Escaping the Mind Games of Office Manipulators
Learn about Dark Psychology.
As I sipped on my morning coffee and logged into my work email, I noticed an unusual message from my manager, Dan. Despite sending him our team’s monthly metrics report the day before, his email inquired when I would send it because “upper management is getting anxious.” I was confused. Had he not received my email? I distinctly remembered sending it. I checked my sent folder and saw the email right there, plain as day. So why was Dan claiming he hadn’t gotten it?
I didn’t realize then that Dan employed a common manipulation technique called gaslighting. By making me question my own recollection of sending the report, he was exerting control and destabilizing my confidence. I would later come to find out that Dan frequently used underhanded techniques like this to manage his team and get what he wanted. It took me a while to catch up with his games.
In my last piece on the intricacies of ethical persuasion, I explored influence’s blurred boundaries with coercion. This idea collided with my personal run-in with manipulation after my wife’s simple compliment on a bold pink shirt initiated a cascade of events ending in the startling discovery that I had relinquished my wardrobe choices to please her.
Beyond this funny fashion blunder, my experience exposed troubling workplace truths. Manipulation rooted in dark psychology is far more prevalent than we might presume, silently eroding trust and autonomy.
Unfortunately, this type of manipulation isn’t an isolated case. While subtle, it’s likely that we all encounter some form of psychological mind games, Deception or coercion, whether consciously or unconsciously, as we navigate office politics and power plays. As I would come to learn firsthand, dark psychology is more common in the workplace than one might expect.
The Dark Triad: Narcissism, Machiavellians, and Psychopathy
When most people hear the term “dark psychology,” they probably imagine movie villains with ominous-sounding labels like sociopath, malignant narcissist or psychopath. But you don’t have to exhibit pathological behaviour or break laws to manipulate people. Subclinical levels of several dark personality traits are more prevalent than you might think and can seriously undermine professional relationships.
Researchers often assess dark personality traits using the “Dark Triad” model, which measures subclinical levels of narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy. Even if someone doesn’t have a personality disorder, they can still score highly on these dark traits. As you might guess, all three involve some degree of callousness, manipulation, and prioritizing one’s own self-interest over others.
I once had a co-worker named Becca who exhibited some textbook narcissistic behaviours. Though generally friendly on the surface, it became clear she had an inflated sense of talent and importance. She would take credit for other people’s work, schmooze higher-ups, and didn’t seem to care much about how her actions impacted the team. After a while, a few of us started calling her “the black hole” because she sucked up all the credit but never gave anything back.
Machiavellian types also have little regard for morality but are more strategic in their approach. A Machiavellian colleague might, for instance, pit team members against each other or sabotage a co-worker’s big presentation to make themselves look better by comparison. It’s power politics 101.
Finally, psychopathic traits involve impulsivity and lack of empathy. The most toxic person I ever worked with exhibited many psychopathic qualities. He would fly into verbal rages over minor issues one minute, then act like everyone’s best friend the next. It was emotional whiplash and kept the whole team walking on eggshells.
When Dark Personalities Rise to Power
The amount of harm someone with dark personality traits can do often comes down to how much power and influence they hold. Unfortunately, some of the same characteristics that make the Dark Triad types effective manipulators can also aid their ascent up the corporate ladder.
Machiavellianism and psychopathy, in particular, correlate with persuasive charm and charisma, which can impress higher-ups. Narcissists often excel at self-promotion and claiming credit. And a cutthroat, ends-justify-the-means approach can lead to getting ahead at others’ expense.
I once had a boss who was so adept at impression management and playing office politics that she secured a senior leadership role despite a mediocre track record. It was only after her elevation that the rest of us realized much of her success had come from manipulating upper management’s perceptions. Behind closed doors, she was far less competent.
This particular boss ended up doing a lot of damage by overpromising to executives and underdelivering. But by the time her lack of follow-through was exposed, she had already moved on to a bigger leadership role at another company, leaving her mess for someone else to clean up.
How Dark Psychology Plays Out in The Workplace
Now that we’ve looked at some examples of dark personality traits, let’s break down the most common mind games and manipulation techniques you might encounter in a professional context:
Lying and Deception As my earlier story about my gaslighting boss illustrates deceit and distortions of the truth are common manipulation tactics. Others include exaggerations, misrepresentation of facts, falsely denying previous conversations or decisions, and c
How To Protect Yourself from Psychological Manipulation
Hopefully, by now, I’ve convinced you that dark psychology is a real issue that can undermine workplace culture, employee wellbeing and company success. Protecting yourself starts with awareness, but you also need boundaries and support. Some key tips:
Educate yourself on common dark triad traits so you can recognize them in colleagues and leaders. Learning their playbook makes it easier to counter manipulative ploys.
Don’t ignore red flags about a colleague or boss’ character ― chronic deceit, lack of empathy, exploiting insecurities and the like. Also, be wary of excessive flattery ― what’s the motive behind the praise?
Set personal boundaries and stick to them. If a manager tries gifting special favors or privileges, question the strings attached. Define clear work-life separation.
Develop critical thinking skills. Question information, statistics, gossip about co-workers, excuses, and anything else that attempts to unduly influence your perceptions or decisions.
Have trusted allies you can talk to if you suspect manipulation. Friends and family may spot tactics you’re too close to see. If behavior crosses lines, involve HR.
The Bottom Line: Promoting Healthier Workplaces Through Connection and Compassion
At their core, dark psychology tactics prey on separation - the disconnect between people that makes exploitation possible. When we don’t feel bonded to our teams, colleagues, and leaders as fellow humans, it becomes easier to see them as pawns.
The antidote, then, isn’t just vigilance about manipulation. It’s actively bridging divides. It’s cultivating understanding of different working styles and communication preferences. It’s having empathy for the insecurities and fears that leave people vulnerable to control in the first place.
As interconnected as the world has become, too many workplaces are still dominated by cultures of isolation and self-interest rather than connection and service.
So while awareness of dark psychology traits can help us recognize unhealthy dynamics, we shouldn’t stop there. We have to go deeper - building authentic relationships, establishing trust, and showing genuine care for our teams’ wellbeing. We have to create space for honesty, vulnerability and humanity.
This might sound soft. But workplaces oriented around mutuality and care aren’t just nicer places to be - they perform better on nearly every metric. Because when you feel united in purpose and valued as a contributor, you bring far more passion and innovative thinking than any manipulation tactic can possibly extract through coercion or fear.
The complex challenges we face in business and society aren’t going to be solved through cunning games. They will be solved through cooperation, coordination of specialized talents, and leading with moral courage.
So, if dark psychology promotes division and self-interest, the light path ahead is one anchored in compassion and service to the greater good. This is where the potential for human progress truly lies.
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