Why Leaders Need to Understand the Difference between Influence and Manipulation

by Jennifer Miller on September 6, 2016

in Leadership, Personal Effectiveness

If you enact a leadership role, you have some measure of influence. And you also likely don’t see yourself as a manipulator. Do you know where influence stops and manipulation begins?  Read on to learn what two prominent authors who’ve conducted extensive research on leadership and change management have to say about this important distinction. It could vastly change how you operate at work. Or at home. Or really, anywhere you want to make a positive difference in the world.

Longtime readers of The People Equation know that I’m a huge fan of the book Influencer: The New Science of Leading. I recently interviewed two of the book’s co-authors, Joseph Grenny and David Maxfield. They are members of the global consulting film Vital Smarts. Grenny and Maxfield are also the faces of the fantastic video series called The B.S. Guys. That stands for “behavioral science”, by the way, not that other thing.

In the coming months, you’ll see articles that I’ve written based on the interview. For now, here’s a snippet that came out of our conversation that’s related to the topic of influence.

JVM: Many people have a negative connotation of the word “influence.” They see it as self-serving, underhanded, or at its extreme—corrupt. As co-authors of the book Influencer I suspect you have a different viewpoint.

Grenny: I can certainly understand why people would feel that way because oftentimes, the best influencers in the world are the ones with hidden agendas. So we [at Vital Smarts] differentiate between “influence” and “manipulation.” Influence is value neutral. It is neither positive nor negative. We define manipulation as “any attempt to influence behavior that is covert.” It’s any attempt to influence behavior that in fact loses its effectiveness if people become aware of the intentions behind it.

JVM: How about an example?

Grenny: So, if I tell you, for example, that I am going to give you a larger cup so that you will consume more of my soda pop because I want to make more money off of you; you will immediately become resistant to that. You will mobilize against it. When there is a covert agenda that is when we start calling it manipulation.

JVM: So why does “influence” get its bad rap?

Grenny: The problem is that most of the active and effective influencing going on in the world right now is being done by those that don’t necessarily have the most positive and prosocial agenda. Our hope is to equip people with the same level of competence who don’t have those kind of agendas so that they can start creating the world that they want rather than the world that they are being handed.

JVM: How can people determine if it’s positive influence or manipulation they’re experiencing?

Maxfield. Here’s the “test”: If I can be perfectly transparent, explaining what I am doing and why I am doing it, and it does not lose its power, it in fact increases its power. If that’s the case in your situation, then [you are using influence] influence rather than manipulation. Influence is about being perfectly frank and transparent in explaining both what you are doing and your intent as to why you are doing it.

JVM: How does this relate to leadership?

Maxfield: We would never recommend a leader use manipulation because as soon as it comes to light, and it almost invariably does come to light, you lose your credibility. And without your credibility, you lose whatever behavior change or leadership potential you have.


Disclosure: Some of the links in this post are affiliate links, which means if you click the link and make a purchase, I receive a small commission. It doesn’t increase the price of your purchase. Please know that I only feature items that I believe will benefit my readership. But you are the ultimate judge of what’s valuable to you, so it’s up to you to decide.


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