3 Signs Your Boss is Emotionally Manipulative
Trademark aspects of a toxic work environment.
Hating your boss is a cliché of the 9 to 5 lifestyle. Some people dislike their boss for no good reason at all.
In fact, you might dislike your boss not because of who he or she is, but because your boss is a walking, breathing reminder that for eight hours every day (and sometimes more) your time is not your own.
Your boss is a reminder that you have goals and deadlines, and that your survival essentially depends on looking good based on their specific metrics.
While it’s true that your boss doesn’t have to be your favorite person, there are instances in which dislike for the boss is more warranted than others. Including if you have an emotionally manipulative boss.
Your relationship with your boss isn’t much different than other relationships in your life, and manipulative bosses behave very much like other manipulative people.
“Manipulative people either lack insight into how they engage others and create certain scenarios, or they truly believe that their way of handling a situation is the only way because it means that their needs are being met, and that’s all that matters. Ultimately, all situations and relationships are about them, and what others think, feel, and want really doesn’t matter.” — Psychology Today.
A good boss is supposed to instill respect for his leadership, appreciation for company values and commitment to the job in his employees. That, to some level, requires that he foster certain emotions, such as respect for your coworkers and the sense of pride in a job well done. There is, however, a difference between inspiring positive feelings and playing with your emotions.
If you often feel like spending a day at work is like riding in an emotional rollercoaster, if you dread interactions with your boss because they leave you sick to your stomach with guilt, then you might have an emotionally manipulative boss.
Here are three signs you should watch out for:
1. You boss tries to shape your personality
Behavior, habit and personality are three very different things.
A boss can require that you express certain behaviors — as long as they’re related to your work life — such as: punctuality, commitment to deadlines, respecting the company’s dress code, and so on.
Your boss can even try to foster your good habits (often known as “forming a company culture”), but your boss should never, ever, try to shape your personality.
There’s a lot involved in making you who you are. Your personality is a complex thing, and even though it’s partially influenced by the interactions you have with various people over the years, it should never be intentionally shaped by anyone — that’s the textbook definition of manipulation.
I’ve had a boss tell me I shouldn’t stand up to greet people at the door. People walking into my office space. To have a meeting with me.
From body language to how I verbally expressed myself, I felt like walking on eggshells around this particular boss, never fully capable of being myself for fear of how he would react.
Your boss should know how to differentiate your behavior from your personality. If you have a behavior problem, there are healthy and unhealthy ways to address it.
The healthy way:
“I’ve noticed you’ve done (specific company rule violation) a couple of times now. I’d like you to avoid that as it violates our rules and it’s not productive. Were you aware of those rules? Are you unclear on any of them?”
Approaching these issues from the point of view of the company rules takes the emotional charge out of the situation and makes it clear it’s nothing personal. It also clarifies that the issue is behavior, not personality.
It’s not uncommon for company rules to be unclear, especially to newly hired employees. It’s always healthier to assume someone has made a mistake out of ignorance than out of willful misconduct. A good boss takes a behavior issue as an opportunity to evaluate if the rules in place are: a) actually effective, and b) clear to everyone.
The unhealthy way:
“You shouldn’t do (natural expression of your personality). It looks bad before the client.”
This is an unhealthy approach for two reasons: one, it confuses behavior with personality; two, it makes you feel self-conscious and guilty for being who you are (“it looks bad before the client”).
If your personality doesn’t fit the company to the point where you shouldn’t be meeting with clients, then you should either be relocated or let go — way healthier alternatives than having someone try to shape who you are.
2. Your boss tries to shape your speech
If your boss ever tries to determine how you’re supposed to speak (assuming you’re not a screaming cave ogre), determining with which words or in which way you’re supposed to express yourself, they’re crossing a line.
Bonus points on the emotional manipulation scale if your boss makes you feel like walking on eggshells every time you have something important to say. If you have to sort out in your head what they might think is or isn’t appropriate, only so they can later tell you that you don’t communicate properly — that’s gaslighting 101.
Communication is a tricky thing, and humans misunderstand each other all the time. There are, however, healthy and unhealthy (aka, manipulative) ways to address such issues.
The healthy way:
“When you say this, what I understand is this. Is that what you mean?”
This phrasing will let you know how you come across, and if there are indeed problems of communication, you can identify and work on them properly. If your boss expresses the issue in this manner, he’s genuinely trying to solve a problem, not trying to manipulate you.
The unhealthy way:
“You shouldn’t say this the way you just said it. You should say it that way instead.”
Unless you make a gross mistake with a very specific technical term, this should never be the way to address “communication issues.”
In my experience, people who try to shape your speech like that have no problem understanding you, they just can’t accept you for who you are and this is just one more way in which they will try to control you.
3. Your boss acts like paying you a salary is doing you a favor
Ignoring the value the company obtains from your work.
Inducing guilt is a staple of emotionally manipulative behavior. There are many ways a boss can try to make you feel guilty, one of them is by acting like the company isn’t getting value from your work, implying you should be doing more simply because they’re so kind as to pay you for your time.
Every boss has the right to demand certain standards of productivity from his employees, but if he feels like those standards are not being kept, there are healthy ways to address the issue.
The healthy way:
“This is the standard and this is how you’re falling short.”
If your boss sits you down and politely shows you the metrics by which you’re being evaluated, where you’re falling short and how you can improve, they’re genuinely trying to help you succeed at your job.
The unhealthy way:
“Look at how much I’m paying you, and the company can hardly afford you right now.”
If your boss throws at you how much you’re costing the company, and how hard it is for them to pay your salary at the moment, implying that “making the effort” to pay you is a huge favor you should be forever grateful for, they’re being manipulative.
If you’re showing up and doing your job well enough, it’s essentially not your fault the company is in bad financial shape (if that’s indeed the case). You’ve both agreed on a fair salary at the time of hire, and if your boss is having trouble keeping his part of the bargain, they has no business making you feel guilty for it.
Remember: your work has value. A paycheck should be fair pay for fair work, not a license to send you into a guilt trip.
Know when to walk away
Dealing with an emotionally manipulative boss is not an easy task.
Manipulative people often don’t realize they’re doing anything wrong.
Just like your boss shouldn’t be trying to shape your personality, you shouldn’t bother trying to make them understand they have major personality issues. They probably won’t anyway.
If you can complain to HR when your boss crosses a line, that might be a valid solution, but manipulative people don’t change overnight, and one can only complain to HR so many times before one has had enough.
Trust your gut. If you feel like your mental health is going down the drain and it’s time to call it quits, do it.