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Passion, People and Principles

Can We Be Manipulated?

post # 274 — January 3, 2007 — a Client Relations post

Previously, I asked what sales tactics had worked on you. As a follow up, I draw your attention to today’s WSJ (January 3, 2007, page D1) which has an article by Jonathan Clements on how so-called “advisers” manipulate you.

He notes that effective financial salespeople feign friendship, asking you all about yourself, pretending you have things in common.

He observes that “Popularity is a pretty good guide when picking things like movies and restaurants, so it’s comforting to hear that an investment is popular.” And hence we get suckered in to going with inappropriate things.

He makes reference to another ancient sales tactics: Giving a free lunch or offering supposedly inside information to create the sense of obligation that makes people more susceptible to buying.

He reports that one can obtain a free AARP book “Weapons of Fraud’ which outlines the tactics used by unscrupulous salespeople by emailing your name and address to weaponsoffraud@aarp.org.

Presumably, the theory behind the book is that, by being aware of the manipulative techniques that salespeople use, we will have better defenses.

I’m not so sure.

Note that these “tactics” are incredibly similar, if not completely identical, to how someone would behave if they really were trying to be helpful to you. Here’s someone showing an interest in me, giving ideas away first to earn my trust, from an institution that I’ve heard of (the popularity or brand effect). That’s what a REAL trusted advisor would do isn’t it?

I recently (skim-) read a book by Kevin Hogan called “The Psychology of Persuasion: How to Persuade Others to Your Way of Thinking.”

Aimed primarily at salespeople, it is one of the most effective and terrifying books I have ever read. It summarizes and communicates clearly all the manipulation techniques most likely to work when selling a product or service.

What’s so terrifying about it all is, that as today’s WSJ article points out, these tactics WORK. And yes, they work on you and me.

The difference, presumably, is that the salesperson is using all the techniques as “tricks” but without real sincerity behind them. The Trusted Advisor that my coauthors and I wrote about is likely to be doing all the same things but with a true desire to help.

So, the effectiveness of my defenses turn on the following question: if someone is doing and saying all the right (manipulative) things, how well do I think I can discriminate between those who are doing it to be truly helpful, and those who are doing the same things just to get my business? How good am I at spotting insincerity?

I’d like to think I’m terrific at it, but I have my doubts.

What do you think? How susceptible are we to the person with high skills and low motives?


Rich Saletan said:

David… your points are well taken. However, welcome to the “real world.” Sales approaches with secondary adgendas have been around since the snake oil salesman days. Not everyone is “pure of heart and purpose.” Each person has a hidden agenda. Most revolve, in my opinion, around what constitutes “success” in their minds. Whether it is financial, ego, pleasing one’s boss, etc., the point is we are all motivated by something not as pure as simply “doing good.”

There are exceptions, of course. People who dedicate thier lives to charitable work, for example. Bill Gates’ work on AIDS, and Oprah’s work in South Africa, are clear examples of “pureness of purpose.” But these examples are rare in business.

Rich Saletan

posted on January 3, 2007

David (Maister) said:

Rich, accepted in full. So, you want me to accept that the overwhelming majority of people want something from me.

But how, then, am I to distinguish between the real charlatans and those a little further along the spectrum who are in it for themselves but are willing to work to deserve it? Especially if they’re all using the same effective manipulative techniques?

Or are you saying that the only effective defence is to assume that everyone’s in it for themselves, and leave it at that?

posted on January 3, 2007

Doug Ferguson said:


I find your comments and concern about being able to discriminate to be quite accurate. What I find most disturbing, however, is something I read recently which pointed out that most of us think we are quite good at reading people (are they trustworthy?) but in most cases we are only slightly better than 50-50. Thats not a great batting average.

My takeaway is to be keenly aware that people may be suspicious because of past experiences where they have been burned by an advisory relationship. In that case I don’t see any remedy other than to be fully transparent with a client and to make sure I constantly contribute through small and large actions to the trust bank account.

posted on January 3, 2007

Mike said:


One famous person who has spent a great deal of time thinking and talking about this subject is Charlie Munger, Warren Buffet’s right hand man. His prescription is to know the potential flaws that may be in our own thinking (and of other people) and to use checklists to insure we’re not falling into any traps. Here is a transcript of a speech he gave on the subject several years ago. He cites several famous examples of both virtuous and manipulative uses of these sources of human misjudgment. He is a raving fan of Robert Cialdini’s “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion”, and I would guess that if you simply asked yourself if any of Cialdini’s six elements were present in a situation and what the motivation for someone had to use them, you’d have a pretty good barometer of manipulation vs. trust-building.


posted on January 3, 2007

Ann Bares said:

Great post and points.

As a potential victim (of manipulation) I have come to believe that my best defense is paying attention to my “gut”, the feelings from which have been honed through many years of making wrong choices and believing the wrong people. If someone comes across very well, with the right (and sincere sounding) pitch and approach, and they appeal to my intellect but I have a funny feeling in my stomach about them, its the latter I pay attention to.

I think our best defense, as advisors, in competing with (and attempting to differentiate ourselves from) those of suspect motives is to be willing to do the unpopular thing (share the unhappy news, take the unpopular position, point out the elephant in the room that everyone would prefer to ignore, even – gasp – admit when we don’t know the answer to their question) when it is in the best interest of our client.

posted on January 3, 2007

Gerald Whyte said:

The secret of life is honesty and fair dealing..if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.

Groucho Marx

posted on January 3, 2007

Stephanie West Allen said:

Daniel Goleman in his new book Social Intelligence talks about the neuroscience of our ability to discern insincerity. He touches on this ability in this NPR interview. Measuring brain responses has given us good information on this topic and the body of knowledge is growing everyday.

posted on January 3, 2007

peter vajda said:

Thanks for this David.

For me, it’s never about “them”. It’s about “me.”

Many folks, as a result of their experiences as children, were not raised to be self-nuturing, self-assured, self-aware, and secure individuals. As their psyches developed, their ego needs for control recognition and security are heightened, and as they grow and develop, they build these needs into their social context and begin to look for ways to be validated, seen, accepted and approved.This dynamic is carried into adulthood. Then, as adults, their needs for, in this case, security and recognition are unconscious drivers of many of their behaviors.

Unknowingly, his or her being “sucked in” is some flavor of his or her being validated. What they “get” from folks who target their “needs” are feelings of self-worth, value, recognition, i.e, the feeling that they are “somebody”, they feel they are being seen. No different from folks who get off on having their meals comped, or a buy-back at a bar, or their parking validated. A small thing, monetarily; but a huge emotional and psychological boost , from the ego perspective, espcially those who feel (unconsciously) deficient in some way…and we all experieence some degree of deficiency by nature that we are human beings.

So, for me, the question is not so much one of discriminating as it is one of discerning.

When folks do “personal work”, for example, and begin to “know thyself” they begin to see where they have been looking to the “outside” world for control, recognition and security. As folks grow into themselves, emotionally, psychologically and spiritually, and gain a greater sense of who they are, their needs for outside validation begins to wane. As this happens, folks begin to get a “felt sense” of what’s tue and what isn’t.

Discernment is the quality that allows us to make the subtle (internal, spiritual, not so called “logical”) decisions about what we truly value, what will make us happy, and and to “discern” which of our many competing inner voices are important, i.e., really support our emotional and mental health and which don’t.

Discernment is prior to thought and emotion. It’s one’s Inner self driving, not the ego. It’s a gut response to an event, a circumstance, and individual, etc., accompanied by the internal question, “What is this feeling telling me?” It’s an inward focus to see what the truth of a situation is.

The deal is not so much being aware of “their” manipulative techniques and tricks, but becoming “conscious”, aware of my own internal manipulative techniqes (my often unconscious ego drivers) that make me fall prey to “them”. If I’m a victim, it’s most often because I’m choosing to be, albeit often unconsciously. My susceptibilty is most often of my own making, again, albeit unconscously.

Rather than “let the buyer beware”…I might suggest let the buyer become aware…of him or her self, first.

posted on January 3, 2007

David (Maister) said:

Mike, the Munger transcript is FABULOUS!

Stephanie, your link works, but for some reason my compuer won’t play the Goleman NPR interview. Could you report a couple of highlights for us?

Ann, can I test your idea? What happens if an unscrupulous person adopts your recommendation and starts doing exactly what you say: aking the unpopular position, etc. Couldn’t they still pass themselves off as a sincere person? Ultimately, is there ANY defence against a person with superior manipulative skills?

posted on January 3, 2007

Stephanie West Allen said:

Sorry you cannot hear the interview; it does play for me. Here’s an interview you can read of Goleman about Social Intelligence. He does a much better job than I can of explaining mirror neurons; they are such an important discovery about how we interact with each other that I highly recommend one or othe other of the interviews — if one does not have time to read the book. The field of neuroscience is yielding much good information about how we take in (or don’t take in) information from others. Links to five other neuroscience and communication resources.

posted on January 3, 2007

breakingranks said:

HR gurus have been emphasizing, if not *requiring*, the people they coach to be learning these manipulation techniques. When I go to job interviews, one of the things that sabotages me is that I know I’m going to be trapped, and probably hurt, by a major cultural contradiction. The people who are “coaching” me are teaching me the very type of manipulation you are talking about, and they will fault me if I don’t “learn” to butter up the hiring manager. However, I know the hiring manager is simultaneously reading how not to be manipulated…and there is no way to predict whether they want a candidate who doesn’t try to manipulate them or they are judging the candidate over how well they are following the HR guru checkpoints.

All this psychological double and triple agenting makes the workplace crazy, and all that craziness rolls downhill onto the people in the most vulnerable positions.

I’m hoping that business leaders with big ideas will start to focus on how harmful the current job allocation system is to both the workplace and society in general. People have to change jobs frequently in this day and age: if we keep going like this (manipulate, deny manipulation, impose contradiction, etc.) then the next revolution may be one driven by sheer mental stress.

posted on January 6, 2007

David (Maister) said:

Breaking, I accept your analysis of what’s going on, but I don’t arrivee at the same conclusion, probably because I start with a different set of assumptions.

Unless I am doing damage to your point of view, you attribute all of this to “them”: the business leaders who in your view control (or determine) the (quote) current job allocation system.

I don’t think the “dance” of double or triple agenting is restricted to business affairs, or even political ones. Without trivializing the point of view, it applies even in basic human relationships like courting and dating (How shall I present myself, is he/she saying that because they really like me or are they just waiting to see how I will react, should I be self-confident or modest, how do you really play this, what do they really think of me?) This is all not only normal but unavoidable in ALL social contexts, isn’t it.

Understanding the interplay of human “routines” in different settings is hard under any circumstances, but without wishng to make any political points, I don’t believe you help yourself by starting with the base assumption that it’s all someone else’s fault for structuring the social game that way. You make yourself powerless (or at least less powerful) if you keep taking comfort in the blame that can be attributed to others.

posted on January 6, 2007

breakingranks said:

I do agree the “triple agenting” is a problem in all situations. I just saw the perfect example in the movie “Girl, Interrupted.” The protagonist wonders if a girl with a scarred face is nice only because she’s “desperately trying to make it easier for others to look at her.” No one can just be nice without interrogating themselves (or being judged -and often projected on – by others). It’s a no win situation: if you’re not nice, you’re anti-social for not accomodating other people. If you are nice, you’re manipulating other people. We live in a vastly over-analyzed world!

I disagree with you in your effort to make people internalize the problems that are often imposed on them. By disallowing or denigrating the criticism of social structures, you imply that a person can only be “good” if they swallow what the world dishes out. This doesn’t only mean that nothing changes for the person getting the short end of the stick – it means that the privileged in society get the additional bonus that the underlings stop hassling them. Yes, it would be utopia for all the overpaid CEOs of the world if all the little people would just focus on their own attitudes.

I believe that the current economic structures are vastly unfair given that there’s no un-owned land to retreat to: people are forced to participate in the economy, and I think the people getting shafted have a right to blame the people who want to keep it unfair.

posted on January 7, 2007

David (Maister) said:

It seems to me that the political or socio-economic part of this debate best belongs on your blog, so let’s carry it on there! I hope those interested in this dimension will check out http://www.breakingranks.net

posted on January 7, 2007

Greg Krauska said:

David, I think that many times we really want to believe – and that’s what gets customers in trouble. It is also why personal brand is so important for the seller. One of the challenges I think is implicit in your question is, “when do I decide to trust?”

One answer to the problem comes from the study of successful entrepreneurs. Research shows that the businesses that make it are led by people who make a critical distinction between facts and assumptions. When starting a new venture or a new relationship, your assumptions and hopes far outnumber facts. Established businesses and relationships have a far larger fact base to operate from. Therefore, a customer who has an established relationship probably is less susceptible to manipulation because there is a track record of promises made and kept – or not.

A more valuable lesson from this research is that the most successful entrepreneurs only made big time investments after they confirmed whether their most critical assumptions were true. If not, they re-evaluated before committing the next investment. In enterprise software, we saw this pattern show up in the last few years as failed large-scale ERP projects led buyers to focus more on pilots and incremental rollouts.

While there is always some risk of blindside surprise, decisionmakers can reduce their risk by understanding what’s fact – and what’s hope, assumption or wish – before making a significant decision.

posted on January 7, 2007

Rob Reed said:


I agree that buyers are very susceptible to manipulative techniques — even if they are aware of those techniques.

One study shows we have a more favorable impression of an individual who offers us a compliment — even if we question the sincerity or accuracy of the compliment. Merely being aware of these manipulative tactics, then, does not mean they don’t work.

I don’t think any of us are good at truly discerning someone’s insincerity or whether or not someone is outright lying to us in the selling process. In fact, studies show most of us are not very good “lie detectors.” And here’s the more complicated item — we’re all capable of lying. In fact, all of us lie to some degree nearly every day.

If you believe the studies Gladwell discusses in “The Tipping Point,” we’re all very capable of lying — and in fact, we all lie on a regular basis. A study from Cornell shows lying is an every day phenomenon and we lie one or two times every day and about one out of every four interactions involves a lie and about one third of social interactions involve some deception.

Manipulation techniques and deception, then, are “tools”we are all capable of using based on the situation.

Since we’re all capable of manipulation and deception, but we’re not good at identifying when those tools are being used on us, what can we do? One solution is simply to accept the fact that everyone is capable of using manipulation and deception on us in a given situation and leave it at that.

Interestingly, I tried to develop a better solution to help buyers identify truly trustworthy sellers in a given sales situation. I invested several years, my life’s savings and an angel investment from a partner at Accenture to develop a solution. The start-up created a seal program that provides buyers with a way to identify sellers who are committed to straightforward, honest dealings during a specific sales situation. The program actually leverages a pair of Cialdini’s “weapons,” but uses them “on” the seller rather than the buyer.

It’s a very tough road to hoe, though, because while most sellers like to view themselves as honest, very few are willing to commit to being so. And, it’s a challenge to get buyers to understand the benefit, because the benefit — increased likelihood of working with a trusted seller, is still intangible.

After researching the “issue” the past several years, I would say that short of some type of program that can positively influence a seller’s behavior in a given sales situation, I think the solution simply falls to “buyers beware.”

posted on January 8, 2007

Brady Reed said:

Thanks to all previous comments. I learned a great deal. Today’s consumer is leary of salespeople just as they have in the past. In my opinion, the key to getting past such barriers is to take an honest, ethical, and long-term approach with clients such that you develop a strong base of clients willing to refer you. I’m certainly not espousing anything new here, but the answer to prospects’ skeptisism is a history of good service and past performance worthy of your new prospects attention.

posted on January 9, 2007

Ellen Weber said:

It’s helpful sometimes to respond to the meta messages that manipulators use:-) At that’s what I tend to do, when I spot manipulation. So one day I saw two young guys yelling at passerbys for “eating meat” and I asked them what on earth their shoes were made of? They looked stunned but stopped yelling!

Similarly, when I walk into a store and a sales clerk dives at me with the question: HOW ARE YOU? I ask back, “Are you really asking me HOW IS YOUR MONEY SITUATION TODAY? Then I question if they’s jump so quickly to care about my well-being if we met in another setting where they had nothing to sell me?

Not sure it works for everybody, but it helps me to spot and stop manipulation, and to try and avoid it in my own life, simply because I act in ways that recognize and respond to it:-)

Thanks for the terrific discussion. I’m inspired by tactics people here suggested, and would be interested in others’ ideas to this method:-)

Great post, David, and thanks!

posted on January 15, 2007