an executive coach who works with senior leaders and their teams to become more cohesive, effective, and resilient. 

This article first appeared on the Harvard Business Review website

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