Control, influence and manipulation

John Langhorne/Tree Full of Owls

Recently, a friend who had bounced through several poor jobs and finally landed in an excellent work environment raved about how much better he felt in every way. Clearly, a good job can contribute in many ways to the quality of our lives.

Gaining and maintaining control of our lives is a fundamental imperative of human beings. Every day we see the effects of people losing control through foolish or ill-considered actions, the use of chemical substances or an inability to fully understand and function in various social situations. We know from extensive research that people who perceive they are in control of their lives are in fact. They experience much lower stress levels and gain all the concomitant positive effects that accrue from this perception. These include greater self-satisfaction, higher productivity, better health and longer life.

Certainly, management exists on this continuum of control. At one extreme, we have the over-controlling manager who makes all decisions, communicates through his behavior that he considers others untrustworthy and is often less than benign in his interactions with others. A micro managing boss is one of the top issues people consider when deciding that an environment is toxic to them and it’s time to depart for greener pastures. In our personal lives, over-controlling friends, although often well intentioned, spoil the very social situation they are trying to make perfect by trying to have things exactly their way.

Conversely, we know that the laissez faire style of managing is also unproductive in its effects. A work environment lacking clear direction, coaching/feedback and celebration of success is even more unproductive than that previously noted. Gallup researchers have shown that people are more productive when they have an over-controlling manager than when the manager is indifferent or un-involved. The over-controlling boss provides a level of structure that allows people to function albeit without any personal initiative but at least they know the demands of the situation. However, their productivity level is far below those who work in a well-managed workplace.

Both of these styles make for poor managers, difficult friends and lousy parents. Performance standards for managers are generally higher because poor managing can have negative effects in many dimensions whereas these behaviors can be tolerated when friends bring offsetting qualities to the relationship.

To be an effective manager is to find the balance between being a micro-managing authoritarian and being an indifferent or a “please like me” nice guy. All this comes down to communication style.

One dimension here is critical for managers to understand. This is the distinction between influence and manipulation. Influence is perceived as legitimate and worthy whereas manipulation is regarded as perverse. What’s the difference?

In general, people who have a fairly high degree of openness but know where to draw the privacy line function better. Openness is a good predictor of a person’s ability to change and capable interviewers usually look for this characteristic.

Openness is an example of a more general philosophy summarized as a belief that is better for others to be informed than not. This belief is the antithesis of secrecy. Secrecy is a relatively ineffective control strategy in settings that are transparent. Unfortunately, secretive managers can create opaque environments where it is possible to exert control over others without their knowledge.

The selective sharing or distortion of information is the most frequent example of this perverse management style. Many of us have been manipulated at one time or another, and if the manipulator is skilled, the act is not immediately apparent. People tend to react rather badly to being manipulated and this is fortunate because it reduces the frequency of this behavior.

It is not apparent if those who practice manipulation fully understand what they are doing. It appears that the practice has worked for them since early in their lives. This makes it difficult to alter the behavior either externally or through self-change.

Think about your best boss. She was likely very good at sharing relevant information. Openness conversely engenders trust, an essential ingredient in any high performing organization.

John Langhorne is with Langhorne Associates. He can be reached at His new book, Beyond Luck: Practical Steps to Navigate the Path from Manager to Leader, is available at