The Fine Line For Leaders Between Motivation and Manipulation

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Apr 22, 2015

Almost any team has one or two absolute go-getters.

Whether it’s out of passion, commitment or habit, they’re going to show up half an hour early, probably after a good night’s sleep and a nutritious breakfast, bringing their best ideas and plenty of energy to carry them out.

Other employees need a little push, at least from time to time, and the best leaders are prepared to provide it.

But knowing how and when to motivate doesn’t come naturally to most leaders. It may even be uncomfortable, especially for those who aren’t clear on the boundary between motivation and manipulation.

And that boundary really can be tricky to navigate when you’re motivating someone to act in a way that benefits an organization. Add to that the variation in individual definitions and sensitivity to manipulation and control, and it becomes even more difficult.

As with most things, understanding, humility, and practice helps build good judgment and appropriate actions. Any time you’re not completely certain if you are motivating or manipulating, here are some questions you can ask:

Who benefits?

Motivation benefits the person being motivated with incentive, drive, and encouragement. Manipulation benefits the manipulator with control or unfair personal gain.

In organizations, this means that buy-in to a common mission and purpose is especially important. Employees who are committed to the mission will see a personal benefit in working for the good of the organization, but those who consider themselves outside that mission may see the same situation as manipulation.

What’s the outcome?

Motivation is win-win; manipulation is a zero-sum prospect in which the gain falls to one side and the loss to another.

For example, if you need an employee to undertake a new area of responsibility, it’s motivating if you take the time to find the right match with that person’s interests and existing skills. Would they enjoy the opportunity? Would they feel valued because you trust them with it?

If yes, the additional work gets done and the employee gains more experience that can help with career growth. If you hand it off to the first person you see without taking the individual’s skills, passion and current workload into account, that person is far more likely to be frustrated and feel manipulated.

What’s the basis?

Motivation is based in understanding what is best for the individual and the team; manipulation is based in personal gain and self-interest. Again, the difference lies as much — maybe more — in the context as the act itself.

If your employees feel tied to your organization’s mission, if they feel they’re partners in accomplishing meaningful work, and if you’re quick to credit both individuals and the group as a whole for successful projects, people are likely to feel motivated.

If they’re functioning in silos unconnected to the big picture, feeling unappreciated and never acknowledged except for what they can do for you, they’re almost certainly going to feel manipulated.

Manipulators produce resentment. Motivators produce respect.

This originally appeared on the Jeremy Kingsley blog.