Watch out for those warning signals!

Have you ever found yourself listening to someone and, although all the words make absolute sense, you have the feeling that something is not quite the way it sounds? Without being able to put your finger on exactly what is causing the doubt, you start to question their motives in your mind, and recognise a growing feeling of being manipulated.

Manipulative behaviour comes in many forms, it may be disguised as helplessness, good intentions or simply working for the good of the team, and if it is not managed correctly, it can lead to an extremely toxic work environment. It differs from healthy interpersonal influence in one critical aspect – the actual aims or objectives underlying the actions are either obscure or different from their stated purpose – and therefore it may take some time before we realise that we have been misled.

Eric noticed that his colleague Pierre always challenged his interventions at meetings. When he took him aside to tackle the issue, he was surprised to learn that Pierre felt that the project leadership was turning a blind eye to Eric’s needs and that, contrary to appearances, Pierre’s comments aimed to underline the difficulties that Eric faced in order to ensure they were taken into account. Eric accepted this explanation and chose to ignore the persistent, gnawing feeling of being under personal attack. However, as the weeks went by, he found he had less and less support from his colleagues, until one day his group leader informed him that the project was to take a strategic change of direction and would henceforth be led by Pierre.

When we realise that we have fallen prey to manipulative behaviour, it is often too late to take action against it, because we have actually unconsciously been collaborating with it by allowing it to continue unchallenged for too long. It leaves us feeling angry at the injustice of the situation, whilst at the same time confused or angry with ourselves for having ignored the warning signals from our gut feelings. Research shows that, far from being arbitrary, our gut feelings are based on our own antennae picking up on the minute incongruities between verbal and non-verbal behaviour that warn us that something is not quite right, and as such we should be attentive to how we choose to interpret and react to it.

One way to address such situations is by asking direct questions in order to try to get to the bottom of it.

“I appreciate your support in wishing to ensure that these difficulties are taken into account – but I feel that there is more going on here. Can we talk about your concerns to see how we can address them together?”

Such an approach may encourage the other person to reveal their real motives – such as a need for more personal visibility or technical recognition – both of which can only be addressed if allowed to surface.

On the other hand, of course, the other person may choose to stick to the initial position, and not admit any other motive, in which case we can only accept what they say. Nonetheless, in this case, it is advisable to be attentive to our inner warning signals and remain extremely vigilant in all further interactions.

Sudeshna Datta Cockerill

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