Team environments can be complex and manipulative. 

They are complex because team dynamics are not always pleasant. Manipulative colleagues can take a toll on your energy and motivation. We can experience ourselves as dissatisfied, scared, and unhappy. 

Manipulative environments have certain qualities to them:

  • You are made to feel small if you say you don’t know something.
  • You feel guilty for asking for help.
  • Information you share in confidence is revealed to others.
  • Your strengths are used to someone else’s advantage and progress.
  • You are not given time to make honest commitments and as a result, you feel incompetent.
  • You are forced to do something repeatedly that does not fit in your role.
  • You are spoken to disrespectfully and a leader gets away with it.
  • You are asked to stretch work hours repeatedly and you feel scared to refuse.
  • You are coerced into doing what you do not wish to do.

If peers are manipulative it’s one thing but what do you do when your boss or a senior is manipulative?

Krishna’s situation:

Krishna was a leader under a specific business vertical. A leader with 17 years of work experience.

Manoj was her boss, 3 years senior to her and tenured like her.

For over 2 years Krishna had been doing almost all the functions of the Head of her vertical though it wasn’t her role. Initially, she accepted those responsibilities excitedly as it was a learning opportunity.

But Manoj didn’t acknowledge this in any public forum. In team meetings, he portrayed it as though he was the one who did all the tasks. Never a word of acknowledgment. 

It was a challenging time in business. Manoj leveraged Krishna’s thinking on a process change for a client and that brought some new work from Europe to India.

Krishna found that Manoj had presented her idea to his boss as his own. This shocked her but she didn’t ask any questions. After that Krishna found that Manoj did this two times again. He showcased her ideas in larger leader forums without flinching the slightest.

In performance appraisals, Krishna pointed out to Manoj that she was ready for a promotion. She explained she was anyway taking care of the next-level role.

Manoj agreed but Krishna did not get promoted in that cycle or the next. Krishna felt that Manoj did not represent her case in the compensation round table as he never intended to.

She felt demotivated, resigned, and manipulated.  

Why was Krishna manipulated?

  • She was too quiet. She did not showcase her work anywhere. Her belief was ‘ do good work and you will be recognized’. A maxim she had learned from her late father. But this wasn’t serving her.
  • She adopted an attitude of being overly humble. Humility as quality is great but if we overdo it we get taken over.
  • She had a low capability for tough conversations with people in authority. She shied away from a confrontation even though she had data to support it.
  • She stayed with her disappointment for too long. She had allowed a mood of resentment to turn into resignation. Feeling resigned to the situation meant that she did not make attempts to change it.
  • She kept it all to herself while she continued to work dedicatedly. Apart from a few women peers, no one knew she was dissatisfied.
  • She had not spoken her discontent to HR or to a skip-level leader.

Through coaching, Krishna understood the part she had played by being complicit in this manipulation. She began actioning her learnings step by step. 

STEP 1: Accounting for achievements.

Krishna listed down all her professional achievements in the last 4 years since her last promotion. Doing this was very helpful.

It elevated her dejected mood as she was able to see her capability and competence more clearly. She affirmed for herself her readiness for her next role.

STEP 2: Minding the Gap

She listed out the competencies and skills needed at the next level she was seeking. She evaluated the gap and found it was very small. She decided to ask for a meeting with the Head of HR and had that conversation to seek clarity.

HR gave her a very positive outlook. She now had information on roles that could become available in the future. She registered with HR her assessments of what was lacking in her growth.

Step 3: Conversation with the boss

Krishna decided to take the conversation with her boss head-on. She prepared herself for a few weeks. She gathered data, did role-plays with me, and got coached on the many ways to do ‘the missing conversation’ with her boss.

She decided that she did not want to skirt the issue. She would respectfully confront not getting credit for her ideas. Her boss was uncomfortable. Krishna’s grace and confidence helped her to do these conversations respectfully.

She expressed her disappointment. She stated she would like credit going forward. The meeting ended on an awkward note. She learned to stay with the discomfort.

Step 4: Meeting the super boss

The next informal ‘Meet your CEO’ meet-up was an event she planned to be in. It was an opportunity to mingle with the top leadership. She had made up her mind to speak to her super boss.

She chatted up informally and dropped a line ‘ I would love to meet you for 1-1 to discuss some ideas I have for my vertical. Is it OK if I block your calendar in the coming weeks?’.

She did that meeting in the next 1 month. Without blaming her boss in any way she put forward her requests for an opportunity for an expanded role.

She also shared her interest in working on a global team that had a diversity agenda too. By planning well, she accomplished in 30 minutes all that she wanted to share including a new business idea for her vertical!

Step 5: Network within

She began meeting other business heads who were her bosses’ peers. These were casual but focused conversions getting to know about their challenges.

She shared best practices from her vertical. She invited some knowledge sharing between businesses.

Over six months she had built rapport with other leaders. She made her presence felt and found possibilities for new roles in their businesses. 

Step 6: Strengthen self

She continued to work on strengthening her self-esteem. Her conversational capabilities, capacity to have difficult conversations, and capacity to network were new skills she built.

Krishna’s Impact:

  • Her CEO got to know of her. He included her in an organization-wide initiative.
  • She moved to a different vertical under a new leader and got an expanded role.
  • Within 2 years she moved to a new organization where she played in a big way to her strengths.
  • She permanently had mastered the skill of ‘ saying what you need to say’ and claiming her space.
  • In both organizations, she worked on committees that developed women in leadership.
  • She gave her first TEDx talk on what it means to find your voice.

 Special Tip 1:

Manipulation thrives when we are quiet. We allow the other to have control. Shoot manipulations down with directness and tact together.

 Special Tip 2:

We discount our needs and our capacities instead of relentlessly going after what we need. When we take charge manipulations end. Start believing you are worthy!

Suggested Furthur Readings:


Stop hiding and waiting. Claim that higher role now

Why is it necessary to have good communication skills in a business

Sailaja Manacha

Sailaja Manacha

Sailaja Manacha, a Master certified Coach from ICF, is known for her programs and coaching methods that combine psychology with leadership practices. In her work, Sailaja draws from Psychology, Ontology, NLP and Spiritual frameworks as well as rich, real-world experiences.

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