6 Messages Bad Bosses Use To Manipulate You Into Compliance

Don't be fooled by "Everything is fine" and "Don't you agree?"
A boss' coercive words can pressure employees to ignore red flags and keep working under bad conditions.
sorbetto via Getty Images
A boss' coercive words can pressure employees to ignore red flags and keep working under bad conditions.

Manipulative, bad bosses use many different communication strategies, but the intent behind a lot of their tactics is the same: to get you to prioritize the company above your own best interest.

You may be receiving these messages from your boss, who is trying to get you to keep your head down and work longer and harder than is healthy for you. Don’t be fooled.

1. “Work is your family.”

Using the intimate language of family is one common message bad employers say to ensure commitment to their cause. If your boss is like your loving family, then you are less likely to speak up against any unethical business practices or bad decisions the company makes.

This is the personal message that Billy McFarland, co-founder of the infamous Fyre Festival, gave his employees when he tried to keep them working after his fraudulent practices were exposed, according to the Netflix documentary about his downfall.

As one of his employees said while recounting the conversation, “We’re not a family. You won’t even tell me anything! You’ve completely violated all the trust that we had in the product, in the company, in the brand and in you.”

In a good family, your membership and rights are not conditional, but in a business, they can be.

2. “I need you to be available at any time.”

Advances in technology mean that we can work from anywhere, but the downside of this is that some bosses think you can always be working. A 2017 study from the Academy of Management found that workers spent on average eight extra hours a week handling work emails after hours.

You have the right to spend free time away from the reach of your employer. France has formalized this belief into legislation. Under their “right to disconnect” law, companies with more than 50 employees have to ensure hours when staff can ignore business emails.

Being on call 24/7 is not good for your health. One study of 315 employees found that those who had to use technology to work at home around nighttime had worse sleep quantity, quality and consistency.

And working longer does not even produce better work for companies. If you find yourself working longer than 50 hours a week to meet the demands of your boss, this overtime is probably not going to produce better work. In his five-year survey of 5,000 managers and employees, management professor Morten Hansen found that performance starts to plateau at 50 hours and sharply falls after 65 hours a week.

3. “Everything is fine.”

One of the worst bosses is the boss who is not there. They may be physically present, but they are psychologically absent from their duties as a leader. They offer vague praise, but no tangible feedback for you to learn from. They say the company is doing fine, even when layoffs, “pivots” and budgets in the red say the opposite.

The researchers behind one 2010 study said a laissez-faire leader “may avoid decision making, show little concern for goal attainment and seldom involve themselves with their subordinates, even when this is necessary.” In their analysis, it was the most common type of incompetent leadership employees experience.

This hands-off leadership becomes manipulative when you need feedback and guidance about your future at the company. Instead, you’re given the unsatisfying answer of “everything is fine” to keep you working even though you have questions that need to be addressed.

4. “That’s not my problem.”

“That’s not my problem” is a demoralizing phrase to hear because it tells you that your boss does not care about helping you, said Randy Conley, a vice president of client services and trust practice leader at the Ken Blanchard Companies.

“This behavior silences the employee and discourages them from bringing further problems or issues to the boss’ attention, which results in a drag in performance and efficiency because problems chronically remain unsolved,” he said. “It also discourages employees from engaging in whistleblower behavior, which opens the door to unethical and illegal behavior in the organization.”

5. “This is how we’ve always done it.”

This language comes from a boss who only enforces the rules, and does not have the power or desire to shape them. When your boss says this, they are signaling they are going to mindlessly follow the status quo.

Thinking that the old way of doing things is the right way to keep doing things is a trap that even well-intentioned leaders make when assuming new roles. In the onboarding book The First 90 Days by Michael Watkins, which aims to help leaders in career transitions, Watkins said that these bosses “fail to see that success in the new role requires you to stop doing some things and to embrace new competencies.”

When your boss tells you that this is how things usually go, they are signaling that they are not open to new ideas and that they do not want you to offer a challenging response. Conley said that leaders “often resort to this response as a way to subtly manipulate employees to go with the flow and not make waves.”

6. “Don’t you agree?”

“Don’t you agree?” is a phrase that leaders can tack on to the end of a remark to seemingly invite discussion, while actually ensuring discussion does not happen.

“By virtue of their position and title, leaders have more power in the boss/employee relationship,” Conley said. “Saying ‘Don’t you agree?’ automatically puts the employee in an uncomfortable position of either choosing to agree with the boss even if they don’t, or confronting the boss in disagreement.”

It is possible for a boss to request feedback without signaling personal alliances. Conley suggests that a nonmanipulative way to do it is to ask, “What do you think?”

“That opens the door to the employee sharing their true thoughts and feelings in a safe and open environment,” Conley said.

The long-term impact of a manipulative boss

A manipulative boss can get you to adopt their mindset and stay at a bad job far longer than you should.

To get away from your boss’ influence, you can raise the issue to human resources, you can offset their bad behavior by remembering your values, or you can do what half of 7,272 Americans did in a Gallup study to escape their manager: They quit.

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