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I don’t think I have ever had the courage to say “no” to people I respect.
And that landed me right-smack-dab in the middle of a job with zero family or friend support.
Lame, I know, right!?
Now don’t get me wrong, this example was one of the most transformative experiences of my life. I was thrust into a professional position I knew next to nothing about and needed to get by all on my own. That saying, “Fake it ‘till you make it?”—yeah, that was me. The entire time.
But since then, I have been hyperaware of the tactics and tricks people use to manipulate the “yes” people of the world.
What sucks is that these people are not going to change, so it’s up to us “yes” people to get better at saying “no.”
Say it with me: “I am a yes person, and I’m going to change.”
Don’t worry—we will both sound more convincing by the end of this (fingers crossed anyway!).
When someone asks me to do something, no matter what it is, I always say yes. It’s an absolute curse and I needed for this to change, especially in my professional life.
Here are four ways to recognise and respond to professional manipulation and come out without a poor reputation.
1. The Boss Who Acts like Your Friend
I personally hate it when supervisors do this.
Because it wreaks of slimy, nasty, manipulative ickiness.
What is super interesting is that as a supervisor myself, I often have my team request this approach. Crazy—right? They want me to be their friend/confidant/BFF and have even stated to me that they feel they would do more for me if I was more like their friend than their boss.
Why is this?
People don’t like being manipulated, but (and this is a big but) they enjoy feeling needed and wanted by people they perceive as friends or close in their circle. So, when a boss gives them this kind of attention and approach that a friend would give, they jump to do whatever is required and needed.
It also makes us “yes” people feel bad. We feel bad for letting people who care about us and who are our “friends” manipulate us.
Responding to your boss who is pretending to be your friend:
Most of the time, we have that boss who is pretending to be your friend to get what they want, and usually, it puts them more in front than it puts us. Urgh.
The first thing is to be really clear and confident within ourselves about where our professional and personal boundaries lie. Know what you are comfortable with and what you are not comfortable with. Know where you sit with your role and what experience you have and how much you can take on at one time.
The second thing is to enforce this in a polite manner. We are allowed to empathise with this person and state that we understand their situation and that they must be in a tough spot. However, after you provide empathy to this person, reinforce your boundaries around the work situation. For example:
Boss: “Hey, I am super struggling right now. Do you think you could do some of my work?”
Us: “Oh man, that must be super rough that you’re struggling right now! I’m sorry things are hectic for you at the moment. I wish I could help, but I am actually not ready to do what you’re asking me to do.”
2. The Boss Who Defers the Blame
There’s a common saying that you’re only as strong as your weakest link. To me, it seems that some supervisors like to hang up a giant neon sign that is pointing to their weakest link and push all of the blame for the success or failure of a project or team solely on one person.
The truth is: I believe, as a supervisor, you should be like a sh*t shield to the rubbish that comes down from upper management. We convey the important stuff, but we do not place the blame and shame and harsh ideas onto our little ducklings working the ground.
Deferring the blame is like letting the ducklings get covered in rubbish. Or, more specifically, one duckling, so that the supervisor still smells like roses.
The funny thing is, though, that rubbish-stink rises. No matter how high up you are away from the mess, you can still smell it.
Responding to your blame-avoidant boss:
We need to be solution-focused in our approach. Identify what the behaviour or issue is that needs addressing and determine how to challenge the entire team to support or meet the need.
What this does is share the blame among all of the hypothetical ducklings and gives your boss something to focus on.
The age of managing our managers is upon us.
Alternatively, if your team is as lame as your boss (which unfortunately is likely in this situation), use your open communication tactics to identify problems and challenges and shift the blame from people to obstacles—hot tip: this actually changes everyone’s thinking to be collaborative and solution-focused!
3. The Boss Who Changes the Goal Posts
Picture this. You’re working incredibly hard to meet the goalposts that have been set for days, weeks, or months, and then all of a sudden—a new goal. Keep pushing.
Now, resentfully, we are chucked into a new goal—a new direction that doesn’t honour all of our great work.
Why do we as managers do this? Well, for me, it’s the changing nature of the work I am involved in, where we have to be responsive to changes. But it absolutely sucks when my team members have killed themselves working toward a goal that no longer exists—it is so frustrating.
That situation is not what I am referring to.
No, no, no. I am talking about the supervisor who puts you to work on one thing, and then when it almost in your grasp, snatches that goal out from under you and makes you work toward a future goal—for no reason.
Responding to your goal-post-changing boss:
Well, this one is actually super easy, because you can do it yourself.
The secret: celebrate your own success.
It’s not only your supervisor who is responsible for celebrating your success at work—you can do this too.
That’s right. Show the world that you are bloody great. Celebrate your recent goal or win and I guarantee you, your team will appreciate it even if your boss doesn’t.
What will likely happen if you are shouting about you and your team’s great success is that others will take notice. Then you can be absolutely sure your boss will be on board with seeing out great goals.
Side note: Please don’t actually yell at people.
4. The Boss Who Plays the Victim
Ah, I’ve left the most famous for last. The boss who is always the victim.
You say that you are struggling with your workload, and they complain of the overwhelming pressure they are under—they are just far too busy to listen to your problems.
This manipulation tactic aims to make you feel unsupported, not-listened too, and, frankly, like you are making stuff up. Hello, gaslighting.
Responding to your victim-boss:
This is the toughest one to respond to.
We absolutely need to call out the behaviour. Remember when I said earlier that your boss is your sh*t shield? They need to be doing that rather than transferring their negative energy to us.
Make sure you are emphasising how you are feeling and remember to be task-focused. Reinforce the type of support you need from your supervisor and make sure this is documented accordingly to cover your back.
Cutting down the barriers in the workplace seems to have resulted in some supervisors cutting down boundaries instead—which leads us into dangerous manipulation territory where we don’t feel supported, listened to, or valued as staff members.
Be strong enough to set your boundaries and stand up for what you deserve.