It’s a question that every change agent probably grapples with at some point: Is organization change really just a form of manipulation? After all, an individual or small group of people deciding to influence a larger group to change the way they work seems a little bit presumptuous. What gives you the right to determine what everyone else should do and then figure out how to get them to do it? Isn’t that manipulation?
At the same time, organizations don’t work without people focused on improving them. Without someone to influence large numbers of people to change in the same direction, an organization would devolve into chaos. Perhaps there would be some local optimization, but not a cohesive overall strategy. Unable to adapt, an organization without change agents would eventually fizzle away.
Manipulation and influence are two sides of the same coin. Influence, on the bright side, helps others improve and adds meaning to their work. It brings people together with a common purpose to bring order to the organization. On the dark side, manipulation implies deception or unfairness. It’s the art of tricking or coercing someone into doing something they would not otherwise do. Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to tell on which side of the coin you are operating.
The difference between influence and manipulation comes down to your personal motivation as a change agent – real and perceived. On one hand, manipulation is defined by the person being influenced. If someone feels they are being manipulated, then you are most likely manipulating them – even if that is not your intent. On the other hand, you can still manipulate someone without them knowing it.
The following are three signs you’ve taken influence too far:
- The only way to get people to make the change is to trick them. For example, if you are hiding information from others because they would not choose to change on their own if they knew it, then you are manipulating them. If you deceive someone into taking an action that is not in their best interest, then you’ve crossed the line.
- You plan to implement the change, no matter what. If you dismiss or ignore every concern that you hear about the change, you have taken change advocacy too far. Moving ahead without regard to other people’s experience, emotions, feedback, or hesitation is a sure sign you are bulldozing them. With your one-track mind, whatever ways you use to influence will be viewed as manipulative.
- You are serving your own ends. Be honest: Are you implementing this change for your own personal glory? If you only seek to advance yourself instead of improving the organization, then your motivation for influence is suspect. Using people for your own benefit is the ultimate manipulation.
To avoid manipulation, honor people and treat them with respect. It is not necessary to use insidious practices to influence change. For the ultimate test, ask yourself: Would you want someone else to influence you with the same methods you’re using?