The Precipice: Influence and Manipulation – Which Way Will You Fall?

Influence-Manipulation-Leadership-Ali-PaskunIn some ways, to influence and to manipulate can seem to be the same thing. After all, the intent of both influence and manipulation is to get other people to behave, think, or make the decision you want them to. But is that really the case as demonstrated by these definitions from

Influence(n) 1. A power affecting a person, thing, or course of events, especially one that operates without any direct or apparent effort. 2. Power to sway or affect based on prestige, wealth, ability, or position.  (v) 1. To produce an effect on by imperceptible or intangible means; sway. 2) To affect the nature, development, or condition of; modify.

Manipulate: (v) 1. To move, arrange, operate, or control by the hands or by mechanical means, especially in a skillful manner. 2. To influence or manage shrewdly or deviously. 3. To tamper with or falsify for personal gain.

As indicated in the definitions, the main purpose of both influence and manipulation is  to sway; however, there is a definite difference between the two. Influence is an ethical behavior; manipulation is unethical. We admire leaders who have mastered the power of influence; equally, we mistrust leaders we believe to be manipulative. They are both getting us to see things their way. Taken too far, influence can move to the other end of the spectrum and become manipulation.

The differences between influence and manipulation include the:

  • reason behind the intention to persuade another person
  • truthfulness and accuracy of provided information
  • transparency of the process
  • benefit, affect, or impact on the person.

Manipulation implies an intent to fool or trick someone into doing, believing, or buying something that leaves them harmed in some way. We view manipulators as schemers. Out to get what they want using whatever means possible, manipulators selfishly pursue their own agenda, trying to control instead of wanting to influence another person. For example:

Influence:  Someone offers a proposition that is beneficial to both parties.

Manipulation: Someone offers a proposition that serves their own purposes and is against the other person’s interest. They conceal a desire to move the person to their point of view in a way that will only benefit themselves. In addition, if their intention were uncovered, the discovery would cause the other person to be less receptive to their idea.

Influence: All information provided is accurate and shared openly.

ManipulationInformation is withheld or distorted to trick or deceive.

Influence:  Someone is willingly led to something they want or that will benefit them.

Manipulation: Someone is led to something that will harm them or lead them to eventual regret.

Influence:  Requesting someone to do you a favor you believe they won’t want to do using sincere appreciation.

Manipulation: Getting someone to do you a favor you believe they won’t want to do using guilt or emotional blackmail.

Many years ago I worked with a manager who often ended his directives with, “And if I find out you didn’t follow what I said, you’re fired,” Looking back now, I assume that he was not confident in his role, his ability to do the job, and/or his effectiveness as a manager and leader. We have all known people who, like my former colleague, get others to do what they want through fear and intimidation. Using these tactics may accomplish what they want, but it does not make them leaders. Like love and hate, there is a fine line between influence and manipulation.

Like love and hate, there is a fine line between influence and manipulation.”  ~Ali Paskun Tweet this!

Which side are you on? Please share your insight and experience below.

About Ali Paskun

"Ali Paskun, AF.APMP is a proposal professional, author, speaker, and trainer. With nearly 30 years’ experience in the proposal industry, she has held almost every position in, including proposal coordinator, technical writer/editor, proposal manager, director, and consultant. An active APMP member since 1999, Ali is an accredited APMP Fellow. She was the managing editor of the Journal of the Association of Proposal Management Professionals and the Perspective and has presented at several conferences on proposal-related topics. Ali is President of the APMP Chesapeake Chapter, which serves the Central Maryland area. She has a BS in Communication from the University of Maryland, University College.

Connect with Ali Paskun


  1. This really resonates with me in that it is similar to people’s strengths:
    “Taken too far, influence can move to the other end of the spectrum and become manipulation.”
    In the same way when people overuse their strengths they can often become a weakness and move them to the other end of the spectrum. For example a good speaker when overplaying that strength too much can become overbearing and loud, drowning out others and no longer listening. Thanks for the distinction.

    • That is an excellent analogy. It is the same as a person’s strength turning into a weakness. There is a fine line there, too. I’ll turn it around the other way; don’t you think there are times when a person’s weakness can become his/her strength?

  2. Thank you for sharing your excellent ideas Ali. it is indeed a fine line between manipulation and influence. But the way you have explained it makes this line very clear and tangible and usefull for coaching.

    Thanks again and best wishes for a nice WE,


    • Joan: I’m glad that you found the article useful, especially for coaching. Hopefully it will help to “influence” people to not be “manipulative.” There is such a subtle distinction between influence and manipulation, and leaders sometimes cross that line without even realizing it.

  3. Such an important and valuable distinction Ali. Since influence is sourced by commitment and manipulation is sourced by fear I wonder how much the fear of a person someone is attempting to influence can affect how their intentions might be perceived. Curious about your thoughts on this: Do you think having power over someone (real or perceived), such as when you are someone’s boss, can affect how an attempt to influence is perceived despite the best of intentions?

    • Yes, Susan. I think that sometimes acts of influence can be perceived as attempts to manipulate. I have worked with collegues who could find an ulterior motive in the most ordinary of interactions. It comes down to trust. As in your example, if the boss has the employee’s trust, the employee assuming manipulative behavior isn’t likely. Leaders have to accept though that sometimes you can’t win someone over no matter what you do.

  4. Nice differentiation of leading with power (influence) vs force (manipulation).


  5. Your post provides a differentiation between Leaders [influence] and people in positions of leadership [manipulation]. Leaders will naturally draw followers to themselves because people WANT to be with them. It is a joy as they gain directly from the leader. People only follow manipulators because they HAVE to as they risk losing something; a benefit, a job, position, etc.

    • Manipulation is a form of blackmail. The difference I think is that blackmail is very overt, while sometimes manipulation can be more subtle in appearance. The outcome though is basically the same.

  6. Excellent article Ali! I like the way you’ve shone a light on the intent when making the distinction between influence and manipulation.

    All the best,

    • You are so right, Susan. As has been pointed out, motivation (or intent) is the big driving force that distinguishes influence from manipulation.

  7. I agree with David, it is very much about the motive. – one is getting people to do something that will benefit you, the other it is about doing something that will benefit them. I have been using leading questions in conversations with employees to get them to find their spark or inner motivation. This is a good article wish I had it a few weeks back when I was in such an arguement about some leadership tools claimed to be manipulative. I think this also connect with micromanagemet and lack of trust. I have experienced “political games” in leadership, and the biggest loser is the company profit line when good people quit and projects might be falsly manipulated to look like a success, when they really failed. And then some good employee gets the blame and leaves the company. 🙂 It is also interesting to reflect upon this, how to discover if you are influenced or manipulated.. that could be a useful skill in life.

    • Frode, you raise two interesting points: the connection to the lack of trust and the impact it all can have on a company`s bottom line. Employees, especially star performers, will move on if they see a specific leader or even the corporate culture behaves in a manipulative manner. As we have seen over the past decade or so, that kind of behavior can even have legal ramifications.

  8. Hi Ali,

    What a great post today. Yes – the difference between influence and manipulation is indeed a fine line. It is always sad to see those who go for the manipulative tactics. The true leaders influence. Thank you for sharing this distinction.

  9. Hi Ali

    This is a great post on a ‘forever’ dilemma for leaders! I’m with David on this one that motive is key!

    Does that offer a cut and dried view that influence is good and manipulation is bad? I’m not sure … how it is interpreted and by whom may also be significant! Thought provoking post Ali – thank you for sharing this contribution to the Blogathon!

  10. Thanks, Ali Paskun. This piece has really got me thinking. Your distinction is precise and concise.

    Happy weekend!

    • Thank you. I have known so many leaders who used their position to influence. However, there have been more than a few who chose to manipulate to maintain or increase their power. In most cases, hoarding information and not communicating were their weapons.

  11. Ali,
    There surely is a difference between influence and manipulation. Passive aggressive approaches fall into the manipulation category and cause mistrust that spreads like a virus.

    Honesty delivered with care takes influence all the way to greatness.

    Wonderful article — many thanks,

    • Great point, Kate, about passive-aggressive behavior and its ties to manipulation. That is one of the most sneaky ways to manipulate someone.

  12. This is a perfect share for my team. Whilst we are busily working to develop a model for healthcare that leads by influence, we have recently found ourselves lapped by a wave of manipulation. I am sending this on to the members of my team- it provides perfect clarity and re-establishes our strengths as leaders. Stay true to influence, eh? Thank you Ali!

    • Wow, Susan. I’m happy to hear that this blog will help your team. Dare I say I hope it will influence your team to be aware of when they are drifting into manipulation. I am interested in hearing about their reaction to the blog and what affect it has on their roles as leaders.

  13. David, Thanks for the distinction. Influence – good; manipulation – bad. It’s a simple distinction yet many “positional” leaders do lean toward manipulation. I hope they read your post.

    • It seems that so many positional leaders don’t realize the difference between influence and manipulation because there is such a fine line between the two. While some people choose to be manipulative, others may not realize they have crossed the line.

  14. Ali – I enjoyed this post because it got me thinking about manipulation vs influence and where I may fall on the spectrum at times. I think of influence as making an honest request in the service of shared goals and manipulation as deception that is more self-serving. Much to consider here. Appreciate your contribution to the blogathon! ~ Alli

    • Exactly! It can all come down to what a person`s motivation is and whether or not he\she is looking out for someone else`s interest. If the motive is personal gain, it’s manipulation.

  15. Nice take on a perennial dilemma, Ali. For me it’s all about motive. In the end we all have to pass the mirror test…

    Nice article for the blogathon, thanks for sharing.

    Warm wishes



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