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Influence Versus Manipulation

Dear David,

The culture in my organization is toxic. We have intelligent, proud, committed leaders who are beginning to learn the talk of collaboration and empowerment. However, they still cling to the quick-and-dirty solution of compliance. My question is, how is intentional influence different from manipulation? I fear that the concept of intentional influence will enable a dysfunctional culture. I think cultural change in medicine will be a long, slow process if it is to be meaningful and sustainable. But how do we avoid manipulation/forced compliance in the process?

Committed to Functional Change

Dear Committed,

This is a nice, hard question. I like the thought you’ve put into it, and I’ll try to give it the kind of answer it deserves. First, I want to explore the toxic environment you describe because it’s a common problem for cultures in transition. Second, I’ll focus on intentional influence and tackle the conundrum of influence without manipulation.

Your Toxic Environment. It sounds as if you have leaders who talk the right talk and may buy in to the need to improve collaboration and empowerment across the culture. But, when they need quick action, they revert to their old ways of forced compliance. It’s a classic case of actions speaking louder than words. People see them as hypocrites and the culture becomes toxic. Here are a few ideas for overcoming this hurdle.

Crucial moments. Humans are hard-wired for self-protection. As a result, we are always on the lookout for bad news—and we’re naturally suspicious of good news. This makes us quick to read bad intent in others’ actions. So, when leaders talk the talk about collaboration and empowerment, we tend to hold back and watch their actions for evidence of their true intent.

We’re also pretty good at masking our own motives—putting on a good face—and we know our leaders are good at it too. So we don’t trust their more scripted and formal interactions. The evidence we find most credible is how they behave when the stakes are high, and supporting new values requires painful sacrifices. It’s these crucial moments that test leaders’ resolve.

Hypocrites and heroes. In these crucial moments, leaders’ actions will make them either hypocrites or heroes. There is safe ground in between.

The temptation is to revert to familiar tactics from the old culture, which is what you’ve witnessed in your organization. When action needs to be fast, your leaders revert to forced compliance and look like hypocrites. Using old tactics to create new norms can create some weird situations. For example, I visited a company that had created what they called their “MPM program” to introduce greater empowerment into their stubborn culture. I asked what MPM stood for and the frustrated senior leader said, “Mandatory Participative Management.”

The best leaders capitalize on crucial moments by doubling down on their support for the new culture. They turn the crucial moment into a symbol of their support by making a sacrifice. By sacrifice, I mean a trade-off. They trade another value—their time, ego, money, or another priority—in favor of the new cultural value. Here’s an example: A CEO of a major aerospace and defense corporation was in the middle of an employee-feedback session when his assistant passed him a message, “The Prince has arrived a half hour early.” The Prince was a royal buyer who was there to discuss a multi-billion dollar order. This was a crucial moment, and the CEO recognized it. Royalty doesn’t like to be kept waiting and the sale was important. In the old culture, the CEO would have ended the feedback session on the spot. But this time he didn’t. Instead, he explained the situation to the group and then said, “I know you’ve all invested time and energy in preparing for this meeting. And I’m anxious to hear your perspectives. Let’s continue our meeting. I’ll have my assistant work with the Prince until we’ve wrapped up here.” He put his meeting with the Prince at risk in favor of getting feedback. You can bet people noticed. Making the trade-off signaled that the CEO’s verbal support for employee input was genuine and sincere.

Intentional Influence. How can leaders drive rapid change without resorting to forced compliance or manipulation? We wrote Influencer: The New Science of Leading Change in order to answer this exact question. I’ll outline a few key concepts so you can see how the process works.

Manipulation versus influence. First, I’ll define manipulation, so we can see how influence is different. An action is manipulative if it derives a part of its power from subterfuge—i.e., from being hidden or underhanded. If explaining exactly what you are doing and why makes the action less effective, then it is manipulative. The influence strategies we teach in Influencer are just the opposite: they become more powerful as people understand how and why they are being used.

Make the business case for change. Don’t assume that a desire for open dialogue will be enough to drive culture change. Instead, make a detailed business case that ties these behaviors to bottom-line results. Share the facts you have—the good, the bad, and the ugly—about the need for the cultural change.

Measure it like it matters. Measure both behavior change and results. Cascade behavior change goals as key performance indicators for senior leaders, managers, and employees at all levels.

Turn leaders into influencers. Involve both formal and informal leaders in all phases of the culture-change initiative. These leaders, including senior leaders, must teach, model, and hold each other accountable for the new norms.

Employ all Six Sources of Influence™. Too often leaders rely on a single source solution. For example, they over-rely on training, or incentives, or motivational speeches and posters. Our research has shown that combining four or more different sources of influence makes you ten times more likely to succeed.

Culture change doesn’t have to move at a glacial pace. If the organization recruits all Six Sources of Influence to work for the change, they will find that the improvements are profound, rapid, and enduring.

Best of Luck,

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4 thoughts on “Influence Versus Manipulation”

  1. Mike

    Hmm, everything you said makes sense. I particularly like your definitions of influence vs manipulation. At the same time, there may be another explanation.
    The change this organization aspires to make is a major shift. Compliance is on the opposite side of the continuum from collaboration. This will not be easy, happen over night nor be accomplished without some false starts or setbacks. Making this change will be awkward and feel like role playing both to those trying a new behavior aligned to the new value and those experiencing it from the receiving side. It may feel false or manipulative.
    How to get thru this learning phase is a tough question.

  2. Stacey Vanucci

    This was extremely on-point, relevant and helpful. Thank you.

  3. Kevin

    Absolute nonsense. Thanks for exposing this tripe. I will NOT be reading any more of this garbage. This was a word salad article and therefore I anticipate a word salad book. Your comment of “If explaining exactly what you are doing and why makes the action less effective, then it is manipulative.” is complete nonsense.

    I hope the younger generation sees this idiocy for what it is.


  4. Jane Sutherland

    Your article explains very well what I have been going through in changes at my workplace. I just copied down as a quote your explanation of manipulation. It explains exactly how I have been feeling. There had been subterfuge – new management talking about changes that involve me with others, not me, that got back to me. Now management is withholding explanations of their intent and subsequent changes feel very manipulative and self-serving, especially given the subterfuge. And, because I am “hard wired for self protection,” I am quick to see bad intent. All this has made it very difficult for me to be a fully willing and active participant, which goes against my nature.

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