The Benevolently Manipulative Leader and the Atrophied Team

Nov 30, 2011

Strong leaders often dominate their team, to the detriment of high quality outcomes. Speaking too much or too soon, steering conversations in a predetermined direction, using pointed or aggressive body language, lobbying team members ahead of a discussion, jury-rigging the agenda, doctoring what is agreed after the event – these and other smaller, but equally manipulative actions can easily become habits, excused as merely ways to hurry the team along.

Manipulative leaders are often not bad people (though some of them are). Usually, the original intent is benign, but force of habit, and the simple fact that they can get away with it makes the leader sloppy, and to a certain degree lazy, finding it easier to push buttons to achieve a desired outcome, rather than doing the hard work of facilitating a hard conversation.

When I’m working with such a leader and their team, the leader will often pull me aside at some point and say something like “I’m going to step out of this next session. I’d like the group to be open and honest about [topic ‘x’], and they’ll find it easier if I’m not there.”

Which seems admirable – shows a little self-awareness, right?

Well, maybe, but self-awareness isn’t the problem. The problem is that because of the leader’s past history of dominance, the team has lost the ability to honestly and openly discuss anything, and also knows that what it decides isn’t worth squat in any case, because our benevolently manipulative leader will subsequently massage whatever they come up with into what he wants.

Here’s the cold fact: If you’re a manipulative leader (even a benevolent one), the problem isn’t with your team – it’s with you. And absenting yourself is no solution – that’s just avoiding the issue. What you need to do instead is to buckle down to the hard work of learning to be part of your team without dominating it.

Try this:

  1. Let someone else open and close the meeting for a change.
  2. Let someone else frame the discussion at the start.
  3. Have an opinion, but keep it ’till last.
  4. Let everyone else speak – in full – and really listen, with an open mind.
  5. Manage your body language and facial expressions. If you need a role model, watch some video of Roger Federer playing tennis. That focussed but inscrutable look is what you’re after.
  6. Be open to the notion that your assumptions and prejudices might be wrong.
  7. When you do share your opinion, ask some of your team to repeat back to you what they heard you say. Check that it’s the same as what you think you said. It might not be.
  8. Agree on what you’ve agreed on before the meeting ends, and don’t meddle with it afterwards.

Feeling a little uncomfortable? Good. That’s your manipulative gene protesting. Repeat steps 1 through 8 until the discomfort goes away.