Confusingly, although influencing and manipulating are very similar, ‘influence’ has positive connotations, while manipulation has negative connotations.
They’re similar but most definitely not the same.
Influence is the ability to affect someone else’s behaviour because of your (real or perceived) authority, knowledge or relationship with that person.
Manipulation is the power to influence someone else to your advantage. It is often done without the other person’s knowledge.
There are several different ways that other people’s behaviour can be influenced.
Each can be used by itself or combined with other methods to have a more significant impact.
Positional influence is a result of someone’s superior position in a hierarchy.
Your boss influences (possibly a kind way to put it!) you because they are above you in the company hierarchy.
See this article for more details on power in the workplace.
Similarly, a policeman’s position gives them significant influence without the need to invoke the law.
Character influence is a result of liking and/or respecting someone.
If you like and/or respect someone, then you are far more likely to be influenced by them. By going along with their suggestion, you are likely to develop your relationship with them.
The simplest example of this is the enduring use of celebrities to market products. Because you ‘know’ and like them, you are likely to follow their suggestions about which products to buy.
Quid pro quo influence is the giving and returning of favours.
If I have done something for you in the past, you are more likely to do something for me in the future.
Intrinsic influence is probably the ‘purest’ form of influence that there is.
It is influencing because you lay out the details of whatever you would like to encourage openly and honestly, and the other party comes to the same conclusion as you have.
See this great journal article if you would like much more detail.
Manipulation is very similar to influence. It is the ability to affect someone else’s decisions. However, there is a dishonest, underhand nature to it that influence doesn’t have.
If we go to a car dealer, we know that he is trying to influence us to buy a car. That’s fine. We need a car, and it’s his job to sell cars so things are straight forward and he’s trying to help us fix a problem as best he can.
If we go to a car dealer and he knowingly pushes us towards a car that he knows will break down or is dangerous, that’s manipulative. He knows that it won’t help us. The deal is one-sided. It is favourable for him but unfavourable for us.
It is challenging to come up with a definition that differentiates between influence and manipulation clearly, as we’ve seen.
It is easy to identify each of them when looking at a situation, though.
The differences will come down to:
Your intention is one of the most critical factors in judging whether what you’re doing is manipulative.
If you knowingly present an idea that isn’t in the other person’s best interests, you are probably being manipulative. If you believe that it is in their best interests, you are probably just trying to influence them.
Manipulation involves withholding information or distorting the truth to achieve the outcome you want. Influencing involves stressing some facts over others.
The key difference here is, does the other person have all the information they need to decide their own best interests.
If what you are doing will cause damage to your long-term relationship, it is likely to be manipulative. Manipulation emphasises the short-term over the long term.
Another way to look at it is that influence is looking for a win-win outcome, while manipulation is looking for a win-lose situation.
Skilled manipulators are challenging to spot.
The tests above are not that helpful in the moment.
However, helpfully manipulation is usually characterised by the manipulator using negative emotions. So a manipulator will often make you scared or worried about something.
They organise things so that you are moving away from something.
By contrast, someone using influence will often present the positives in a situation in the hopes that you will move towards them.
It is not a foolproof test but if you notice someone making you scared about an outcome, you should probably think twice before committing to anything.
This article offers some more good tips to see if you suspect you’re being manipulated.
You’re at a car dealership. You know what you want and have established the best price for the vehicle. You’re unsure whether to commit or not, so you say you will go away and think about it.
The salesperson tells you the offer is limited, and if you don’t purchase today, you’ll miss out, when in fact, the offer is available for another week. The salesperson is distorting the truth to manipulate you into buying the car now.
You’re at a car dealership. You’re about to purchase the car you’ve found when the salesperson lists a number of extra options. They list all the features and benefits of the options, highlighting their advantages. You ultimately opt to take the extras with the car.
In future, you realise you didn’t need the extras but don’t feel manipulated. The salesperson honestly explained the benefits, but you miscalculated the value that you would get from them.
You’re getting ready to go out for the night.
You want your significant other to dress a specific way.
You are influencing if you say ‘ I wish you’d wear XXX because I think you look great in it’ or ‘I wish you’d wear XXX because it looks great on you’. You are encouraging them transparently towards an outcome you would like.
You are manipulating if you way ‘It will ruin my evening if you don’t wear XXX.’.
The outcome may well be the same but the process is very different.
Learning to influence people ethically is a fundamental career skill that all of us need.
There is nothing wrong with seeking to influence someone else so long as you do it honestly.
When you do it dishonestly, it becomes manipulation. Sometimes people’s intense desire to get their desired outcome leads them to overstep the boundaries of honest behaviour.
The ability to identify the two and ensure that you stay on the right side of the line is a crucial long-term career skill. Manipulation is a very short-term strategy that ultimately destroys careers and relationships.