Is Your Boss Controlling You Subtly Without Your Realizing It?

HR might intervene with an overt tyrant, but you're on your own dealing with an insidious manipulator.

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By Ric Kelly

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Do you have a caring boss, someone who appears to take an interest in you and watches over you? Look out! There is a fine line between care and control in the workplace, as there is in most human systems and relationships. You may have a boss whom you think is going out of their way to support and encourage you when, in fact, they are really trying to control the hell out of you using covert or psychological power.

In 1959, social psychologists John French and Bertram Raven described five forms of social power -- reward, coercive, referent, legitimate and expert. Bertram Raven added a sixth, information power, in 1965. These social powers are overt and in the tradition of transactional leadership where flagrant power is used to influence and incentivize workers. The shift from transactionalism to a more empowered and relational working environment has actuated a shift in the nature of power in the workplace -- it has gone underground to become more subtle and veiled. Covert forms of power can be more corrosive and deadly than overt power because it creeps up on you and makes you feel like an accomplice to the ensuing abuse and control.

Here are four telltale signs to look out for that signal you have a controlling, and not caring, boss who is using clandestine forms of psychological power to influence and control you without you even knowing it.

Related: Dealing With a Bad Boss? Here's What You Can Do

1. They control your network and reputation.

Caring bosses sing your praises, stick up for you and give you credit for your contribution. They help manage your reputation in a positive and caring way that helps build strong networks. A controlling boss will only focus on their own agenda and keep you in the shadow. Bosses who use covert forms of psychological power will reveal their true face if you mess up -- the affirming words and friendly manner will fade away and they will blame and trash you to safeguard their own reputation.

2. They control your development.

Controlling bosses presume what you want (very often based on their own personal agendas). Caring bosses ask what you want and create opportunities based on your needs, desires and goals, with a primary objective to help you grow and develop. The controlling boss probes for information in order to divine your vulnerabilities, motivations and allegiances to strengthen their power.

3. They control your workload.

Do you find yourself always seeking permission from your boss? A caring boss will give you free rein. A controlling boss will expect you to check in with them on regularly. The controlling boss engineers this dependency over time through subtle forms of micromanagement and micro-iniquities.

Related: 6 Ways to Cope With, or Maybe Escape, Corporate Stockholm Syndrome

4. They control your career path.

A caring boss will anticipate when it's time for you to move on and encourage and support you. A controlling boss will be highly critical of you for even raising the prospect of moving without their consent. Like the myth of Pygmalion and Galatea, they think they have shaped you and, therefore, may believe they have the right to control you.

Toward a fix…

Much has been written about dealing with coercive power, but what of covert forms of power? Being controlled, whether it is coercively or covertly, leads to pretty much the same set of outcomes where it can undermine productivity, health and well-being. Doing nothing about it should never be an option. Here is an ABC approach to dealing with covert/psychological power.

Acknowledge it.

This is more difficult than it sounds because people who are sophisticated in the use of psychological power tend to be well connected, know how to manipulate opinion and tend to be liked and respected within the organization. Bosses who use strong coercive power are quickly labeled as dissonant, but psychological power flies under the radar. In the face of this, people who are being covertly controlled may their own instincts and judgments.

Build understanding.

It's important to understand the nature of psychological/covert power and the effect it can have on you. Resources such as Eric Berne´s Games People Play: The Psychology of Human Relationships are essential reading. Keep an events diary over a course of time where you record instances of covert power and the consequences it has on your mental health, productivity and well-being.

Confront it.

Sadly, the classic avenues to dealing with covert and surreptitious forms of control are limited. In the absence of tangible data such as emails and eyewitnesses, HR may be reluctant to mediate, leaving you isolated with a graver problem.

The best thing is to confront the boss. Choose a neutral environment, prepare your case and carefully/rationally outline to the boss what you think is going on. Cite specific examples about the lack of control you feel and the effect it is has on you and your work. Control your emotions, avoid accusation and stick to logic, data, behaviors and your own reality.

Many scenarios may play out as a result of this conversation. Maybe the boss doesn´t realize how controlling they have been and commits to change. Maybe it will lead to a greater understanding and respect because you have called them out. Maybe it will annoy them and bring the control and abuse to the surface where it can be dealt with by HR. Maybe it will stop. Maybe you will need to find a new job. All of these scenarios are better than suffering in silence at the hands of a manipulative boss who is using covert forms of power to control you.

Related: 6 Effective Tactics for Handling a Toxic Boss

I won´t pretend these steps are as simple as ABC. It requires significant time, effort and personal courage to win back and maintain personal control. Having control over your network, development, workload and career inspires personal empowerment, confidence, independence, self-motivation and personal growth. These attributes are worth fighting for, and no boss has the right to control them.

Ric Kelly

Leadership Specialist

Ric Kelly is author of Constructing Leadership 4.0: Swarm Leadership and The Fourth Industrial Revolution (Palgrave Macmillan). He has spent 25 years developing some of the world’s most inspirational and successful leaders in both the public and private sectors.

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