Friday, July 15, 2005

Own Manipulation as a Tool

Leaders are successful by giving people a goal, convincing them to head there, and then helping them successfully make the journey. Put another way, leaders manipulate the world around them to more effectively get their team to the goal.

The word “manipulation” has very negative connotations. When we hear it, we think of subliminal advertising, cult leaders, lawyers, or nagging parents. Those connotations are so strong in our ethical subconscious that we tend to actively avoid any notion that we could sink so low as to manipulate people into doing what we want. We need to get over that notion. Whether you know it or not, if you are an effective leader you manipulate people every day. You probably don’t realize just how much of your effectiveness as a leader comes from manipulation. Let me give you a few examples of things that effective leaders do to manipulate the people around them.

  • Effective leaders notice that a meeting has gone off track and redirect the team to the agenda. What seems like such a straightforward task requires manipulating the group to give you control of the floor. Manipulating the team to agree to stop the current line of discussion, and switch to your new direction. And, manipulating the group to agree to follow your agenda in the first place.
  • Assigning team members to a task and a due date also requires significant manipulation. It means manipulating the person to agree to the task. Manipulating them to believe that they are the right person to do the job. And, manipulating them to agree to the date.
  • Keeping people motivated on a daily basis requires ultimate skill in manipulation. It requires manipulating each person to be interested in doing the task. Manipulating them into caring about the completing the project rather than just continuing to make progress. And, manipulating them into wanting to stay with the team at all.

Some of you may look at the examples above and think, “I do those things every day. Those things aren’t manipulation. They’re just part of my role as a leader.” You are right. They are part of your role as a leader, but they also require you to manipulate people. The fact is, you have your role as leader because the people on the team won’t always do these things if you don’t cause them to. A working definition of manipulation is causing something to happen that wouldn’t otherwise happen if you didn’t act.

You are probably still reluctant to own the label “manipulation” as describing what you do as a leader. That’s the negative connotation pulling against your ethics. You might be thinking that only bad people manipulate others, so I can’t use manipulation on others. Bad people do use manipulation, but it’s not the manipulation that makes them bad, it’s the motivation that makes them bad. What we dislike about manipulation is that we can use it to make people do things that they wouldn’t otherwise agree to.

A good leader doesn’t try to manipulate people to do things they wouldn’t otherwise agree to. Rather a good leader is trying to get people do to the things they want to do, but wouldn’t naturally do. Think about a leading people on a hike. Your group decides to take a rest on some rocks by the path. After a while it’s time to get going again. Many people would sit on the rocks waiting for someone else to get the group moving again. Some would think, “I don’t want to be the one to end the break.” Some would think, “No one would listen to me if I suggested we start up again.” Some would think, “I’ll just zone out; someone else will make sure we get going again.” None of those people would otherwise start going again. Each one would be perfectly happy to get going again if someone else took the lead and suggested it. As the leader when you suggest the team get going again, you are manipulating them into it.

You may still be thinking, “That’s not manipulation; that’s just leadership,” but think about it a bit more. You can suggest that you get going in a couple of ways. If you don’t say it just right, some people will think you are joking and just sit there. If you don’t look sure enough about yourself, others will follow suit, and no one will move. You can decide when the best time to suggest going is. If you say it too early, the group will rebel, and effectively remove you from the leadership role. There is more to effective leadership than simply taking the lead. That extra quality is the ability to influence people and events. The best word I can find for that ability is “manipulation.”

“Who shall set a limit to the influence of a human being? There are men, who, by their sympathetic attractions, carry nations with them, and lead the activity of the human race.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

So brush all those bad connotations out of your mind and own manipulation as a leadership tool. If it makes you feel better try to find a better word for it. A quick look in the thesaurus yields “manage.” Could there be a more boring word? The most important thing is not the word you use to describe it, but the techniques you use that make you more effective.


Anonymous said...

Your thoughts, which are terrific, do make me wonder about how leaders can achieve the optimal blend of Machiavelli's principles and Christ's. (Don't suggest that the two are easily reconciled; blurring differences is a cope-out.) When does a leader manipulate, and when does he lead with inspiration but principally with trust and a certain respect for the free will of his colleagues?

That said, I admire someone, like yourself, who is dedicated to thinking about individual leadership in an age that exalts the wisdom of crowds.

Ken Flowers said...

Thank you for the kind words. While I think Machiavelli gets a bad rap, I understand the point you're making.

I think the problem is the cultural bias in the word "manipulation." I use the word, because it think it denotes exactly what I think a leader does. Unfortunately the connotation is so negative. In the article I tried to highlight that good leaders get people to do things they would agree to do, but perhaps wouldn't do without the leader's help.

I do think that inspiration and manipulation are not exclusive ideas. In fact, I would claim that inspiriation relies on good manipulation as well. Our inflections, our use of stories, tailoring the message to the audience are all manipulative choices by the inspiring leader: what preacher would eschew them?

So, I hope you can shake away the negative connotation, and own the idea of manipulation. The key idea I want to convey is that leadership is a deliberate act. Effective, learning leaders understand the impact of various approaches to people, and use that knowledge deliberately to lead them to where they want to be led. Some leaders stumble on the right approaches, with little understanding of why one approach might be better than another. I want leaders to learn to act deliberately for greater success for the people they lead.

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