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The Incredibly Simple Way To Tell If You’re Being Manipulative

A tech CEO discovers that it all comes down to how you answer one simple question.

The Incredibly Simple Way To Tell If You’re Being Manipulative
[Photo: JamesBrey/Getty]

I’m staring at my iPhone. I know I need to call him back, but I’m not sure what to say. I’ve had two great chats with a candidate for my company’s VP of sales, and I think I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. Maybe I’ve found someone? Maybe my days subbing in as a (mediocre) head of sales in addition to being CEO were finally numbered. I could return to my normal stress level of the-world-is-on-fire and not the-world-is-on-fire-and-what-is-our-sales-forecast.

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There was just one issue: The candidate was willing to move, within budget, and had great experience, but he didn’t think it would be great for his career to go to a smaller company like mine. He’d been working at companies with thousands of salespeople, not eight. So do I call back and persuade him he’s wrong? I know I could convince him–but should I?


Related: The Emotionally Intelligent Person’s Guide To Being Persuasive


Confused, I called one of my board members–someone who’d previously helped lead a company with over $100 million in revenue and has become a hybrid friend/mentor/big brother figure. As I explained the situation, he stopped me.

“Allen, you need to do what is right for him. And it sounds like this isn’t the right job for him.”

I stammered, “Well, he’d be perfect and I know I can get him to yes.”

My board member paused. “He would be perfect for you. It would not be perfect for him.”

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I could feel my blood pressure rising. I was getting defensive. But before I could retort, my board member interjected, “Allen, you have to remember–you might be able to persuade him right now, but when it’s not in his best interest, it will all fizzle away. Eventually he will leave, and you’ll be stuck. And it’ll be your fault, because you manipulated him.”

Is that what I was trying to do?

The Opposite Of Persuasion

Part of my job as CEO is to be persuasive. I need to convince customers to buy, investors to invest, and potential employees to become actual employees. When you’re trying to do all that, I’ve realized, it’s sometimes easier than you’d think to lose sight of the line separating persuasion from manipulation. It all bleeds together in the name of getting stuff done.

Needless to say, I’m not the first CEO to grapple with this. David Cancel is the CEO of Drift, which just closed a $32 million funding round for its sales technology platform; before that he was chief product officer at HubSpot and has started numerous startups. In other words, he’s been in my shoes before. When I told him about my recent dilemma, Cancel said he’s learned that he can’t “sell” a candidate on joining his company. Instead, he explained, “I try to do the opposite and list all the reasons that coming to my company would be difficult for them.”

That sounded like dissuasion–and potentially a counterproductive strategy for making hires. But Cancel pointed out that working for a young company is incredibly taxing, and as he put it to me, “You have to volunteer into a role at an early-stage startup.” Hearing that confirmed what I’d been resisting on the call with my board member; both he and Cancel were right. I picked up the phone and told my stellar candidate for the sales VP role that I didn’t think it was a fit.

Optimism Without Manipulation

Shafqat Islam is the CEO of NewsCred, a fast-growing marketing tech startup that has raised over $80 million and has over 200 employees. As he explained to me, “When you’re running that fast, it is not all positive. There are great months and there are terrible, rotten months.” The challenge, he suggested, was keeping your team motivated through all those ups and downs: Is it even possible to be optimistic without being manipulative?

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Related: How To Sound Like An Optimist No Matter What (And Why You Should)


What Shafqat found was that unrestrained optimism can motivate people to see through the darkest days. But it came with a cost. In motivating people like that, you end up manipulating them into a false sense of calm that can lead to reckless decision making or just poor planning. Worse, by not confronting immediate realities, you can’t usually fix existing problems on time, let alone preempt future ones.

On the other hand, if you only dwell on the negative, you can’t motivate people to make progress. This is what Good to Great author Jim Collins has termed the “Stockdale Paradox,” after Admiral Jim Stockdale, who was tortured during his eight years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. Reflecting on his experience, Stockdale said it was the optimists who didn’t survive, those who kept telling themselves they’d be freed by Thanksgiving, and then by Christmas, and then by Easter. Stockdale told Collins, “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end–which you can never afford to lose–with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

Islam says he’s taken a similar lesson to heart, and it’s proved a surprisingly effective way to motivate people authentically, not manipulatively. “As leaders,” he says, “we need to persuade our employees on the fact that we will succeed when the final story is written. But it’s also our duty to convey the painful realities of the short term.” Persuasion means getting everyone to see the same bright future he knows is out there, even if the path isn’t always clear or smooth. To illuminate it, though, you need to be honest about present risks.

It’s okay to qualify your optimism, Islam adds, since that’s what makes the long-term message even stronger. More importantly, this type of persuasion is in the company’s and the team’s best interest.

Leading With Integrity

Many leaders succeed because they’re able to do just this. If you’re a charismatic leader, you can convince your team to have blind faith. You can convince a prospective employee to ignore their personal best interests. But these persuasive feats rest on manipulation, compromising your integrity–which counts for a hell of a lot more.

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I’ve learned that the line between manipulation and persuasion is actually pretty clear, and all comes down to one question: Is this in the person’s best interest?

Convincing someone to do something that’s good for them is a worthwhile use of persuasion. You’re helping to move the world forward, even if you aren’t sure how to exactly get there. When you start convincing people to do something not in their own interest, and certainly if it seems to be in your interest, that’s manipulation. Not only is that the wrong thing to do, but in my board member’s words, “it will all fizzle away” eventually.

About the author

Allen Gannett is the CEO of TrackMaven, a content and social marketing analytics company based in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter @Allen.

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