Finding Margin in Business and in Life

Six Steps to Working for a Manipulative Boss

Some time ago I read a blog post by Don Miller, a prolific writer and founding director of Storyline.  The post is entitled The Single Defining Characteristic of a Manipulator.  In it, he states “…manipulative people will use guilt, shame, lies and trickery to get what they want.”  Have you ever worked for someone like that?


Over the years I’ve worked for a number of managers, employers and clients.  Some have been difficult…some quite so.   One, in particular, was more than just difficult; he was a manipulator.   He would use whatever means to subject his will upon his employees, vendors, customers, advisors, family…anyone.  In addition to the tactics mentioned above, he would publicly belittle, curse or threaten demotion or termination.  At the same time, he would not hesitate to apply charm or deference, if only to serve his larger purpose.  He exhilarated in stirring conflict, division, politicking and gossip within the organization.

Why would he do this?

In order to cope with the rejection of a parent or significant adult in childhood, manipulators construct an environment centered solely upon themselves to meet their personal need for meaning and fulfillment.  Nothing else matters!

  • Manipulators start by blaming others for their problems.  In a business situation this plays out in blaming an employee’s character or integrity, rather than looking at system issues or miscommunication as likely problem sources.
  • Manipulators resort to shaming others for their actions or behaviors.  Shaming requires an audience.  If you’ve ever been soundly criticized or berated by your boss in public, you know just how demeaning and demotivating this can be.  It doesn’t matter if it is face-to-face, teleconference or email; it is incredibly damaging.
  • Manipulators will control everyone within their circles of influence.  A manipulative boss is, by nature, a micromanager.  Nothing comes or goes without their direct involvement.  This leads to delays, distractions and rework that serves only to frustrate others involved.
  • Manipulators will create chaos to divert responsibility for failures to others, while drawing attention for correcting these failures to themselves.  One might call this the “Savior Complex”.   In the context of a business, having an employer or manager engaging in such behavior can be deadly to its existence.  Employees, customers and vendors will only put up with so much of these shenanigans.

So, you may be wondering, what do I do if my boss is a manipulator?  Here are some suggestions:

  • Do your best work.    Be professional and strive for excellence.  In Colossians 3:23, the apostle Paul said “Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord, rather then for men.”  Even, if you’re not a religious person, this is good advice.  At the very least, you are developing your experience, which will be of value to your next employer.
  • Operate above the fray.  Choose not to participate in the blame, shame, control and chaos cycle.  It will be difficult!  The manipulative boss will give you more ammunition to use than you can possibly imagine.   Let it pass.  Any momentary gratification will only lead to a lingering disappointment in yourself for sinking below your standards.  I’ve made that mistake a few times and it still stings to think of them.  I think Matthew 5:16 is a great parallel to how to live this out.
  • Encourage coworkers and subordinates.  Undoubtedly most employees will feel uncertain of themselves in this type of environment, so they will need encouragement.  Be that person.  Find something positive to lift their spirits and renew their energy.  You may be the only one to share something uplifting to them.  Hope is a powerful thing.
  • Confront manipulative behavior appropriately.  Unfortunately, a manipulator craves conflict.  They live for it!  For most of us, however, we would be more than happy to never engage in it.  Neither mode is healthy and you need to be willing to engage it when appropriate.  In Proverbs 15:1, King Solomon wrote, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger”.  When the time comes to confront your boss, do so privately, calmly and respectfully.  Don’t resort to his tactics.   My experience is it disarms them, if only for a little bit.   It may not have the impact you desire; and then again, it might.  Your responsibility is to try to influence your boss in the right direction.
  • Discern criticism carefully.    Inevitably, you will be criticized by a manipulative boss.  Criticism is guaranteed.  The key here is to carefully screen out any criticism aimed at your character.  This is far easier said than done.  As a society, we underestimate the power of words; particularly condemning words.   Consciously push those thoughts aside and look for those comments that can be applied to improving your performance within the organization.  Own what you need to, but toss out any and all comments that demean you as a person.   It is inappropriate and often untrue!
  • Encourage your boss.  This is where you may call me just plain nuts, but I believe anyone can change.  To me that is the essence of influence.  It takes the right time, people, circumstances and the willingness to engage.  As a Christian, I have that responsibility.  All people need to know they are valued and appreciated for who they are.  Nothing more, nothing less.  That is especially important for a manipulative boss to hear.  When they do something right, let them know. If they’re down, ask them how they are doing.  View them as a person; not your boss.  Again, you may not get any positive results, however, your responsibility is only to try.

Employing the suggestions above may never change your manipulative boss and we need to be alright with that.  However, incorporating these suggestions will make you a better person, employee, manager, spouse, parent and friend.   You can choose to grow through such a difficult experience.  It comes down to individual choices made each and every day.  Go make the right choices!

What is the most challenging part of working for a manipulative person?  How do you deal with it?

Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the post may be “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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  1. Very helpful suggestions based on scripture.

  2. Thanks for commenting.

  3. Love the article! Amazing how almost every point in the beginning fits the person who in a position just above me. This person has even found a way to manipulate her supervisor with lies and trickery and throwing myself and co-workers “under the bus”. The sad part is she works in a daycare setting and will not hesitate to throw the children (as young as five) under the bus just to make herself look good.

    • Thanks for commenting. It usually takes time for a supervisor to truly come to grips with the extent of manipulation going on and the extent of the damage a manipulator can wreak within an organization. By being your best and encouraging others in your work to be the same, you can make it an uncomfortable environment for a manipulator to be. Wish you the best!

  4. Interesting and insightful, I too got the chance to work for a person like this years ago, I am trying to get over this situation.

  5. Wow! You have NO idea how much this article has spoken to me. I have been in my particular career field for over 20 years and have never worked for a person with a manipulative personality. Because of his insecurities, he resorts to “attacking” and publicly bereating staff. Intentionally perpetuating chaos to swoop in and be the “savior”—thank you so much for these scripturally based solutions!!

  6. Thanks so much for the positive feedback. We’ll be praying for progress in your situation. No matter how difficult the situation, we can rely on God. Romans 8:28 is powerful medicine. Thanks Karen!

  7. Thank you for your excellent article. I am dealing with a manipulative boss at the moment who I have only recently seen what they are doing, because they have been so good at being manipulative. I saw a lot of good practical things to do in my school that I work in. Being a Christian schools make it harder in a way to deal with a manipulative boss because they are always using bible verses and scriptural encouragement to make it hard to really have any comeback. Once again thank you.

    • Nelson, one might expect a Christian organization to be a “manipulative” free zone, but unfortunately, that just isn’t the case. Manipulation does seem a bit trickier in the context of spiritualizing manipulative actions or words. One thing is certain in my experience. A manipulator will create confusion. It is the arena in which they operate and thrive. Check out what James wrote to the church in James 3:16, “For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.” Another word for disorder is confusion. There is no confusion or deceit in Christ. 1 Peter 2:22 states, “He committed no sin and no deceit was found in his mouth.” So when the manipulator creates confusion, you can certainly know the enemy is at work. I pray that you will have the clarity to see and the courage to call out the confusion as the Lord leads and directs you. God is faithful!

  8. This is not soley true. Some of the most cunning manipulators I know do without shame and belittling, but use alliances, bribery and charming behaviour to get what they want. They’re so charming in fact that while everyone is bewitched they play their little trick of lies and manipulation with their free hand, causing destruction on such a level it goes unnoticed by all but the people affected.

    • You’re right. A passive-aggressive manipulator won’t typically resort to shaming and belittling as normal means of operating. They much prefer the back channel means of manipulation. It’s safer that way. However, if pushed to real accountability, even the passive-aggressive manipulator will throw anyone and everyone under the bus privately and publicly. Our challenge remains the same, and that is how we choose to deal with and make the best of a difficult situation. Thanks for the comments and wish you the best.

  9. Thank you. This has been really helpful and the thought of encouraging my manipulative boss will take some work. I am isolated by location in my work and the boss uses this frequently. I know I have been lied about, and have seen some evidence on formal work documents, where I challenged it, & ended up being ostracised even more. My boss is also physically isolated from superiors so has the opportunity to do what ever without being noticed. It was heavily suggested last week that the job I do, will be downgraded and have hours reduced soon. Not surprising in some way as my boss has wanted to close the area I work in for years, only achieving in downsizing once by lying to other managers. In my recent work development interview I was given options of going to lower paid & lesser skilled jobs or leaving. I have applied for other jobs, but am not getting any of them, despite getting positive feedback from interviewers. I’m keeping going, trusting God will show me the way. Thank you again.

    • Sue, working for a manipulative boss is certainly difficult and I am so grateful that we serve One who has endured it all and has promised to direct our steps and hedge us in as we go through our trials. Take to heart Psalm 91. It’s a warrior’s prayer; one which I’ve prayed countless times for those in combat over the years. I found it to be just as applicable when working for a manipulative boss. For many months, this prayer was my lifeline through the discouragement, frustration and heartache of serving someone who’s sole purpose seemed only to damage those around himself. Know that you’re of infinite value to God and He will see you through this. He can and will create great beauty from difficult circumstances. My prayers are with you!

  10. Hi Chuck
    Your explanation of the modus operandi of the manipulative boss is excellent. It seems that you can read them very easily and also predict what they are going to do. Your six steps are also very thoughtful and provide the objective of avoiding confrontation which will surely be damaging to the employee. Unfortunately for companies the value of boss is more than the subordinate. So in case of confrontation, boss words has more weightage as compared to employee.
    But is it the only way? Manipulative bosses knows that quite people will not say anything and will avoid any confrontation. So they are not concerned about these employees. In other words, they don’t care. For confronting employees, they use half truth, change the direction of discussion and hit back with manipulation. It seems Manipulative bosses are stronger and there is no answer to their behavior except to avoid them and not getting involved with them.
    Nevertheless, I really liked your article as it give insight to straight-forward people.

    Thanks for selecting such a difficult topic.
    Best regards

    • Dumpu, thanks for commenting on this blog post; I really appreciate your thoughtful remarks. There were a couple of comments you made that I’d like to address.

      The first thing is that I don’t necessarily agree that companies value a superior over their subordinates. More often than not, those in higher position in a company may simply just have far less accessibility to subordinates to know who they are, how they work, their work quality, etc. I know when I served on the executive team, it was all but impossible to know much more than the names of subordinates in other departments outside of my own. Your only link usually is their manager or department executive and, wrong or right, you have to trust their judgment…at least initially. Over time, however, patterns emerge that are hard to ignore. Turnover is high, the same remarks are made about the people that come and go. Everyone is suspect in their work product and/or character. Unfortunately, that takes time and good managerial insight to uncover and that’s expensive for a company to miss and needlessly unfortunate for those employees caught between the wheels until the reality of manipulation fully comes to light. That’s why there needs to be some kind of open door policy at the highest levels so this type of behavior can be nipped in the bud.

      This leads me to the second point I wanted to make. In a world with a manipulative boss, you will most likely have conflict, maybe even on daily basis. I think we have a responsibility as employees of a company and as people who care about the company we work for and those we work with, to confront the manipulative boss as needed. It is the fourth step in the blog post for a reason. It absolutely must be done… BUT, there are three steps we must be engaged in before we engage in these confrontations, so that we have credibility when we go into them. Why? Manipulative bosses know good work, they know good habits and they do see when you encourage others to be their best. They may not like that you are effective in the way you approach those things, but it does help them and they do see it. Conversely, they also know if you’re not doing these things and if you go into a confrontation, and don’t practice these three steps, your credibility will be ripped to shreds.

      Again, confrontations with manipulative bosses are a necessity even for quiet, introverted people like me. I don’t like confrontation, but I’ve learned a couple of lessons by engaging in it. Confrontations don’t have to be loud, angry or hateful. They can be quiet, well-thought and reasoned discussions. I have never engaged in a confrontation other than the second kind. If the other party can’t handle it, you can simply remove yourself from the meeting. The other lesson I learned is probably far more important and that is this. What is the worst thing my boss can do to me…Fire me? Trust me on this, please. There will be another job after this one, there will be life after the manipulative boss, and it is a breath of fresh air. Just don’t miss the opportunity for some internal character-building in the art of confrontation. It will serve you well, no matter where and with whom you work in the future. We always have choices.

      Thank you again, Dumpu!

  11. there is no way i would encourage a manipulative boss, i once thought of planting nails to his car tires so we would be equals, but after long thought i realised two wrongs dont make a right, distancing is the best method

    • Marvin, I completely understand. There’s a reason “encouraging your boss” was the last item on the list. It takes some hefty internal fortitude to turn the encouragement switch on with a manipulative boss. If you just don’t feel secure enough to do this, then its best you don’t. I will give you props, though, for foregoing flattening the tires. It’s tough having someone flattening your enthusiasm and momentum all the time. Let me know how best I can encourage you! Thanks for the honest comment, Marvin!

  12. I worked with a manipulative boss for 4 years. It was the hardest thing I have ever done. Every day I dreaded going to work. She was emotionally, mentally and verbally abusive to me as well as every other support members where I worked. She had terrible attendance and when she came to work she only did personal stuff the whole day. She never took responsibility for her own behavior and took out any anger she had on me. I was the bigger person the whole time. I did my work exceptionally well. Everyone knew of my struggle even the partners of the firm. It frustrates me to no end that the people in power did nothing to help me. They knew how horrible she was/is, but did/do nothing. I finally asked to be moved to another department because I was mentally and physically exhausted every day. Now someone else is in my old position and is just as frustrated. I think that the people in charge also have something to do with bad behavior. If they allow it, they help mold the monster.

    • Hannah, There’s no question those in leadership carry an absolute responsibility to create and maintain a healthy culture for their organizations. When leadership is abdicated, the manipulative ones seem to prosper…and others suffer greatly. It is pathetic, really. There is a fear involved with confrontation that most simply won’t step into, even when it’s logical, important and simply the right thing to do. It seems you are made of headier stuff than most; to last four years in such an environment is a testament to your character. You don’t last that long without engaging in the conflict. My prayer is you find healing and peace in your new environment and most importantly steady your resolve to challenge the manipulators you will come across in the future. Thanks for commenting. Wish you the very best!!

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