As the founder of a boutique business consulting practice that focuses on business transformation, I've been a student of the influencing game for years - mostly because my team and I often have no formal authority within the company's we are helping. The only way we can move that proverbial ball forward is through influence.
There is some fascinating and very useful science behind influence and persuasion, making human connections, logic versus emotions, and even storytelling. There are also some really important practical things to know about the person or people you are trying to influence that make a huge difference in your outcomes.
With all of the science, strategies, and tactics that are available to help us influence others, one of the most frequent concerns I hear is whether this is taking us across an important line from influence into that bad territory nobody wants to go - manipulation. Many who voice the concern are worried that by being strategic and planful about their influencing strategies, they are, by default, manipulating people.
The concern is made even more ambiguous when you look up the definitions of the words "influence" and "manipulation" in the dictionary. In some definitions of the word manipulate, the word influence even shows up as part of the definition (as well as a few other choice more negative words).
Almost all of us can probably think of complex and sensitive scenarios where we questioned if we were crossing a line. I can cite many in my own career. I'd like to think I took the influencing path in most of them but admittedly probably crossed over at least a few times.
So how can you tell? Here are three important questions you can use to check yourself:
1. What is your intent?
One of the most important discussions I have with people is around ethical intent. It may be the biggest differentiator between influence and manipulation. If your intent is ethical, you can use various planned strategies and tactics that may feel questionable if taken outside of that context - such as exchanging something for something else as a means of influencing.
Many people I work with feel like a slimy and manipulative used car salesman for considering that influencing tactic. Unfortunately, the character Dr. Hannibal Lecter from The Silence of the Lambs has probably made many of us averse to "quid pro quo" as an influencing tactic, but even it can be effective and not manipulative if it is used as part of a positive ethical intent.
2. How authentic are you being?
People can read lack of authenticity with their eyes closed. Most of us just feel that. Combining ethical intent with authenticity can just about guarantee that you aren't crossing the manipulation line. This often begs an important question, though:
Can I still be authentic while at the same time being planful and strategic about my influencing approach?
Some of us struggle with the question and maybe more so with the answer, which is a definite "YES." Planning and strategy are not mutually exclusive from authenticity even though it is certainly easy to feel that authenticity slipping away the more planning you put into your influencing strategy.
The key is to remember that authenticity should always be completely obvious and in plain view of the person you are trying to influence.
3. Will the long-term relationship be damaged by your tactics?
At the end of it all, influencing is a long-term relationship game. The strategies and tactics you use have to be well thought out in terms of the long game of a relationship. Often, manipulation will get you a short term "influencing victory" but not a long term one because people recognize that they were "used" and the relationship suffers - as it probably should.
This often leads to concerns around who is benefiting from the influence.
Is it by default manipulation if you are the one benefiting in the short term?
And shouldn't influence be the proverbial "win-win"?
Many people I work with initially say that manipulation occurs when you get what you want but the other person may or may not. Restating the belief: in influence, both parties win, but in manipulation, only you win. It is an important myth to dispel. Very often in influence, you are trying to "get what you want." What separates influence from manipulation isn't that it might be self-fulfilling but how you go about achieving that end - are the tactics bettering or damaging the relationship and doing so with authenticity?
So whenever you find yourself in a dicey influencing situation, think for just a few minutes about intent, authenticity, and the relationship. If all of those are checked, you shouldn't worry about being very strategic and planful about how you think about your influencing approach and tactics.