Tuesday, 12 April 2011

The Quest for Power – manipulation in the workplace

If it sounds too good to be true then it probably is! How many spam emails have you received that say you have won a lottery? Just send your account details and presto you are an instant millionaire!

A schoolteacher (Y) tells the story of a colleague who at first appeared to be just that, too good to be true. She was very helpful and polite; a member of several committees, which would make decisions about school matters. As time progressed the schoolteacher began to take note of her colleagues behaviour and in the end she concluded that indeed her helpful co-worker was ‘too good to be true.’

In time her co-worker (X) would reveal her true intentions, to seek at all costs to get what she wanted by fair means or foul. How did she do this? What manipulative skills did she bring to bear to get the approval and power she needed? Read on.

X would be very generous and overly helpful to those who were new to the school. She would be pleasant and kind, always making sure they were tended to. Was all this a means in itself or a means to an end? Was she kind for kindness sake or was the teacher (Y) a mere pawn in her game, a target to be groomed for her own deceitful ends?

X had established a strong working relationship with the boss and other staff members would comment on the lengths she would go to please him e.g. make him coffee, get him cake and biscuits and volunteer to do things for him. The more she ministered to his needs the higher she was held in his esteem. Her sense of worth would continue to be bolstered as the boss grew to rely more on her readiness to help at any time.

X would recount how on so many occasions over time she had been victimised by others. At the netball club she would volunteer for various committees until she had a say in almost every area of club management and organization. She would do things so perfectly that others would comment on her exceptional talents. She was indispensible in her mind and achieved her desire to be the centre of attention. Others would grow to resent her influence and people left the club. When the club president suggested that changes be made to accommodate others X cried foul. What had she done? She only wanted what was best for the club! It just wasn’t fair!

X had claimed in the past that someone had rearranged personal items on her desk. For instance she said that someone had rearranged photographs, relocated paperwork and other things on her desk. She didn’t name anyone in particular but she left an impression that someone was treating her badly and unfairly. Had this actually happened or was it a strategy to focus attention again on her needy self? Others were left to consider which cruel staff member was the culprit making X’s life so difficult.

Mysteriously files would go missing on Y’s computer only to be retrieved by guess who? No need for a second guess! When X wanted to ingratiate herself to someone what better way than to be the one that ‘saves the day.’ X was heard to say, ‘these aren’t my files but I feel as if they are my own. It’s just like I lost them.’ Was this yet another contrived situation to demonstrate how empathic she was, how concerned she was for others. It perhaps was also an opportunity to get a kick from having power and control over the situation. Consider the phenomenon of the ‘Firefighter arsonist’

‘There are cases of fire - fighters who have started a fire, reported it and attended the fire with their unit in the hope of being seen as the hero who saves the community. In other cases the motive may be to gain self-esteem through a demonstration of power and control.
BushFIRE Arson Bulletin No. 16 Australian Institute of Criminology

X would claim that issues at home constantly challenged her – relationships with siblings, relationship with spouse, and serious health problems of family members. People initially would show care and concern but again was this yet another way to get peoples attention? Wouldn’t people regard such stoicism and resilience admirable? Some began to question the veracity of such claims. ‘It doesn’t only rain but it pours!’ ‘Don’t I have enough to deal with? Now this!’ This was the mantra, often accompanied by tears and claims of how unfair people and situations were.

It wasn’t unusual to observe X ministering to the needs of children demonstrating her compassion and desire to ‘be there’ for them. This was done in full view of others, her soothing words just loud enough for her ‘admiring’ colleagues to see her. How wonderful it appeared that X could be so caring and compassionate. What was the intention behind this? Were the children being used so that X could showcase her skills and compassion? This was perhaps yet another opportunity to be noticed, to be the centre of attention.

People began to wise up to X’s emotional blackmail and victim behaviour and they began to question her true intentions. Attention seekers need attention and some decided that they would not continue to fuel her need to be needed. If someone questioned her or asked for more information about something she would protest how affronted she was and that she was being unfairly treated. If people weren’t convinced she would become tearful. How could anyone think ill of someone who was so caring, compassionate, competent and hard working? Why should she be held to account like everyone else?

The professional victim is adept at deflecting blame, using hard luck stories to win sympathy, making herself ‘indispensible’ to influential others. This all feeds her need to be needed. She has low self worth and has such a poor opinion of herself that she relies on the approval of others to feel good about herself, an approval addiction/dependence. In previous posts we have discussed Serious Approval Dependence (SAD) where the individual needs to be noticed and esteemed by others. When this is taken away, the individual can be left with feelings of inadequacy, self-doubt and self-loathing. She may also resent those who don’t acknowledge her talents and capabilities (as they absolutely should! – see Albert Ellis’ ABC Theory of Emotional Disturbance). She is often left feeling angry, anxious and depressed.

X could do with some professional support to understand why she feels as she feels and behaves as she does. Albert Ellis’ REBT would help her tease out those irrational habits of thinking that she has constructed over the years. What self-sabotaging ‘musts, oughts and should’ type thinking underlie her unhelpful feelings and behaviours?

Person X above is worthy of understanding and respect but at the same time those around her would be wise to protect themselves from her manipulative behaviour.

1. Be aware of she who sits on every or most committees
2. Don’t feed her need to be needed – she needs your approval, don’t give it!
3. Be prepared to become a target of her anger/resentment if you are strong enough not to be drawn into her web of lies and deceit.
4. Tears and claims of victimhood will be the strategy of choice used when there is any sense that she has been caught out (‘My integrity is at stake here! This is so unfair.’)
5. She will put others down strategically when others who are ‘on side’ are around.
6. She will delegate difficult jobs to others (that she can’t do herself) and criticize them when they fail (as they will do).
7. She will withhold important information from colleagues.
8. She will deny professional learning opportunities to her 'underlings' and then criticize them when they don’t perform as well as they ‘should’.
9. She will tell her line manager that so and so is lazy, inefficient (who will believe her as she is his confidante at his disposal 24/7 and therefore must be right)
10. The above strategies will be used to her advantage e.g. engineer the employment of people she knows to positions on staff (to replace those inefficient others who ‘don’t do a good job’) who she can control.
11. She will tell lies to get what she wants.
12. She will be aided and abetted by line managers who wouldn’t want to get her offside as she is greatly needed (just as she likes to be).