I don’t think there are individuals on Earth who like to get manipulated, especially at the workplace. Professionalism and courtesy at workplace may require everyone to be nice with each other but that doesn’t mean that they are always thinking of the best for you.

Since people are obliged to be on their best behaviour with each other at the workplace, therefore they may not use obvious tactics to manipulate. This makes it really important to be aware of the subtle ways by which your superiors or even colleagues can pressurized you to take actions which you may not agree or make you feel negative in some ways.

Have you ever wondered how notoriously difficult it feels to navigate a minefield? Dealing with manipulative behavior at work can feel like the same. Subtle workplace manipulation can be incredibly insidious, which slowly and steadily chips away the positive, collaborative work environment until it’s been transformed into a dysfunctional, distrustful mess.

Andersson and Pearson (1999) coined the term “workplace incivility,” which is described as low-intensity deviant behavior with unclear intentions to harm the target, contravening workplace standards of mutual respect.

By now you must have realized how important it is to recognize subtle manipulation tactics in the workplac. By identifying the warning signs early, organizations and employees can preserve a positive, productive and collaborative company culture and ultimately promote a healthy, psychologically safe work environment where everyone can thrive.

Lets discuss about commonly used manipulation tactics used at workplace that can be very difficult to recognize.


Creating a sense of debt in someone in order to make them take action against their wishes is a form of guilt-tripping which someone could use at workplace. Lynn Margolies Ph.D. in her article at Psychology Today cites how guilt-tripping can be used as an emotional blackmail to get work done by people who trust us.

It is not uncommon for colleagues to feel reciprocating the favor out of goodwill, however the manipulator at times can use the excuse of previous favor in order to compel a colleague to do something which the colleague may not want to do.

An example would be a scearnio where a manager asks the colleague (Lets say Emily) to stay late in order to complete the work before deadline.

Hr Manager to Emily : – “We’re all staying late to meet the deadline. It’s surprising you’re not willing to help like everyone else, especially since we’ve always supported your requests for flexible hours. It feels like you’re not really part of the team.”

In the above example, the manager may have allowed Sarah for flexible working hours as per his own convenience (or vested interests) and not necessarily because he wanted to allow Sarah for it! And now the manager is guilt-tripping Sarah to stay late at night for work completion because he had done the favour earlier by allowing her flexible working hours.

Then there is also the behavior of ‘making demeaning remarks’ and ‘putting people down’ under the pretext of humor and motivation. These are form of emotional manipulation (EM) that can manifest in the workplace (Cortina, Magley, Williams, & Langhout, 2001).

Such EM tactics are often classified as part of a broader category of counterproductive work behaviors (CWBs) – actions that undermine an organization’s legitimate interests by harming or intending to harm the company or its members. By making demeaning remarks or actively putting people down, the manipulator aims to erode the target’s confidence, credibility and standing among their colleagues.

This allows the manipulator to assert dominance, maintain a position of power, and prevent others from challenging their influence. It’s an insidious tactic that can severely damage morale, trust and collaboration within the work environment.

The Manipulative “Supportive” Manager

The most insidious type of workplace boss or manager is the one who presents themselves as a supportive ally, while secretly undermining their employees through passive-aggressive tactics. Instead of providing constructive criticism privately, this manipulative manager may offer feedback in public, disguising their attack with a veneer of humor. Over time, the employee may come to realize that the manager’s support is conditional, extended only when it serves the manager’s own best interests. At times, they may make the employee feel exceptionally valued and wanted, but this is merely a calculated tactic of manipulation. (Kimberly A. Smith-Jentsch, Sherry E. Sullivan, Robert C. Ford, 2018)

Excessive Flattery And Workplace Ostracism

While one should always raise their eyebrow when receiving a flattery, being over-cautious wouldn’t be a bad thing at workplace if someone gives you excessive flattery, especially for accomplishments which are not too difficult.

Shrewed and cunning people can give you a false sense of achievement not to make you feel secured and confident but to get their agendas executed through you.

Leon F Seltzer PhD, a doctorate in both English and Psychology, cites in his article of Psychology today, how fictitious praise can be used to exploit someone for one’s vested interests.

Excessive Flattery can be an easy way to extract information out of someone that would not have been possible through a normal trajectory of workplace acquaintanship or even camaraderie.

Another form of subtle manipulation tactic is the phenomenon of workplace ostracism. It includes behaviors such as being avoided by coworkers (for no reasons), being shut out of important conversations, or having one’s greetings and attempts at engagement go unanswered (Ferris et al., 2008).

More formally, workplace ostracism can be defined as an individual’s perception that they are being ignored or excluded by others in the workplace (Ferris et al., 2008). It can also manifest when others strategically omit taking actions to engage with a colleague, even when it would be socially appropriate to do so (Robinson et al., 2013).

This exclusion can involve the omission of positive interactions, like socializing, as well as the avoidance of negative interactions, such as arguing. It could also include giving someone the silent treatment or showing little interest in their opinions (Cortina et al., 2001; Martin & Hine, 2005). This suggests that workplace ostracism is closely tied to broader patterns of disrespectful, dismissive behavior in the office.

What makes ostracism a particularly insidious form of manipulation is its exclusionary nature. As per research, a human being can feel negative impact on his self-esteem when being ignored or excluded (Williams, 1997, 2007). In fact, individuals may even prefer outright confrontation or criticism, as it at least acknowledges their presence and gives them a sense of agency (Williams, 2001). This can lead to decreased motivation, productivity, and commitment to the organization – all while the perpetrator maintains an illusion of professionalism.

AspectSubtle ManipulationObvious Manipulation
ApproachIt often involves employing indirect psychological tactics like guilt-tripping, or excessive flattery.It usually involves Direct demands or overt coercion, such as openly threatening job security.
DetectionCan be very hard to recognize, as it usally blends with normal interactions and often relies on emotional or psychological influence.Very easy to identify due to its blatant nature and clear deviation from normal professional behavior.
Impact on VictimIt can cause long-term psychological effects such as decreased self-esteem or constant self-doubt because the victim may not realize being manipulated in the early stages.While it can cause Immediate stress or anxiety but since it is easier to identify therefore reactions are typically swift and intense.
Manipulator’s CoverUsually maintains a facade of being helpful, supportive, or overly friendly.Less concerned with appearances, can be aggressive or indifferent to how their actions are perceived.
ExamplesUsing insincere flattery to gain favor, implying obligations subtly, or manipulating emotions like guilt.Openly demanding favors in exchange for professional benefits, using threats to enforce compliance.
Major differences between Subtle Manipulation and Obvious Manipulation at Workplace


Identifying subtle manipulation at workplace in itself can be challenging let alone combating it. While humans crave for praise and recognition, it might be important to us to gauge of unexpected compliments and recognition especially when there is little to no display of worthy accomplishment that deserves it.

Employees must diligently collect evidence, trust their instincts, and take decisive action to address concerning behaviors. Cultivating a culture of mutual respect and psychological safety is crucial, as organizations play a vital role in shielding staff from insidious exploitation.

References Used

Andersson, L. M., & Pearson, C. M. (1999). Tit for tat? The spiraling effect of incivility in the workplace. Academy of Management Review, 24, 452-471

Cortina, L. M., Magley, V. J., Williams, J. H., & Langhout, R. D. (2001). Incivility in the workplace: Incidence and impact. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 6(1), 64–80.

K.A. Smith-Jentsch, et al., Toxic mentors and how to deal with them, Organizational Dynamics (2018)

Ferris DL, Brown DJ, Berry JW, Lian H. 2008. The development and validation of the Workplace Ostracism Scale. J. Appl. Psychol. 93:1348–66 

Robinson SL, O’Reilly J, Wang W. 2013. Invisible at work an integrated model of workplace ostracism. J. Manag. 39:203–31 

Cortina LM, Magley VJ, Williams JH, Langhout RD. 2001. Incivility in the workplace: incidence and impact. J. Occup. Health Psychol. 6:64–80 

Martin RJ, Hine DW. 2005. Development and validation of the uncivil workplace behavior questionnaire. J. Occup. Health Psychol. 10:477–90

Williams KD. 1997. Social ostracism. Aversive Interpersonal Behaviors RM Kowalski 133–70 New York: Plenum 

Williams KD. 2001Ostracism: The Power of Silence New York: Guilford Press Williams KD. 2007. Ostracism. Annu. Rev. Psychol. 58:425–52