Manipulation is Abuse, Not Behavioral Science

Categories: Behavior change, BMT Courses, Leadership, ReinforcementAuthor:

Some time ago, someone in our courses suggested that BMT could be used for “manipulation”.  Our ensuing conversation caused me to think about this issue a bit more, and that’s where this blog post came from.  The bottom line is that if you think BMT is manipulation, then you’re doing it wrong.  According to the dictionary, manipulation is “a type of influence that aims to change the behavior of others through underhanded, deceptive, or abusive tactics.” I’d only add that manipulation is about trying to get someone to do something that’s not in their best interest, and unfortunately this does happen at work sometimes.

The conversation we had reminded me that it’s a healthy practice to challenge what you’re doing at home and at work and to ask if it’s the right thing to do.  We often encounter situations in which individuals want culture change in their business or they want things to change in their families at home.  When the other parties involved (coworkers, spouses, children) don’t also see the need for change, it can be difficult to make headway.

I could see wondering about whether you were using manipulation if you were trying to influence someone at work or at home to do something they don’t want to do.  If you’ve felt this way before, perhaps consider these two suggestions:

1)      Could it be that you are asking for something that you want, but the other person doesn’t?  Perhaps the other person could deliver what is needed for the business (or your family, as the case may be) via another route more acceptable to them. Perhaps the disagreement is over the behavior, and not the result.  If that’s the case, this could be a sign that you’re micromanaging; cut it out and see what happens.

2)      Maybe the resistance you are getting from the other person is an issue of shaping; an instance in which you can see the new future but the others can’t.  In this case, the solution could be to find a smaller step to ask for between here and there.

There are other possibilities of course.  However, as with most of our blogs, I guess the take away point ought to be that this has more to do with you than them.  There are literally millions of possibilities when it comes to what you could say to influence someone else’s behavior.  If one of them doesn’t feel right, surely you could take a few minutes and think about 5 or 10 other more acceptable things you could say.

The science of behavior suggests that we’re constantly influencing the behavior of others, both intentionally and inadvertently.  If you try to use knowledge of behavioral science to manipulate someone and get them to do something that isn’t in their best interest, the result will be punishing to them and it will eventually backfire.

Once you learn behavioral science you are more aware of your influence over others and you are therefore better positioned to create an environment that increases the chances someone will be safe, productive, and happy at work.  We’ve heard it many times; behavioral science improves people’s lives.

One Response to Manipulation is Abuse, Not Behavioral Science

  1. David Wiss says:

    Good stuff John. What I have learned from you all is to create the right environment. A place where we can agree to disagree and still feel safe & grow.


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