Sh*t Bad Leaders Say: Management Mind Tricks

In this special edition of Sh*t Bad Leaders Say, I’m going to explain four mind tricks bad leaders use on their employees to manipulate them into specific behaviors or beliefs. Although they might seem like effective tools for managers who believe that their title grants them unquestioned superiority, these tactics have the unfortunate effect of decreased engagement; something great leaders know (and know how) to avoid at all costs.

The Deflect and Pivot

Bad leaders use this tactic to shut down an employee’s argument when they know the employee is making a valid point, but they just don’t want to admit defeat because the boss is always supposed to be right. Right?

Ugh… Wrong.

Here’s how it works:

Let’s say a manager sends a knee jerk e-mail to one of his employees criticizing her work. When the employee approaches him with her explanation of why she felt confident in pursuing the course of action that she did, the manager ignores her argument and then turns the conversation around by starting a separate, but ostensibly related, topic about her attitude.

Employee: “I decided to take the course of action that I did because of X, Y, and Z. I felt hurt by your terse e-mail criticizing my decision.”

Manager: “Okay. I’ve noticed that you have difficulty accepting feedback.”

Being unable to effectively counter the perfectly sound explanation, the manager deflects and pivots to regain the upper hand, leaving his employee feeling unheard and manipulated.

Look, your employees aren’t stupid. They can tell when their leaders are using mind tricks to manipulate them into submission. By using the deflect and pivot tactic, bad leaders undermine the trust that comes from having open and productive conversations with their employees. Once damaged, that trust is very difficult to earn back.

The Fake Apology

This little gem isn’t exclusive to the workplace. I’ve had the fake apology used on me in both my professional and personal experiences. And it’s probably one of the most frustrating verbal manipulations ever created.

Here’s how it works:

An aggrieved party makes it known that another party has hurt or slighted him in some way. Rather than offering a sincere apology for causing the grievance, the other party says “I’m sorry you feel that way”. But the hidden message is “I’m not sorry for what I did/said. I’m just using the word ‘sorry’ to shut you up, while simultaneously taking a jab at your emotional response to the situation and protecting my own ego”.

Please don’t use the fake apology on people, especially your employees. It just makes you look like an asshole. Only jerks and sociopaths use the “I’m sorry you feel that way” line.

If you truly care about repairing and preserving the relationship between you and the other person – whether it’s your employee, your spouse, or your friend – then you have to apologize in such a way that indicates you wish to make amends. A sincere apologythat acknowledges wrongdoing and expresses regret for what was done will go a long way toward rebuilding trust and good will.

Ask yourself this question the next time an employee says that you have hurt him in some way: How will the employee walk away feeling after we discuss this issue, and could that possibly lead to disengagement in his job? Empathy and great leadership go hand-in-hand.

The Commitment Trap

Bad leaders utilize this trick to coerce agreement and compliance from their employees by applying a combination of guilt and condescension in a simple question about commitment.

Here’s how it works:

When a manager and employee have a disagreement and the manager decides she’s had enough, she won’t pull the ‘boss card’ by outright threatening punishment. Instead, she springs the commitment trap; a subtle Jedi mind trick that places responsibility for resolving the situation squarely on the employee’s shoulders as if they have a choice in the matter. The manager will ask for the employee’s commitment to comply with whatever course of action she has decided upon.

Manager: “Do I have your commitment that you’re going to follow the process as I’ve laid out/perform your job to the best of your ability/do ten backflips in a row [insert manager demand here]?”

It’s a slimy way to make the employee feel both guilty and patronized at the same time. Answering “no”, even if they feel that the situation is unfair or unethical, puts the employee in a position where they appear uncommitted to their role (and unfit for it, to boot). Moreover, posing this question evokes the tone of a parent speaking to a wayward child about choosing between mommy’s decision or accepting the consequences of noncompliance.

The question is unnecessary. Setting clear expectations, fostering open dialogue, and giving employees a say in how they perform their work render the commitment trap as nothing more than a nicer way of saying “You better do what I tell you or else”.

The Magnanimous Empty Gift

The magnanimous empty gift is a trick organizations and their bad leaders use to distract employees from the fact that they are being short changed in some way.

Here’s how it works:

ABC Manufacturing Company pays its employees below market average wages. In an effort to divert their attention and give the appearance that ABC is, in fact, generous with pay, the company mails a compensation statement to each worker. The statement shows the employee’s base pay as just one component of their total compensation. Included are such benefits as health insurance (wow!), dental insurance (no way!), on the job training (that’s amazing!), and free parking (I can’t believe it!). The employee’s annual salary might be $30,000, but with all of the fantastic company perks, he is really getting paid $44,000 per year. Except…not really.

Another example would be a manager his telling employees that he trusts them so much that he is willing to let them work from home one day a week. The fact that employees in other departments work from home on a regular basis and only come into the office once a month is well-known. But this particular manager wants his employees to believe he has done something really special by letting his team work remotely at all.

The concept is similar to giving someone an empty box wrapped in shiny paper and a sparkly bow as a birthday gift, and then patting yourself on the back for being so thoughtful. Scraping the bottom of he barrel to come up with evidence that you are creating an attractive employee experience is a wasted effort. Good leaders know that they must listen to what their employees want instead of telling them to be grateful for what little they already have.

What do you think? Has a manager ever used any of these mind tricks on you before? Can you think of any other devious tactics used by bad managers?

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