• Tuesday, June 18, 2024
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The serpent in suit: How leaders can recognise and counter workplace manipulation

The serpent in suit: How leaders can recognise and counter workplace manipulation

Have you ever felt like you had been bitten by a metaphorical snake at work? You know the feeling—that sinking sensation after a seemingly productive meeting leaves you questioning everything that was discussed. Yet a disquiet settles in your gut. Did your trusted colleague offer genuine support, or were their comments subtly designed to undermine your position? Or the sudden realisation that a trusted colleague has been spreading misinformation to undermine your position. These unsettling feelings can be a telltale sign of a “serpent in the suit,” someone adept at manipulation who uses lies and power plays to gain an advantage in your organisation.

Workplace manipulation, often cloaked in charm and veiled as strategic manoeuvring, thrives on misinformation, power plays, and a calculated disregard for truth. These “serpents” can inflict significant damage on morale, productivity, and even an organisation’s reputation. However, by understanding their tactics and implementing preventive measures, leaders can create a culture of trust and transparency, rendering these vipers toothless.

Q: “However, by understanding their tactics and implementing preventive measures, leaders can create a culture of trust and transparency, rendering these vipers toothless.”

The serpent in the suit operates with finesse, typically operating in the shadows. They excel at creating a fog of confusion, often employing these common tactics:

-The misinformation maven:

These individuals are masters of the half-truth. They strategically plant seeds of doubt, subtly disparaging ideas in casual conversations or anonymously leaking distorted information, creating a fog of confusion that makes it difficult to discern truth from fiction.

-The power-play puppet master:

They excel at manipulating relationships and strategically pitting colleagues against each other for their own advantage. Watch for sudden shifts in alliances or unexpected opposition to your plans seemingly emerging from loyal team members.

-The blindsiding bandit:

Their specialty is the surprise attack. They may spring loaded arguments during important meetings or ambush you with unexpected criticism in front of superiors, leaving you off-balance and struggling to respond effectively.

-The truth twister:

Snake charmers possess an uncanny ability to bend the truth to suit their narrative. Partial truths, cleverly worded statements, and omissions can create a distorted picture, ultimately undermining your credibility and progress.

How do you build a snake-repellent workplace?

The good news is that workplaces don’t need to be breeding grounds for manipulative behaviour. Here are some practical strategies to foster a healthier environment:

-Cultivate a culture of transparency:

An organisation with open communication channels, where concerns can be freely raised, makes it harder for serpents to operate in the shadows. Encourage dissent and honest feedback, creating a space where truth thrives over manipulation.

-Empower your team:

Build a team of critical thinkers who can sniff out misinformation and challenge assumptions. Diversity of thought not only strengthens decision-making but also helps identify potential blind spots that might otherwise make the team vulnerable to manipulation.

-Develop active listening skills:

Pay close attention to both what is being said and what isn’t. Snake charmers often betray their intentions through subtle cues such as body language, changes in tone, or hesitant pauses. Active listening allows you to read between the lines and discern potential manipulation tactics.

-Document everything:

Maintaining clear records of meetings, discussions, and agreements becomes critical when dealing with a suspected manipulator. Documentation provides a factual record and helps hold individuals accountable for their words and actions.

-Trust your intuition:

Leaders with honed gut instincts are invaluable. Don’t dismiss that nagging feeling when something feels off. Learn to trust your intuition and use it as a signal to further investigate potentially manipulative situations.

What do you do when you have been bitten by a snake at the workplace?

If you suspect you have fallen victim to manipulation, don’t despair. Here are some strategies to help you navigate the situation and emerge stronger:

-Confront directly, discreetly:

Choose a private setting and calmly address the manipulative behaviour. Focus on specific instances and their consequences, using clear and concise language. Frame the conversation as seeking clarification rather than launching into accusations.

-Don’t engage in power plays:

Serpents thrive on drama. Refuse to be drawn into emotional debates or retaliatory power plays. Stick to the facts, outline your desired outcome, and remain professional throughout the encounter.

-Build alliances:

Don’t fight this battle alone. Confide in trusted colleagues for support and seek their insights to validate your concerns. A united front is a powerful deterrent against manipulative tactics.

-Consider mediation:

Sometimes, external intervention can help clear the air and identify solutions acceptable to all parties. A skilled mediator can facilitate a constructive dialogue, fostering understanding and preventing further manipulation.

Ultimately, creating a workplace environment where manipulation thrives is a leadership failure. Leaders who prioritise building trust, fostering open communication, and empowering their teams can create a snake-repellent culture. By implementing these proactive strategies and remaining vigilant in recognising manipulative tactics, leaders can ensure their organisations thrive on collaboration, not subterfuge. Remember, leadership isn’t a zero-sum game. It’s about fostering an environment where everyone feels valued, respected, and inspired to contribute their best selves. When honesty and integrity are the cornerstones of your organisation, the serpents slither away, leaving behind a space where genuine collaboration and innovation can flourish.

The workplace serpent, though cunning, is not invincible. Do not allow the serpents to dictate your leadership narratives; instead, write a story of collaboration, trust, and shared success. The power, after all, lies not with the serpent’s venom but with the collective will of those who refuse to be manipulated.


Dr Toye Sobande is a strategic leadership expert, lawyer, public speaker, and trainer. He is the CEO of Stephens Leadership Consultancy LLC, a strategy and management consulting firm offering creative insight and solutions to businesses and leaders. Email: [email protected]