Navigating a Manipulative Boss: How to Take Back Your Power

Do you feel like your boss is manipulating you? Manipulation is about power and control. The goal of a manipulative boss is to take advantage of you. Further, a manipulative boss creates great suffering for those reporting to them. Some bosses are outwardly aggressive and yell, rage, and make absurd demands of their employees. Manipulative bosses are worse because they take a low-key approach and often go undetected.


If you are lucky, you will find a boss who leads by example. However, you have some options if you have a manipulative boss masquerading as a mentor. Here’s how to tell if your boss is manipulating you and what to do about it.

1) Your boss withholds communication, so you are unsure where you stand.

Keeping you in the dark about your performance is an underhanded method manipulative bosses will use to influence you. Withholding communication on how well you are completing a task or if there is room for improvement creates confusion and discontent. Additionally, it allows your boss to avoid confrontation by providing feedback.

Your boss is manipulating you when they withhold information.

If your boss rarely provides feedback, you will push yourself harder in a failed attempt to solicit evidence of their approval. Since this method lacks direct feedback from your boss, it causes disappointment and burnout, leading to a cynical attitude and resentment.

If your boss is manipulating you by withholding communication, request feedback directly. Being direct and leading the conversation makes it difficult for them to avoid it, and you’ll likely get the feedback you need.


2) Your boss focuses on your weaknesses

Keeping you focused on your weaknesses is another underhanded method manipulative bosses use to influence you. By emphasizing your shortcomings, your boss is ramping up your insecurities. In doing so, you lose confidence and are less likely to search for another job.

A manipulative boss only focuses on your weaknesses.

Additionally, by focusing on your weaknesses, your boss manipulates you into not asking for a raise, not applying for a promotion, and ultimately maintaining control over you. They seldom provide constructive criticism, which denies your personal development.

When your boss manipulates you by focusing on your weaknesses, call them out directly. They may not realize they are doing it. Have a candid conversation and tell them it would be helpful to frame your conversations around what has been going well in your work and what you could improve on. Even more, you can start your one-to-ones with the areas you feel you are excelling in before they jump in to talk about your weaknesses. Manipulative bosses are usually conflict-averse and likely won’t dispute your strengths.


3) A manipulative boss blocks you from your goals

Blocking you from achieving your goals, or moving the goalpost, is an underhanded way your boss manipulates you. Do your assignments never come with enough reasonable time to complete them? Manipulative bosses don’t want you to succeed, so they sabotage you on purpose.

A manipulative boss blocks you from achieving your goals..

They control your work assignments and are responsible for judging the quality, timeliness, and effort you put into completing them. Therefore, it is easy to throw you off track by giving you more work, working with competing priorities, and stealing your valuable time and resources.

You have to have a direct conversation when your boss manipulates you by blocking you from achieving your goals. If they put an obstacle in your way, let them know. But make sure to do so in writing. If your boss assigns goals with competing priorities, ask them for help prioritizing them. Your boss is there to guide you through the different variables that inevitably come up as you go through your workday.

Whenever your boss assigns a goal, make sure you are very clear on what done looks like. Have the goal and expected outcome well documented. Doing so is the best protection from a manipulative boss who blocks you from achieving your goals by moving the goalpost.


4) Your boss intimidates you

Your boss is manipulating you if they intimidate you into submission. Walking on eggshells and constantly guessing what version of your boss you will see on any given day is a sign of a manipulative boss. Even worse, some bosses resort to threatening you with talks of layoffs, demotions, or withholding your bonus or raise.

A manipulative boss uses intimidation to influence you.

Bully bosses use intimidation to manipulate their employees, and their go-to method is to belittle and grill you in front of your coworkers. Your boss goes assignment by assignment, and there is never a good reason why something went undone or is behind.

If your boss manipulates you through intimidation, you must report bullying behavior to HR. Then, dig deep to find the courage to defend yourself professionally. Don’t face a bully boss alone; maintain documentation of your interactions.

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5) Your boss wears two masks

Your boss is manipulating you when they exhibit two-faced behavior. They talk negatively about your coworkers behind their backs. However, when the coworkers are present, they are full of praise. Sometimes they are your friend, and other times a foe.

A manipulative boss wears many masks to influence you.

A two-faced boss is among the worst you can have. They manipulate situations by putting on whatever mask will get them the desired outcome. So they will talk negatively to you about others. Consequently, they talk to others negatively about you. They turn on the charm to influence you to do something or gain your trust. But will quickly change their mask to embarrass you on a whim. You cannot trust two-faced, manipulative bosses.

If your boss is demonstrating two-faced behavior, they are manipulating you. When they start gossiping, remove yourself from the situation. Treat them the way you would treat anyone you don’t trust. Document everything and create opportunities to discuss things in a group setting. If you trust the coworkers your boss trash talks, tell them what the boss is saying about them. However, tread lightly here and make sure you trust the coworker first.


6) Your boss manipulates you when they rewrite the truth

It is great to be a boss because you can allow your bias to change the narrative and rewrite the truth. Manipulative bosses know exactly what to say, when to say it, and to whom to cement their version of the truth about a situation.

A manipulative boss rewrites the truth.

Manipulating bosses rewrite the truth underhanded and covertly, so it is hard to detect. They frame statements that sow seeds of doubt or are so matter-of-fact that no one questions them. Manipulative bosses comment in passing to spread their truth; before you know it, their version of the truth is cemented in everyone’s mind.

If your boss manipulates you by rewriting the truth, address it head-on. Call your boss on their storytelling to know they can’t sprinkle their falsehoods without being called out. Also, gather documentation or written examples to send to HR or upper management, who can address the issue.


7) Your boss shifts the blame

Your boss is manipulating you if they never accept blame. They make a mistake, misbehave, or something fails, yet your boss always finds a way to blame them for something.

A manipulative boss points blame in your direction.

Your boss is unwilling to accept responsibility. As a result, they are never wrong, which isn’t good for you and your coworkers. Despite surfacing issues, raising your hand when things aren’t going as expected, and even talking ad nauseam to your boss about it, they stay silent. Then, when the situation reaches a tipping point, it’s your fault. You needed to do more or better. You needed to do your job.

If your boss manipulates you by pointing blame your way, document everything, and provide regular written updates to the boss and the greater team. When you aren’t clear on your responsibilities on a particular assignment, email for clarification. If you meet to discuss your responsibilities, follow up with written confirmation of your understanding.


8) A manipulating boss sabotages you to preserve their ego

Unfortunately, ego-driven bosses rise to the top quickly and swiftly, so many of them are out there. However, they are incredibly ineffective leaders. Yet, they are extremely skilled at manipulating you to protect their power.

A manipulative boss undermines you to protect their ego.

Bosses who like to show they are in charge and need constant assurance they are the boss manipulate you through intimidation and benching you. Their ego craves power, so they view strong employees as a threat. To protect their power and position, they frequently undermine you, reassign you to menial tasks, or worse, badmouth you.

You must act quickly if your boss manipulates you by benching you or sidelining you to protect their ego. You are a strong, well-respected, and valued employee, so voicing your concerns about this behavior early is important. In addition, you want to surface these concerns while you still have credibility within the organization. Once your boss undermines you, your concerns might not carry the weight they deserve.

Having a manipulative boss is an awful experience. It makes your work life miserable and, no doubt, will also impact your personal life. However, knowing how to identify if your boss is manipulating you and, more importantly, what to do, will improve your work experience. Additionally, learning how to work for a manipulative boss might keep them from manipulating you or, at the very least, help your company see how terrible a boss they are.


Last updated on May 5th, 2023 at 05:40 am

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Jason Cortel is currently the Director of Global Workforce Management for a leading technology company. He has been in customer service, marketing, and sales services for over 20 years. In addition, he has extensive experience in offshore and nearshore outsourcing. Jason is an avid Star Trek fan and is on a mission to change the universe by helping people develop professionally. He is driven to help managers and leaders lead their teams better. Jason is also a veteran in creating talent and office cultures.

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