In our Exercising Influence workshops, the issue of manipulation often arises. Many people are concerned about the ethical implications of being conscious and tactical about influence. There is some confusion about the distinction between manipulation and influence. A thesaurus suggests the following distinction: to manipulate is to maneuver, handle, exploit, or deceive. To influence is to induce, incite, persuade, or activate. Influence implies respect for the other; manipulation does not. There is nothing fundamentally unethical or dishonest about choosing your behavior and words deliberately in order to persuade or activate others to join you in taking action.
When asked the question, "How do you know that you have been manipulated?" groups of managers and leaders consistently say, "When the other has been dishonest with me, leading me to take an action I would not have taken otherwise." When asked, "How do you know that you have been influenced?" the typical reply is, "I voluntarily choose to change or take action based on what the other did or said."
Thus, there are two key issues that distinguish one from the other: (1) trust in the honesty of the influencer and (2) a sense of choice about the action. Influence implies individual choice based on trustworthy information and guidance.
Several factors may cause people to be manipulative. Sometimes it is simply a skill or experience deficit; we are doing what has been done to us. Sometimes we wish to avoid the appearance of using direct power and hope that people will believe they are making a real choice. Sometimes we are fearful of the conflict that may result from telling the truth, so we maintain a hidden agenda and hope things go our way without having to reveal it. Sometimes we have simply not done our homework and are choosing an expedient way to involve another person. And there are certain pathological personality disorders that lead some people to be consistently manipulative.
Expressive influence becomes manipulative when we:
Receptive influence becomes manipulative when we:
The ethical influencer must ask him- or herself the following questions:
One of the great ethical responsibilities of the influencer is to be aware of his or her motivation in relation to the influence goal. It is perfectly legitimate to serve your own interests as long as you are not working against the interests of those you choose to influence or of the institutions or systems of which you are both members and to whom you owe respect and loyalty. Thus, influencing someone to disobey a legitimate rule or law (one you were both aware of and, in essence, signed up to uphold) can be unethical, whereas influencing someone to work with you to change a rule or law you believe to be unfair would be ethical. Influencing someone to help you do something that would benefit you but could be harmful to him or her would be unethical, unless you were completely honest about the risks involved and the person had free choice.
It is also important not to misuse your knowledge of others' self-interest or vulnerability to guide them in a direction you know would have serious negative consequences for them or others.
I think the behaviors that I'm going to name below are not only ineffective, but also unethical, although often done with the best of intentions. These actions are based on the unexamined assumption that other people are mean, foolish, fearful, or unimportant and don't deserve to be treated with respect. They include:
When these behaviors work, it is only while you are watching, and only if you have sufficient power. None of them actually influences anyone, since influence is something that requires the participation and agreement of the other.