10 Signs Your Boss Is Manipulating You (and What to Do)

Don’t turn a blind eye.

Reviewed by Chris Leitch

Manipulative boss puppeteering an office worker

Workplace happiness and wellbeing have risen to the top of the HR agenda as experts recognize their direct impact on employee productivity and overall performance. While loving what we do is an important aspect of wellbeing, having a good manager is just as important for our productivity and how we feel about our job.

That said, it might be hard to forge a positive relationship with our manager if they’re standoffish and try to manipulate us for their own benefit.

Often, this behavior can be insidious and difficult to notice, making poor management a real danger for any workplace where it goes unaddressed for too long. On a personal level, it can cause anxiety and depression, and seriously undermine your long-term career prospects.

Dealing with a bad boss can be hard.

Here we share 10 recognizable signs of manipulation and how to deal with a manipulative boss in a constructive way.

10 signs to watch out for

Is your boss trying to manipulate you? These tell-tale signs will give you a clue.

1. They undermine your confidence

Manipulation can often creep up on you in the form of a seemingly innocent joke about your personality, the way you speak or the way you look. Comments like “That dress really doesn’t do you any favors!” might sound innocent enough, but when it comes from a figure of authority, it can seriously undermine your confidence and self-esteem.

If you notice that this behavior is the rule rather than the exception, you need to act before it has any major impact on your work and mental state. Take notice of how your manager talks to you and those around you, and think about how that makes you feel. If you feel uncomfortable or “on the edge” being around them, they might have crossed the line from banter into harassment.

Try to stay respectful, but be clear about how these remarks make you feel. Use some private space to air your concerns and see how they respond. If they’re unresponsive to your feedback, you have several legal remedies at your disposal. For example, you can raise a formal grievance which will undergo an internal investigation.

Each company will have its own procedure for how they handle grievances, so make sure you check your employee handbook. If you have a union representative, you can also seek advice from them on how to best deal with the situation.

2. They use blame to control you

Did your team not meet its quarterly goals? Was a client not satisfied with how the project’s progressing? A manipulative boss will always put the blame on you and use that to control your behavior and emotions.

Sometimes, when multiple parties are involved in a certain task, it can be difficult to know whose fault it is when something goes wrong. If you’re overly self-critical to begin with, you can easily internalize this guilt and feel like you’ve let the team down.

In order to avoid the guilt-trap, though, try to remove yourself from the situation when things get heated. If you’ve received a scathing email from your boss blaming you for the failed deployment of a new product, for example, take a time-out instead of responding immediately. Once you’ve had a chance to cool off and look at the cold facts, reply in a neutral tone outlining your findings and ideas for improving the workflow that had led to the issue.

It’s important to steer clear from shifting the blame onto others, as that can lead to a toxic work environment. If you notice they keep doing this, you need to raise it as a concern and ask them what you can all do as a team to improve performance.

3. They micromanage you

Micromanagement has become somewhat of a buzzword in the world of work to describe practices of poor management. While a bit of closer monitoring and collaboration might actually be good when a new employee is trying to learn the ropes of the job, it can easily escalate into a controlling relationship where the employee feels like they have no freedom to act on their own.

If you notice your manager asks to double-check every single email before you hit “Send” or to proofread your presentation before your client meeting, that’s a classic sign of a micromanager. Before you assume the worst, though, try and speak to your manager about where this need for checking up on you comes from. If it’s a matter of lack of trust, ask them what you could do to help them trust you more.

Managers are busy people, so come up with a solution. Offer to take on a bigger project and assure them that you’d get back to them if you come across any issues. If they refuse or deny any micromanaging, feel free to go to their manager or, if they don’t have one, to HR. Your employer would want to know if you’re struggling and would want to help. They might see this as an opportunity to offer managers refresher courses in leadership and people management training.

4. They’re gaslighting you

Have you ever submitted your project a few hours before the deadline only to have your boss tell you that it was actually due yesterday? Or did they insist they’d shared a piece of information when both you and your colleagues are confident that you’d never heard of it before?

This might be simple forgetfulness on your manager’s part, but if it happens on a consistent basis, it can be a clear sign of gaslighting. The effects can be disastrous on the victim who can start feeling depressed and anxious or lose their own sense of self-worth.

If you notice this behavior in your manager, it’s really important to take swift action. First, try to have a chat with them and see where the disconnect comes from. If they take no blame for their actions and insist on you being in the wrong, make sure you write down every date or key piece of information they share with you and confirm via email what has been discussed.

Cross-reference your information with other colleagues and keep a database of inconsistencies as evidence. Gaslighters are very good at shifting blame and being defensive when confronted, so it’s key to have as much evidence as possible when you report their behavior to HR.

5. They never praise your work

Do you have a feeling that, despite giving it your all, you never get any praise for your work? Maybe you went above and beyond to help a client and did more than what was required of you, yet your manager doesn’t seem to acknowledge that? Or, if they do say something, they say something along the lines of “You better help the client — that’s what you’re paid for!”.

This is a classic example of manipulative behavior where your manager tries to make you feel inadequate or undeserving of their praise. In these instances, it’s important to address the issue head on in a respectful manner.

Raise the issue during a one-to-one, and explain how they make you feel when they say things like that. Rather than finger-pointing, though, conflict resolution experts advise to use “I” statements to express your feelings; this allows the other person to put down their guard and really listen to what you have to say.

6. They use intimidation

Many companies nowadays would have a handbook of employee rights, listing anything from parental leave to your rights against harassment and discrimination in the workplace. Unfortunately, this doesn’t stop manipulative bosses from being disrespectful or intimidating towards their employees.

If you’ve noticed that your boss likes to raise their voice when they’re unhappy with your work or if they use threats to “encourage” you to do better, then they’re trying to control you by instilling fear. This is a destructive behavior that undermines mutual trust and can lead to anxiety, insomnia and increased levels of chronic stress.

In order to deal with this effectively, you need to know what behavior constitutes abuse and what might be just a stern talk. For example, if you and your team are working on a big deal and are about to miss a key deadline, your manager might use a bit of a sharp tone in order to put a bit of pressure on you.

However, this behavior would be an exception rather than the rule. If this happens on an ongoing basis, and for small things, then you better make note of these instances and discuss them with your manager in private. If they’re unreceptive, consult the company policy on how to deal with this situation.

Intimidation is another form of workplace harassment, so you can choose to report a grievance or file a formal complaint. Keep any records, screenshots or emails you can use as proof of harassment. If you notice your employer isn’t taking your complaint seriously, you can always go to your local municipality or relevant authority.

7. They take credit for your work

Chances are, if your boss is being manipulative with you, they’re doing the same to others as well. Manipulative personalities try to turn any situation to their favor, even if that sometimes means taking credit for other people’s work.

You might discuss a solution with your manager and come up with an ingenious idea to solve a problem, only to see an email later from your boss sent to the CEO and the rest of the team, outlining how they have thought of a new course of action. This gets them brownie points with higher management and respect from the rest of the team who can look up to their manager for other clever ideas.

You might be tempted to let this one slide and avoid unnecessary conflict. As long as the client is happy, nothing else matters, right? Well, not quite. Not taking credit for your work can have a significant impact on the responsibilities you’re given down the line and, ultimately, on your career prospects.

On these occasions, it’s important to state that the idea was yours, but do so in a non-adversarial way. Nobody wants to collaborate with an aggressive person. Instead of responding with “Well, actually, that was my idea”, try to phrase your response in a positive light: “Thanks for that, Brian. I was about to email the team to let them know what we discussed earlier and some of the ideas I had about this project.”

8. They meddle in your personal life

Good managers will always respect your life and time outside of work. However, any type of boss who wants to be in full control won’t shy away from dominating your private space as well. You might find that they ask you who you’d been speaking to as you hang up the phone or give you unsolicited advice about your partner and friends.

Initially, this might look like your manager is trying to be friendly. However, this behavior is anything but professional and can easily escalate into a more sinister behavior where they expect you to do work outside of working hours or report to them on weekends about your progress on a certain project.

In order to avoid this from being a bigger problem, make sure you establish clear boundaries on your working hours and how much you share from your personal life. The less they know, the less they can interfere. Likewise, if you receive any emails or calls outside of working hours, resist the urge to answer right there and then. Instead, wait until Monday morning to get back to them.

9. They’re exempt from their own rules

Do they insist on everyone staying in the office until late in the evening, only to have them leave every other day at 4pm? Or do they claim that everyone has a food budget of $50 per day on business trips, only to see them expense triple that for their own trips? That’s a classic example of manipulation where your manager wants to show that they’re superior to you and the rules don’t apply to them.

Similar to outward intimidation, this behavior can undermine your self-worth and make you question your position in the company. In some cases, it can lead to anger and frustration as we’re conditioned to react to unfairness. While you can’t tell your boss what to do, you can change how you respond to their actions instead.

Next time they ask you to stay until 7pm, politely apologize and remind them that your working time is until 5pm and that you have other responsibilities to cater to. If you happen to be on the business trip where they spend money on lavish dinners, feel free to ask them if there have been any changes to the food budget allowance that you can benefit from as well. They might not cancel their steak order, but they’ll know that you’re someone who can stand up for themselves.

10. They create an environment of mistrust

You’ve heard the saying “a team is as strong as its weakest link”. Trust in the workplace breeds collaboration, innovation and critical thinking — something a manipulative boss cannot handle. Since their goal is to retain ultimate control over anyone who works under them, it’s in their favor that team members don’t trust each other and refuse to collaborate.

You might catch your manager bad-mouthing Roger about being really bad with numbers or insisting that Melissa can’t be trusted with trade secrets. While you might feel like you have your manager’s trust since they’ve opened up to you, don’t think that they’re not saying something just as bad or worse about you to your colleagues. It’s easy to control a group when they’re divided.

When you see this behavior, try to keep your rational head on, and refute such comments by saying something positive or neutral about your colleagues. Instead of avoiding them, invite them to lunch or cup of coffee and get to know them for yourself. A strong team is more valuable to a company than a poor manager, so if your manager doesn’t do it, try to be the driving force behind fostering a trusting and collaborative environment.

How to navigate a manipulative boss

Dealing with a manipulative boss can feel like walking on eggshells. The following tactics, however, can help you effectively navigate and overcome such uncomfortable situations at the office.

1. Keep a detailed log of your interactions

It’s wise to keep a good record of all your interactions with your boss, both digital and face-to-face, detailing the situation, what was said, as well as the date and time this took place. Making a note of witnesses who can attest to these occurrences is also vital.

2. Seek feedback from others

If the way your boss is behaving makes you question your sanity, speaking with entrusted colleagues and work mentors can help you gain a leveled perspective. Chances are that others have experienced or witnessed this behavior too, so getting confirmation from them will validate how you feel.

3. Maintain your boundaries

Keeping your boundaries will help you protect your mental health. For example, stick to your pre-assigned working times, and maintain the duties and responsibilities that fall under your role. If your manager attempts to get you to work overtime or burden you with tasks above your pay grade, remind them of this and reaffirm your professional boundaries to them.

4. Minimize contact

Keeping your distance from your manager, whenever possible, is another smart tactic. Stirring clear from them in break rooms, corporate events and other functions where interacting with them is not necessary will lessen contact with them and allow you to connect with other individuals from your company instead.

5. Approach HR

If you feel that your boss has crossed certain boundaries, then you might need to escalate this by going directly to HR. Before doing so, make sure that you have the necessary evidence and witnesses that will back up your case. It’s also crucial that you have a clear idea of what needs to be addressed and changed following this escalation, giving your HR a comprehensive direction on how to proceed.

Final thoughts

Manipulation in the workplace can come in different shapes and forms. Nevertheless, its effects can be disastrous if left unaddressed. Regardless of whether your manager is unaware of their behavior or do these things intentionally, they can severely undermine people’s careers as well as the overall performance of the business.

Keeping record of instances of manipulation, being transparent and escalating more serious issues with senior management can help you stand out as an employee and be a happier, more balanced person overall.

How do you deal with a manipulative boss? Share your experiences with us in the comments section below!

Originally published on February 27, 2017. Updated by Melina Theodorou.