How To Be Influential Without Being Manipulative

Influence has an evil twin named manipulation. Here’s how to tell them apart.

How To Be Influential Without Being Manipulative
[Photo: Flickr user Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) Commander, Logistics Group Western Pacific]

Influence is as good as gold in business. Not only do we want it, we need it. A marketing plan that doesn’t influence prospective customers is a failure. So is a manager who can’t influence a team to collaborate. But influence has an evil twin, and it’s called “manipulation.” We like to think they’re worlds apart, that we aren’t manipulative people. But the truth is the two are more closely related than we’d like to admit.


Anytime you’re leading a conversation toward a certain conclusion, seizing on some of your interlocutor’s comments while skimming over others in order to win them to your side, you’re toeing the line between influence and manipulation.

Still, the line is there. And one way to distinguish it is by considering outcomes. Influence builds lasting relationships of trust–with customers, colleagues, employees–and sustains that trust over time. Manipulation can get results faster, but they’re often fleeting. Before long, someone’s going to clue in and leave angry. And in the world of social media, anyone who leaves angry is likely to leave loudly. Not only have you crossed a moral threshold that might make you wince, your reputation could suffer serious damage. Here are four ways to exert influence without being manipulative.

Balancing Strengths And Weaknesses

Everyone has their own strength and weakness. Manipulation tends to zero in on weaknesses, though. Say you sell a weight-management supplement. Overweight people would be your target audience. You can market it by highlighting the hardships commonly associated with being overweight, like not being able to do certain activities or difficulty finding a romantic partner. In other words, you can shame your customers into buying your product–and it would be manipulative because you’d be playing to their weaknesses (or worse, your wrongful perception of them).

A more influential approach wouldn’t necessarily dismiss the drawbacks of being overweight, but it would balance them out with the upsides of improved physical fitness. Your campaign wouldn’t resort to tired stereotypes about people with certain body types. Instead, you’d emphasize how everyone deserves the benefits of an active lifestyle.


And the Winner Is . . .

It’s always important to ask who wins in these sorts of conversations. Influence is about creating win/win situations; manipulation isn’t: “We both get what we want by collaborating” vs. “I get what I want at others’ expense.” Imagine a saleswoman who’s low on her weekly quota. Does she nab the next person who walks through the door and try to guide him to whichever product she can sell at the highest profit? Or will she take that person and do her best to fill his needs so that he walks out happy, and she’s closer to her goal?

Does It Feel Icky?

Sure, icky isn’t the most scientific term, but trust your gut. If it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t. Adjust your approach so you err on the side of influence. There’s really no such thing as being just a little manipulative–you’re manipulating someone or you aren’t.

Choice Matters

Does the person you’re working with have a choice? And can she see that she does? Manipulation often comes from a “this is your only option” mentality. It makes someone feel like she has to do what you’re suggesting or else she’ll never succeed. When I’m leading my team, selling, or marketing, I always want the people I’m working with to choose my approach. I want them to see that I am their best choice. But I’m always careful to position myself as just one of their choices–all of which are theirs to make.


Some business leaders and sales professionals hesitate to influence others as decisively as they should because they don’t want to be manipulative. It’s a good and honorable instinct, but it can hold you back, too. As long as you’re clear on these simple principles, you don’t have to worry or hesitate! Don’t miss out on the rewards of exerting influence if you’re afraid of its evil twin.

Related: Are You As Far Along In Your Career As You Could Be?

Amy Walker is a leadership trainer and an expert communicator. She is the founder of Amy Walker Consulting and the author of Walk Your Talk: Take Ownership and Lead Like You Mean It.