4 steps for stopping workplace manipulators from targeting you

If you’re locked in a work relationship with a manipulative boss or co-workers who learn you’re an easy mark, they’ll manipulate you until you recognize their games and find ways to outsmart them.

Here’s what you need to understand and do to stop manipulators in their tracks. Start by understanding who and what manipulators are. Next, realize how you’re susceptible to their strategies. Then, use one of four strategies to outsmart them.

While manipulators cover themselves in many guises, they share certain qualities underneath their facades. They’re shrewd, calculating, unscrupulous and undermining. Manipulators detect where you’re vulnerable and use your weaknesses against you. Are you naïve? They’ll try to put things over on you. Do you seek approval? They’ll withhold it.

Perhaps they notice you’re easy to guilt-trip and regularly put you in a bind with statements such as “if you don’t cover for me, I’ll get fired” or “if you were more understanding, you’d do what I ask.” Maybe they know you lack confidence and disguise themselves as friends by showing false concern for your weaknesses, which they enumerate for you. Possibly they intimidate you, but you don’t defend yourself against them because you fear you’ll make the situation worse.

If you want to stop a manipulator, you need to change. Here’s how:

Call them on their game. Manipulators excel at pushing you into tight corners. Don’t ignore what’s happening; instead, listen to your gut and call them on their games. If a co-worker makes statements that twist the knife into your self-esteem, ask, “What’s your purpose with these comments?” If you feel unfairly pressured, ask, “Are you really expecting me to ... ?” If a co-worker tries to take you on a guilt trip, demanding you work until long past closing time on tasks they’ve let slide by whining, “Unless you’ve got more important things to do,” respond with “Thanks for understanding things are busy are for me as well.” If you hear your co-worker has sabotaged you by making false statements, challenge them by bringing up what you’ve heard.

Set boundaries. Givers have to set limits because takers rarely do. If you’re asked to do something that makes you uneasy and find it hard to say no, at least postpone your answer until you’ve had time to consider the request. Then, say no. You may need to distance yourself by telling a venting co-worker who wants you to join by saying, “I don’t want to listen anymore.” You may have to stop yourself from giving information that can later be used against you to someone you shouldn’t trust.


Don’t collude by living in denial or letting yourself be triggered. Perhaps you’re someone who “sees it coming,” but you don’t want to believe what you see. Escaping manipulation requires that you trust your own judgment. If you find yourself triggered into reacting when a manipulator makes their problem seem your fault, or demands what they have no right to, take a breath, and steady yourself.

When it’s time to slam the door shut. Finally, sometimes only a tough response stops some manipulators in their tracks. Spoiler alert: These responses may take you outside your comfort zone. My favorite tough statements include: “You have a right to your opinion. I have the right to ignore it”; “Game over; no points”; “I finally received the last knife of the set you’ve used to stab me in my back all these years. Heads up: I’m regifting them to you”; and “I’m sorry I hurt your feelings when I called you a sociopath. I thought you already knew.”

Lynne Curry | Alaska Workplace

Lynne Curry writes a weekly column on workplace issues. She is author of “Navigating Conflict,” “Managing for Accountability,” “Beating the Workplace Bully" and “Solutions,” and Submit questions at or follow her on, or @lynnecurry10 on X/Twitter.