You’re nervous or dread going to work because you don’t know what to expect from your boss. Half the time, they are a wonderful person and mentor, but the other half of the time, they turn into a completely different person. You are scared to share your thoughts and ideas in a meeting for fear of retribution or backlash. You have a coworker offer to do a favor, but then they make you obligated and indebted to them. You confide in a colleague at work only to have them use it against you in a complete violation of trust.
In all these cases, you are being manipulated—and you may not even realize it. The thing is, manipulation is all about control. It is used to gain power in a situation, enabling one side to have all the advantage, while the other feels demoralized. The person controls your behaviors and decisions to get what he or she wants. The result is a toxic environment that is not only demoralizing but also derails your success.
How do we prevent that from happening? I’ve coached thousands on the topic of toxic relationships through courses and training, and I’ve learned that the first thing you need to do is recognize the signs in the first place.
Below are five signs you are being manipulated.
1. You often cry or feel depressed around this person
This is the ultimate sign that something bigger is going on. In the beginning, you may not even know it’s happening because you are constantly conceding to their demands or so-called needs, and you’re limiting your voice as you go through this. But sooner or later you’ll get beaten down. Your self-esteem drops, you lose confidence, and your overall demeanor changes.
I’ve done a tremendous amount of work with business owners for the past 15 years who have had some terrible relationship problems. The toxic relationship hampered their ability to earn money, advance their career, or assert their values. It just holds them down emotionally and ultimately ends up holding them down financially.
2. You feel obligated to the person
Obligation is a form of manipulation. It takes many shapes, including returning a favor or agreeing to do something that makes you uncomfortable. If you don’t bow to their demands, they’ll find a way to make you feel guilty, even if you have a good reason.
It is a business killer of the worst kind because it traps you in a place where you’re not free to do the things that you need to do in your business or career. If a person begins to fall into a place where they feel extremely obligated about something, they’re going to be hesitant to make new agreements to avoid taking on more obligations.
3. You have changed to suit the relationship
You may have changed your behavior, approach, or even morals based on a manipulative relationship. Yet, the person is still not satisfied.
This kind of toxicity is one where you can never make somebody happy—no matter what you do or who you are. When a person is coming from the place that causes this problem, you will never be at ease. There is always a heaviness about the relationship that makes a person consistently uncomfortable.
4. You can’t predict the person’s reaction
Manipulators are sweet one minute and mean the next. Now, I’m talking about more somebody just being angry or upset about something—their behavior always blindsides you, and you never see it coming. You ask yourself, “What did I do? Did I do something wrong? What did I do wrong?” More often than not, you did nothing wrong. Their reaction doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with something you did or did not do. They may be having a bad day or are upset by something, and they’re choosing to make you the scapegoat.
5. You feel devalued
It doesn’t matter what your opinion is; they devalue it. They say, “You’re stupid,” “You’re an idiot,” or “That’s a stupid idea.” They make it clear that your opinion is not wanted. They can also do this if you are recognized for an achievement, by saying, “It’s not that big of a deal,” or “You didn’t really deserve it.”
They can also do this in subtle ways by not looking at you when you’re speaking or trying to talk over you. Everybody has experienced the conversation where you’re telling somebody something, and over the top of your communication, they’re saying, “Mm-hmm. Uh-huh.” They don’t hear you. They’re devaluing you.
How to stop workplace manipulation
The best way to stop workplace manipulation is to do everything you can to prevent it from happening in the first place. It’s important to set boundaries from the start and explain that you’re not going to adjust things in your behavior that are important to you.
If you are already in a manipulative workplace relationship, take time to reset expectations with the individual. And if that doesn’t work, it’s probably a conversation that you need to bring up with HR.
David Neagle is the founder of the multimillion-dollar global coaching company Life Is Now, Inc.