Manipulation and Morality

The other day I had one of those juxtapositions of experience that makes you really think.

On the one hand, I participated in an event in which the event organizers used multiple manipulative techniques to try to get the audience to accept their proposals.  They buried their main message in the midst of other supposed messages that were easy to accept; they re-packaged their plan to look like it was driven by something entirely different; they denied that they had any intent to attack the very people they were attacking; and so on.  All very classic manipulative techniques.  All fundamentally dishonest.

If that had been my whole day, I wouldn’t be writing about it.  How many times have I experienced that?   Man, I don’t even know what to say about that.  (I spent my life dealing with this shit?)

No, what was striking is that immediately after that event, I was in a client meeting with a young guy who I really feel should succeed.  He has the smarts, and he has the drive, and I’m trying to give him input, from my experience, that will help him turn those things into success.  Part of that discussion was about how you deal with people who are a problem.  I described some time-worn techniques for handling those people, and he resisted, saying that he didn’t want to end up being manipulative in the pursuit of his own interests.  To him, it was a moral question.

I could have said he’s young, and he doesn’t know anything about how the world really works.  Many people would say that, in fact.  I didn’t.

Moral philosophy is sort of my subject.  That was my main focus years ago in my undergraduate studies, and I loved it.  It permeates everything I do today.  That having been said, at no point when I studied philosophy did anyone ever talk about the relationship between morality and the manipulation of other people.

The event in the morning was a masterpiece of manipulation.  Everything that could be done to make something bad look good was done.

Start with the overall packaging.  A list of eleven good things (call them “puppies”), theoretically all related to the same subject, was trotted out.  Never mind that eight of them were not new, and two of the new ones were of no consequence.  There were eleven things to talk about, at length.

Then there was item six.  Buried in the thicket of the ten other things, it was the half-hidden puppy.  Look at all these other puppies.  Don’t focus just on this one.

Of course, the whole point of the exercise was item six.  The details don’t matter.  Let’s say that item six is a public beheading, just to use a completely hypothetical example.  Even if you notice the public beheading hidden in the flurry of other things, the emphasis was not on the “beheading” part, but on the “public” part.  This is really about having a public celebration, a party.  There will be cakes and cookies, beer for the adults, and it will all be oodles of fun.  The point is the public party, not the beheading.

So, someone asked if the key was there was going to be a public party, and only maybe a beheading.  Oh no, was the reply.  There will certainly be a “beheading”, if you want to call it that, but don’t call it that.  Call it a public party.

Another way to manipulate was to say that the “public party” was only just an idea, with nothing decided and nothing worked out.  There would still have to be a lot of discussion, with input from everyone, before anything like a “public party” could even be possible.

So, someone asked if that meant there still might not be a beheading.  Oh no, was the reply.  There will certainly be a “public party”.  However, we still have to work out whether to use a sword, an ax, or a guillotine.  There is still lots to discuss.

Manipulation also took the form of expressions of undying love for those on the list to be beheaded (“public partied”, perhaps).  We love you all, was the refrain.  We can’t really live without you.  But, we do have to have a “public party”, and some of you will have to lose your heads.  Even though we love those heads.  Really.

There was more, but you get the picture.  The event was actually to announce a decision to have a beheading.  That was never stated.  Not once.  A public party, which incidentally would perhaps (i.e. certainly) include some kind of blade-related activity (i.e. a beheading), was mentioned as one of many things that might possibly happen, most of them relating to puppies.

Maybe I have become jaded.  In my work, I hear so many packaged stories like this, where the truth is manipulated to turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse, that perhaps it no longer pisses me off.  It didn’t even occur to me to think that those making the presentation were on the wrong side of any moral line.  It just seemed normal to me, as if someone were speaking Sanskrit, and I was mentally translating it into English as it was being spoken.

I didn’t initially see any of this manipulative behaviour as lying.  It had no moral tinge to it.  It is sad, perhaps, but not immoral.  Or, at least, that’s what I thought.

Then I immediately went into my client meeting with a young man who has a fairly new business.  He’s smart, and driven, and working his ass off, but like many entrepreneurs he is coming up against the normal difficulties with getting people to do what he needs.

From his perspective, some things need to get done.  Once he identifies those things, his partners, associates, and business connections should do them.  He should be able to say “This needs to get done,” and someone – whoever is the appropriate person – will do it.

Would that the world were that simple.  People are complex beings, each highly individual, and each subject to specific motivations and barriers.  As I’ve written in other articles, the art of getting people to do things, and do them well, is to understand those people, and approach them with their personal perspective in mind.

So, for example, he lamented that one of his business associates is constantly being distracted by the newest idea he has, so he never gets around to doing any of the things he has already proposed.  I said I’ve seen that before, and what sometimes works is to keep bringing him back to his previous ideas, making them fresh by discussing them from a different angle.  People like this are often driven by creativity.  They will stick to the same plan – and actually get things done – if you can help them continue to see the original idea as fresh, and requiring ongoing creativity.

“So you want me to manipulate him into treating his old ideas as new and interesting?” was the question/challenge.

“No,” I replied.  “This is not about manipulation.  This is about understanding what makes this guy tick, and directing him to productive activities that draw on his natural personality.  His past good ideas are still good ideas, and still interesting.  You just have to keep convincing him of that.”

“That sounds a lot like manipulation to me.  Why can’t I just remind him of last week’s good idea, and his promise to deliver on it, and expect him to actually deliver?”

He raised another example.  One of his partners, formerly a big contributor to the business launch, is now no longer really contributing much, but still wants to influence every decision the company makes. Her input on the current decisions is rarely useful, but she causes problems if she’s not consulted, or if her ideas are not included in the direction chosen.

I said it often happens that partners have periods in which they aren’t contributing, especially if their talents are specific to some aspect of the business.  A marketing specialist will be invaluable when you are developing the marketing strategy, but once it’s being implemented, their expertise has less critical value.

A possible solution, I told the young man, was to create a project that taps her talents, and make her fully responsible for that project.  It can’t be phony – people see through that sort of thing pretty quickly – but it doesn’t have to be mission-critical.  It just has to keep her busy doing something that will have some value down the line.

Once more, he bridled at the obvious manipulative elements of the strategy.  “Why can’t she just stifle her own need to give unhelpful input?  Why do I have to make up some fake project, as if she’s 15 rather than a mature adult?”

It went on like that.  We talked about the business associate (not yet a partner) who is a “bullshit artist”, and the employee who does a good job, but is always late for everything, and the person who was going to be a partner, decided against it, and now is bad-mouthing the business.  In each case, the tried and true solution that I sought to communicate sounded, to my client, like manipulation.  In fact, as we continued to discuss it, they started to sound like manipulation to me as well.

Then came the issue that completed the circle.  He wants to move three of his staff from salary to commission-only, but he’s afraid he’ll lose one or more of them if he does so.

I suggested that he start slow, adding commission instead of giving them their next salary increase.  Since the salary increase would be small anyway, and the commission could be larger, they would probably accept that.  Then, a few months later, increase the commission but with a small reduction in salary.  This would best be done right after a couple of months of good commissions.  I told him that within 12-18 months, he could have the staff fully-co-operating in a move to commission-only.  They would see that it is still good money, and by then the salary would be reduced enough that losing it would be less of a concern.

“Aha!” he said.  “Basically, you think I should do to my own employees exactly what you just witnessed this morning.  Implement my plan by stealth, rather than just come out and say what I’m planning to do.”

I was taken aback, but he was right.  I was telling him that sometimes you get stuff done by an indirect route, rather than going at it head on.  He was calling me on it, forcing me to acknowledge that “indirect” is sometimes simply a euphemism for not telling the whole truth.

Anyone who knows me knows that I am somewhat black and white about lying.  I think that being unwilling to tell the truth is a sign of personal weakness.  If you think the truth is hurtful, or inappropriate, say nothing.  Don’t lie.  That is the weak person’s way out.

But manipulation – which at some level is nothing more than lying – is not black and white.  Manipulation is ubiquitous in human interaction, and in many situations is a reflection of our sensitivity for, and care of, the people around us.  In operates in a grey area between honesty and empathy.  Its moral flavour is complex.  No two situations are the same.

At one extreme is the rawest salesperson, saying whatever you need to hear to get you to purchase his product.  He emphasizes the good things, to a fault, and ignores or deliberately obscures the bad things.  There is a link to cancer?  Well, it is only in lab rats, and everyone knows that humans don’t react to new drugs the same as lab rats.  This time-share in Nicaragua has dozens of glowing testimonials.  No mention of the lawsuits from many dissatisfied buyers.  Why would you need to know that?

Much advertising is like this.  It paints a picture of a product or service that is deliberately intended to be misleading.  Drinking Dos Equis beer does not make you the most interesting man in the world.  Aveeno will not, in fact, give you skin like Jennifer Aniston.  Driving a Lincoln does not make you as cool as Matthew McConaughey’s on-screen persona.  Of course, none of those companies say those things.  The art of advertising is to imply those things, i.e. to manipulate you into reaching those conclusions.

Many of us see little difference between this and lying.  Many agree that much of advertising is, at the very best, morally doubtful.

My event in the morning was no different, although perhaps a bit less adept.  What my young client was telling me – and perhaps with some truth – is that my solution to his commission-only plan was in the same category.

Yet you can also go to the other extreme, and there the conclusion is quite different.  We learn as children that it is neither polite, nor sensitive to the feelings of others, to simply blurt out the truth whenever it comes to mind.  An important part of maturation is learning how to interact with other people in constructive, positive ways.  Central to that is developing the ability to stifle, or package, the truth.

So, does any adult who is not a sociopath think that, when your friend asks about her new hairstyle, you should be so honest as to say it makes you want to vomit?    When a teacher sees a struggling student produce a better result, but it’s still crap, do we think the teacher should say “It’s still crap”?

We all generally accept that there are aspects of human interaction that require sensitivity and – call it whatever you like, but it’s still – manipulation.

The classic example is your best friend introducing you to his new girlfriend with whom he has “found true happiness”.  It doesn’t take you more than two or three meetings to see, plain as the nose on your face, that she is an airhead with a temper, and she will ultimately make him unhappy.   So you immediately take him aside and tell him she’s an airhead with a temper, and he has to get rid of her right away quick.  That’s what you do, right?

Of course not.  First, it won’t work.  He won’t listen, and worse still he’ll be less likely to listen to your advice and opinions in the future.  Second, it will hurt him, and you don’t want to hurt your best friend.  Third, you could be wrong, which means that you may be unfairly tainting their relationship.  Fourth, what if they end up together for a long time?  How are you going to be able to have a good relationship with your friend and his partner after trashing her so bluntly?

On the other hand, you can’t do nothing.  “Friends don’t let friends drive drunk” applies here.  If he is heading for a painful fall, you have to warn him, but with great subtlety.  What you do, in fact, is raise your concerns very very gently, and from an indirect angle.  You say enough to get him thinking about the issues, while quite deliberately hiding your own opinion on his new love.

That wouldn’t be manipulation, would it?  Ah, OK….

Take another example.  Your valued employee is depressed about her rebellious teenagers, and her work is going rapidly downhill.  Do you say “Suck it up.  You aren’t the first person to have teenagers”?  Or, do you try to be supportive and caring, giving her positive messages and providing extra praise when her work is back up to par?

That’s the problem, isn’t it?  Every day we have numerous human interactions.  The sensitive, human way to handle many of those interactions is not the brutality of pure honesty.  On the other hand, once we accept the concept that honesty is not morally necessary in and of itself – or the converse, that dishonesty is sometimes morally acceptable – we face a slippery slope.  It is but a few slidey steps to the salesperson lying to make a sale.

Dishonesty, and its twin brother manipulation, exist on a continuum from one extreme in which they are justifiable, even necessary, to the other extreme, in which they are abhorrent.  There is no bright line dividing the morally acceptable part of that continuum from the morally unacceptable.  The morality of manipulation, instead, moves along the continuum from unacceptable, to neutral, to acceptable.  The subtle differences in the moral flavour of these actions are affected by your intentions (e.g. are you fooling people to help them, or to help yourself?), by the absolute level of dishonesty (e.g. Socratic method vs. outright lies), by the potential consequences, and many other factors.

At my morning event, perhaps I didn’t react with opprobrium in part because I have become immune to the moral unacceptability of this kind of manipulation.  I’ve seen it too many times, so I’ve lost my anger, become jaded.  If so, I have to be more attuned to that.  I shouldn’t let that kind of thing go.  If it’s wrong, it’s wrong.

On the other hand, was I giving advice to my young client that perpetuates that same attitude?  When I look back over it, I think that the “manipulative” techniques I was proposing were all in the morally acceptable range, but some, in retrospect, now look close to the line.

What is worse, until he challenged me, I wasn’t even thinking about the morality of the solutions.  Even if they all are fine, not considering at all the morality of business actions is, in my view, a step towards the “money is amoral” abyss of pure pragmatism.  Not a place I want to go.

– Jay Shepherd, May 19, 2016


About Jay Shepherd

Jay Shepherd is a Toronto lawyer and writer. This site includes a series on energy issues, plus some random non-fiction on matters of interest. More important, it includes the Lives series, which bridge the gap between fiction and non-fiction, and now some short stories. Fiction is where I'm going, but not everything you want to say fits one form. I am not spending any time actively marketing what I write, but by all means feel free to share if you think others would enjoy reading this stuff.
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