How to Deal with a Manipulative Coworker
Have you ever had an employee or coworker who was both the best of the best and the worst of the worst? That was Jerome, an employee in a department I once managed.
Technically, Jerome was a superstar. Programming came easily to him, and complex programming was only a little harder. He had a strong work ethic. He enjoyed solving tricky technical problems, and he consistently met deadlines. But …
Jerome was a master manipulator, adept at turning people against each other. Periodically, he would separately tell two members of the department untruths about the other to threaten or weaken the trusting relationship between the two. He invented stories about purported upcoming changes, as if he knew something his coworkers didn’t. He was skilled at getting people to open up to him about personal matters, but then he spread rumors about what he learned. He often walked past my office. When he saw me meeting with someone, he told his coworkers contrived stories about what was transpiring in that meeting.
Even though Jerome’s coworkers didn’t seem to realize what he was doing, I could see the impact on morale. But I could never catch him in the act. I didn’t learn of his rumors and badmouthing until days or weeks after the fact, so I refrained from seeking help from HR.
There are things you can do if you witness this kind of destructive behavior or are the victim of a manipulative employee. First, document the situations you observe or experience so that if you eventually need to make a case, you’ll come across as clear-headed and prepared. In gathering the documentation, list the ways you see the person manipulating. Notice if the manipulation seems to happen only under certain circumstances or with certain coworkers. If appropriate, gather information from others who may have been affected.
Consider talking to the person directly. In doing so, strive to remain professional. Point out what you’ve noticed. Ask if the person is aware of the manipulative behavior. If possible, try to learn what’s driving the behavior. If this sort of confrontation isn’t feasible or appropriate, it may be necessary to escalate the situation to your manager or HR.
Manipulation can take many forms. I think Jerome and his fellow manipulators get a dollop of dopamine every time they try something sneaky and it works. That’s why, left unchecked, manipulative behavior will continue.
When you observe or fall victim to a conniver, take action as soon as you can. Jerome eventually left the company. I hope he isn’t now one of your coworkers.