From the moment we were born, we have been weaned and schooled in the art and science of manipulation. So much so, in fact, that we hardly recognize it anymore, both as targets and purveyors of manipulative influence.

It doesn’t take a cynic to admit that such ploys surround us at every turn, from a daily onslaught of advertising messages to organizational politics to a looming performance review. Our lives run on some combination of contingent consequence and tantalizing reward, the latter often simply being the avoidance of pain (obeying the law to sidestep a tax audit, for example).

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To escape this vicious circle of doomed cause and effect of a manipulative management style -- doomed, because it inevitably leads to a downward spiral of disloyalty and mistrust -- you need to understand the difference between manipulation and the eminently finer art of influence through persuasion.

Manipulation is, by definition, a form of persuasion, in that the avoidance of negative consequences does indeed serve the needs of the target audience. “You get to keep your job” is one such tried-and-true example of a manipulative management strategy, one that becomes an effective enough response to anyone bothering to ask, “What’s in it for me?”

But the key difference between manipulation and persuasion, one that differentiates successful cultures from fractured ones, is that manipulation is almost always a short-term strategy, destined to self-destruct unless even stronger forms of manipulation are employed moving forward.

With manipulation, neither party, manipulator nor manipulated, benefit over the long term. Sure, in the short term, a manipulative strategy may yield the kind of results, which, in the mind of the manipulator, justify the means. But if that’s your modus operandi, consider changing it in favor of ethical influencing methods that build respect for you instead of corroding it.

Manipulation is all about getting someone to do something for you, rather than influencing them because of something that’s in it for them. The magic pill of the art of persuasion, conversely, is to get others to take action for themselves, and in a direction that serves the needs of the persuader. In other words, a win-win proposition. Where manipulation is inwardly focused, persuasion is an outward, connecting approach to exerting influence.

The fundamental element and criterion of effective and ethical persuasion is trust. Manipulators are heard, but persuaders are believed because they are trusted. Without trust, an audience only hears on one level: What are the consequences of either compliance or apathy? With trust, an audience cares about what they hear, they give the message every chance to be meaningful on multiple levels -- their own and the manager’s.

Trust is the mortar that builds teamwork, while manipulation is the jackhammer that tears it down.

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Manipulation is destined to expose itself as such, and quickly breeds contempt when the reality of it kicks in. People who are manipulated try to find ways to survive, sometimes to get even, and those goals rarely align with the shared goals of the team. They react with fear, rather than with passion.

It's always preferable to persuade from within a win-win context, an approach that will pay dividends long after the task or project window has passed.

Only with an understanding of the difference between influence through manipulation and influence through persuasion can we then recognize it in our own experience, both on the receiving and dispensing end. Look out for these things:

  • Is the incoming information (or outgoing if you are the sender of the data) based on solid reasoning, or the fact that someone (perhaps you) is carrying a big metaphorical stick?
  • Are emotions being appealed to, and is that emotion fear or positive anticipation?
  • Are there alternatives on the table? To what degree is the recipient (perhaps you) being given latitude to choose a path, and is the path of least resistance the optimal choice given the consequences?
  • What does the presenter gain from the logical choice? What does the other party gain? Who wins here, and at what cost?
  • Do you trust the source of the information or choice being presented to you? Or if you are the sender, why should you be trusted as such a source?

Once you made the shift from someone who influences through manipulation to one who influences through persuasion, your leadership upside becomes unlimited. In the end, those who rely on manipulation often seem to find themselves in that position.

Reprinted with permission from Executive Presence by Harrison Monarth. Copyright 2014. McGraw-Hill.

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