Manipulation: Mismanaged Motivation?

By Manie Bosman

What’s the difference between ‘motivating’ people and ‘manipulating’ them? A couple of weeks ago I posted this question on the Strategic Leadership Forum LinkedIn group and got some really interesting and insightful responses which helped to clarify the difference between these leadership strategies.

Several participants suggested that the difference lay in the leader’s motive. In other words, leaders are manipulative when they adopt policies, agendas, strategies, tactics, or methods that support their own personal aims and objectives but do not align with the interests of their subordinates or superiors and do not support the stated mission, outcomes, objectives or general direction of the group. While this is often true, leaders can also use manipulation to support the interests of their superiors or the organization. I can manipulate people to support a non-profit organization with a cause I believe in, even if I derive no personal advantages from doing so. In other words, the motives does not have to be selfish, which means that motives alone cannot serve to define the difference between motivation and manipulation.

Other participants proposed that the methods , tactics and strategies themselves are key to question. Some methods or techniques for influencing people are manipulative while others are motivational. Someone pointed out that there is no need for manipulative strategies if there is a “common purpose”. This is probably true if everyone believes in the vision and all parties are dedicated and ‘inspired’ (didn’t want to use ‘motivation’ here) to pursue it. However, what if someone – make it a player with skills critical to the group’s success – is just plain lazy and all efforts to motivate him fails? For the sake of the group’s ultimate success, the leader might now be forced to shift from using his personal motivational influence (based on trust relationships) to using ‘negative’ methods and sources of power such as position or threat of punishment. Has the leader now shifted from a motivator into a manipulator because he changed methods?

Finding a watertight definition to distinguish between motivation and manipulation becomes even more complex when you keep in mind that motivation (and manipulation) can be intrinsic or extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation is “driven” by the individual’s interest in the activity and/or the pleasure or satisfaction the person derives from doing it. Extrinsic motivators are driven by factors outside the individual – such as working conditions or rewards. However, both intrinsic and extrinsic motivators can be misused and turned into manipulation. For example, financial reward is an extrinsic motivator (hygiene factor al-la Helzberg) when I pay my auditor to audit my books. However, money becomes an extrinsic manipulator when I use it to coerce the same auditor into “fixing” my books to avoid paying taxes.

A search for definitions of ‘manipulate” on the web gave several results, among which “to negotiate, control, or influence (something or someone) cleverly, skilfully, or deviously.” While many may argue to the contrary, this clearly implies that manipulation can be devious, but that it is not necessarily so. It seems then, as one participant proposed, motivating and manipulating are indeed “of the same thread”. While we can get all misty-eyed when philosophizing about the values of motivation and the destructive consequences of manipulation, there are situations when it becomes very difficult to decide whether a leader is manipulating or motivating.

However, all is not lost in our quest to distinguish between the two concepts. After much deliberation and contemplation we all more or less agreed that a combination of the leader’s (or “initiator” of the interaction) intentions, truthfulness, respect for the other party’s values, and degree of openness (transparency) can be determinative. It seems then that MANIPULATION takes place when the leader’s intentions are self-serving, there’s a lack of respect for the follower’s values and interests, the follower is deceived about the true intentions, and all the relevant information is not shared or disclosed. On the other hand, MOTIVATION is where the leader’s intentions are to benefit the group or individual, he/she remains truthful at all times, respects the follower’s values, and everything happens in the open while all relevant information is shared.

So, when all is said and done, it seems that manipulation is simply the misuse of motivation. What do you think?


About Manie Bosman

Manie Bosman is Founder and CEO of the Strategic Leadership Institute. He is a leadership development consultant specializing in the emerging fields of neuroleadership and neurosafety. Based in Pretoria, South Africa, Manie has more than 20 years of international experience in cross-cultural interaction, diversity management, change management, public speaking, communication, corporate training and team development. He holds a Masters of Arts in Organizational Leadership and believes that effective leadership is the key determiner of success in any venture, group or organization.
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