7 Signs of a Manipulative Boss and How to Deal with One

puppet being manipulated

Weak leaders sometimes resort to emotional deceit as a weapon for getting things done. They are maestros at employing emotional tirades to get away with an evident lack of substance. While in some cases it is subtle and perhaps “tolerable”, experts warn that manipulation can easily turn to psychopathic levels, if not tamed.

Forbes Magazine explains that in the executive and senior management ranks, psychopathy behaviour is more common than the world is willing to admit. It is, therefore, critical to identify the symptoms of a manipulative boss as early as possible and deal with them. Some of their tactics may include shifting blame, telling half-truths and little lies, causing unjustified alarms, and blowing things out of proportion unnecessarily. But how can you be certain that you are dealing with a manipulative boss? These are some of the tell-tale signs.

See also: How to Deal With Emotional Manipulation in The Workplace

1. Covert intimidation


If your boss likes reminding you how much he has helped you or how hard it is to make it out there, among other veiled threats, it is time to hold your head straight and let him see your confidence. Manipulative people rarely pick people who are brimming with self-confidence as their victims.

Solution: Do your job right and on time, face your boss with self-assurance, and insist on professionalism in how you will deal with each other. Learn to fight fair from the beginning and uphold reason in your dealings. It will be difficult for your boss to introduce inappropriate and unenforceable habits later in your relationship if you set a firm pattern on how you deal with each other.

2. Selective inattention

Dealing with an indifferent boss is a daunting task. It is even worse when the boss only pays attention to what suits him. There is no way to predict his mood or reaction to situations. If your boss plays dumb or acts oblivious to issues that may jeopardise your performance, it might be a sign that he wants you to start sucking up.

Solution: Discussing this with your boss’ senior, project manager, departmental manager or any other relevant authority may help. Also, should a problem arise in the future, your superiors will already be aware of this kind of behaviour.

3. Playing the servant role

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One of the first things that every employee does is to understand exactly what their job description entails - what you should and shouldn't do! But, there are bosses that ensure your plate is overflowing with extra duties packaged as service to a noble cause. This conduct, combined with guilt-tripping when you say no, is one of the most obvious red flags.

Solution: The best solution is to say no to such tasks politely, but ensure that your performance on official duties oozes excellence.

4. Canny escapism

When your manager will not address problems or conflict and will do anything to avoid facing problems, it is cause for alarm. Manipulative bosses will often dodge issues, change subjects when you raise them and go to great lengths to distract you from the real challenge. For example, the boss might always be in a hurry anytime you want to talk about something. He could also trivialise the problem to make it sound like a non-issue. Such tricks make you work harder to get his attention. Good managers, on the other hand, are readily available to discuss and resolve problems.

Solution: If you find yourself in such a situation, ask your boss to assign you a specific day and time in the week when you can see him to address work-related issues. Have this agreement in written form such as email as evidence should he make excuses in future. Type and send him every discussion you have for reference purposes. If there is a crisis he is avoiding, follow it up with a text, fax or email after you have told him. This way, you have a chance to be exonerated should it escalate to a crisis.

5. Underhanded fights

buylling at workdailymail

The rule in the workplace is to fight fair because conflict will arise anyway. But when a boss does not respect this rule, it is most likely a tool of manipulation. If you find your manager often shifting blame and scapegoating, perhaps it is time to confront him and outline your concerns. If your boss is fond of using subtle sarcasm on you, putting you down, portraying you as inadequate, or any other shaming technique, it is time to sound the alarm bell.

Solution: Set limits on how he should talk to you and what you are willing to tolerate. For example, you can request that he calls you to his office if he has any complaints against you, and only uses professional language. But the best way to deal with such manipulative tactics is not to let the boss’ actions get to you. Keep your focus on the issue at hand, and avoid getting emotional. Bullies thrive in destabilising your emotions and getting you worked up. Confidence, on the other hand, can restrain the person because they are unable to achieve the intended effect on you.

6. Overt favouritism

A manipulative boss will go to great lengths to lure you into their net. The first step is to make you overly trusting and drop your defence. This is also one way to find out more about your past and hopefully use it to blackmail you in the future should you be uncooperative. If you are a new employee, and the boss openly favours or overtly supports you, it is smart to question the gestures.

Solution: Draw your lines to protect professionalism between the two of you and stick to them. An awkward place to find yourself is to try and protect yourself from a manipulative boss that already knows too much about you.

7. Over-intellectualisation

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If you find yourself struggling to understand what your boss is saying, even though you are an educated professional, he may have crossed the line. You can tell when you have a boss who enjoys intellectual stimulation and one that is a bully. The former will not push you to go beyond what you need as a professional and will enjoy teaching you if you are interested. The later will use his knowledge to intimidate and shame those around him. The intention in such a scenario is to push you to spend too much time trying to figure your boss out, rather than protecting yourself against his aggression.

Solution: Be alert and don’t let your boss pull the wool over your eyes. Be clear and specific in your conversations, and request direct responses. When your manager does not oblige your requests and starts talking about irrelevant things, respectfully ask for direct responses again. Do not give your boss the chance to sidestep, and keep insisting until he stops dong it.

See also: How to Piss Your Boss Off Without Getting Into Trouble

It is easier if you can avoid being in manipulative situations, but when it is your workplace, and the person in question is your boss, it isn’t really an option. The best bet for you is to recognise his pathology early, draw boundaries and learn to assert them consistently. Know your basic rights as a human being and employee. Keep your distance, develop a tough backbone, and never blame yourself for his actions. If the situation gets too uncomfortable to you, involve other authorities at your workplace. Remember the problem is not you and simply giving in or making excuses for manipulative people, feeds the habit.

Have you ever had a manipulative boss? How did you handle it? Let us know in the comments section below…


This article was originally published in October 2015.