How to Handle a Manipulative Employee
Most employees really do want to do a good job, but sometimes you run into a few who would rather not bother.
Here are five phrases that serve as "warning signs" that an employee is trying to manipulate you, along with advice on how to turn the tables.
1. "I cannot do my job until you do...."
There are situations where an employee shouldn't take action before the manager makes a decision. However, some employees are masters of the art of "upward delegation." Under the guise of trying to do a good job, they subtly add action items onto your to do list. That way, when you don't handle that item immediately, they can blame their lack of progress on you.
Fix: When an employee moves an action item from his or her to-do list to yours, simply hand the item back with the words: "No, you figure out how to do it." If the employee really does seen unable to perform, offer to coach rather than assist.
2. "I already told you about this... "
Employees sometimes feel the need hide an unpleasant or inconvenient fact while still "covering their butts." The easiest way to do this is to insert the fact in the next-to-last page of a long and boring report which was emailed to you with a subject line that you'll likely ignore, such as "Background Data." They're hoping, of course, you'll skim the first page (at most) and then move on.
Fix: Demand a one-page summary of every long document and make it clear that the writer will be held responsible if that summary excludes something that is obviously important.
3. "I'm so overworked..."
Some employees are experts at looking busy. They're always in a rush to go to a meeting and always holding a stack of documents. Ask how things are going and they're "stressed to the max," with a pained expression and a huge sigh. However, despite all their complaints about overwork, they don't seem to accomplish anything.
Fix: Tell the employee to stop doing whatever he or she is doing and instead complete a specific, discrete, measurable project. Say something like: "Do this by next Monday. No excuses." Repeat as needed.
4. "That won't work because..."
There are people in this world who only see the obstacles and never the possibilities. Whenever you give them advice or direction, they'll come up with a reason why your ideas aren't practical. These types can be useful when you actually need to look at risks, but when they use negativity to avoid work, they a huge productivity drag.
Fix: Say something like "Stop telling me what won't work and tell me what WILL work." If the employee doesn't come up with anything, say: "Fine. Since you can't think of a better plan, we'll follow mine. Make it work for you." End of discussion.
5. "Here are three alternatives...."
Employees can sometimes manipulate a manager into adopting a certain plan of action by creating the illusion of choice. You're presented with three possible approaches, two of which (while marginally plausible) are clearly out of the question. The employee is hoping, of course, that you'll choose the third approach.
Fix: Pick the worst alternative. When the employee is still in shock, say: "No, seriously, I want three viable alternatives, not two that are ridiculous and one that you clearly favor. I expect to see them on my desk tomorrow."
The nice thing about these fixes is that, once you've actually used them a few times, your employees will realize that you can't be manipulated and the funny business will immediately stop.
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GEOFFREY JAMES | Columnist
Geoffrey James is an author, speaker, and award-winning blogger. Originally a system architect, brand manager, and industry analyst inside two Fortune 100 companies, he's interviewed over a thousand successful executives, managers, entrepreneurs, and gurus to discover how business really works. His most recent book is "Business Without the Bullsh*t: 49 Secrets and Shortcuts that You Need to Know."