Every day as we talk with our colleagues, we may be nudging them to do what we think is best, whether it’s with our tone or how we phrase our requests, or both.
Often, this kind of subtle manipulation happens because we want to preserve relationships and make everything seem fine — even when it’s not.
“We don’t like to make people feel bad; we don’t want to come off harsh,” said Lawrese Brown, the founder of C-Track Training, a workplace education company. “A lot of our interactions that are manipulative are us not wanting people to be uncomfortable, but that’s not fair to the person, because we’re influencing them or we’re directing their thinking in a way that is not actually aligned with the reality of a scenario.”
The first step to being more mindful about manipulating colleagues is paying attention to how you talk to them. Here are accidentally manipulative phrases experts say to watch out for:
1. “We all think...”
Sarah Johnston, co-founder of Job Search Journey, said she’s seen great bosses and colleagues make the mistake of speaking as though everyone agrees with what they think.
“It can be easy to fall into the false consensus trap when you are working alongside people that you like and have many things in common with. Where this can be dangerous is if you are making assumptions about what your team wants or likes because it’s your personal preference,” Johnston said. “For example, a leader might think his or her team likes working remotely, but until they actually pulsed their team, it could be a false assumption.”
Brown said phrases like “Everyone thinks this” or “I’m not the only one who feels this way” can give additional weight to your words, and make it seem like you have more backing than you may actually have. When peers pressure each other with this language in group settings, she said, it can send a message that another perspective would place the person at odds with the team.
2. “Do you have a minute?”
“Do you have a minute?” might seem like a polite way to broach a question, but “pouncing it on someone without any context around what you are asking for does nothing more than guilt-trip the other person into saying ‘yes’ ― not only to your icebreaker, but also to the request lurking behind your question,” said Gorick Ng, a career adviser at Harvard University and the author of “The Unspoken Rules: Secrets to Starting Your Career Off Right.”
Most people usually have a minute to spare, so it’s hard for colleagues to turn you down. When you ask this “yes” or “no” question, Ng said, you’re basically asking one to which the other person feels like they have to say yes “unless they are taking off on an airplane.”
“You aren’t actually interested in knowing whether the other person has a minute,” Ng explained. “You’re interested in knowing if they can help you with something right now. Whatever you want, you might as well ask for it directly.”
In other words, instead of passively asking for your colleague’s time, it’s more considerate to get right to the point. Ng said you could phrase your request like, “Hey, I’m trying to figure out what X means. Do you have a moment to explain or should I ask someone else, or would you prefer to chat later?”
3. “I’m not saying you should do X, but...”
Organizational psychologist Laura Gallaher of the consulting firm Gallaher Edge called this phrase “a classic move in sales: Say something to somebody by saying you’re not saying it. The brain doesn’t really process ‘not,’ so what you end up hearing is ‘You should do this,’ while the person ends up not seeming bossy.”
This tactic is manipulative because it gives you an out, regardless of whether the person follows your advice. “It’s failing to rise to the level of taking a solid stance, which creates accountability, while also distancing them from the decision the person does make. It can be like an ‘I told you so’ moment afterward if it doesn’t work out,” Gallaher said.
Similarly, phrases like “You can do what you want, but...” are subtle manipulations that “create doubt in somebody’s head about how they want to do it, making them more suggestible to a different way,” Gallaher said.
4. “Don’t spend all night on this.”
On the surface, this seems like an acknowledgment of the importance of a colleague’s well-being, but too often it’s followed by a demand. Ng said that in professional services circles, this manipulative phrase is almost seen as a joke because it’s so commonly dropped late in the day, only to be followed by a big “but,” plus an immediate deadline like, “I need this by 8 a.m. tomorrow.”
Well-intended managers who do this may either not recognize how long a task truly takes or haven’t clarified that the work that’s expected isn’t a full report that would require hours of work.
“From the perspective of junior staff, managers who consistently drop lines like this, only to ruin their teams’ evenings and weekends, can come across as disingenuous at best, and sadistic at worst,” Ng said.
Instead of suggesting the task shouldn’t take up too much time, those who feel compelled to use this phrase should communicate what actually needs to be done, and why. Ask yourself whether the request can wait until tomorrow; if it can’t, make it clear to your colleague how long you expect the work to take, and whether your estimate aligns with the other person’s estimate, Ng said.
“Saying ‘don’t spend all night’ isn’t enough,” he said. “For your team to truly not spend all night, you need to agree on how you’ll get there.”
5. “Don’t you agree?” or “Isn’t this best?”
Phrases like “Don’t you agree?” or “Isn’t this the best way?” “don’t invite actual discussion or disagreement, it’s just coercion into agreeing,” Brown said.
When bosses do this, they can put employees in the uncomfortable position of confronting them if they do not agree.
Instead of leading discussions with these manipulative phrases, Brown said it would be better to ask your colleague more open-ended questions, such as “Do you see things differently?” or “From your perspective, would that not work?”