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Imagine the following scenario: it’s near the end of your work day, you’ve put in somewhere between eight to ten hours of work and you have just selected “shut down” on your office device. Immediately you receive a system generated message that says, “Do you really want to shut down? If you work another hour you will be closer to meeting your KPIs (key performance indicators) for the year!” Directly under the message are two prompt options, “Quit” and “Keep Working”. The Keep Working prompt is already highlighted, so all you need to do is press the return key to continue happily working toward reaching that KPI target.

You may have found the above scenario ridiculous in today’s day and age, but according to Noam Scheiber, a journalist at The New York Times, a version of this is exactly what happens daily to drivers using the Uber ride-hailing app. Scheiber notes that Uber’s approach is reflective of the changing ways companies are managing workers in the freelance gig economy. Uber and others are using psychological inducements, such as goal setting, to influence how long people work. Push messages, gaming techniques, offers of next fare opportunities and non-financial rewards are all part of Uber’s strategy to influence when, where and how long drivers work.

Don’t’ get me wrong, I’m not singling out Uber as the bad guy. Uber is not alone in employing this approach. Its competitors, Lyft and Grab Car are also using it and probably other organisations, who have been less candid, are also using this productivity strategy with “non-employees”. But if the leaders of Uber and its’ competitors are using this strategy to influence their non-employees to get more work done, how long will it be before the approach goes mainstream and is used on full time employees? I suspect it is already being done. Any organisation that tracks productivity based upon some form of data entry already has this capability. Industries such as banking, design, IT, and service centers immediately come to mind.

But is this approach really a legitimate leadership technique or is it manipulation? Some people argue that manipulation is a legitimate leadership influencing tactic but I’m not convinced. There’s a fine line between using psychological inducements that are motivating and influential and those that are manipulative. The question is, “At what point do leaders cross that fine line and quit offering leadership and begin manipulating?”

Let’s be honest and acknowledge that leadership and manipulation share several characteristics. Both are action oriented, involve persuading people to act, and the outcome ultimately benefits the individual who is either leading or manipulating.

But this is where the fine line comes into view. Manipulation is what happens when we influence people to do something and we benefit more from their actions than they do. While manipulation may work in the short term, it fails in the long term unless increasingly stronger forms of manipulation are used. When people start to realise that they are being manipulated, they quickly become cynical, disillusioned, resentful and lose trust in their leader. They respond out of fear and not out of commitment. The result is a decline in performance and collaboration.

In contrast, leadership, is about ensuring that all parties benefit. Leadership doesn’t require the leader to carry a big stick to convince people to follow him or her. While leaders may use emotional appeals, the appeal is not directed toward something that needs to be feared. Rather, the emotion is directed toward some types of positive outcome. Most importantly, effective leadership promotes trust. Trust is built when the leader has a clear set of values that drive a positive purpose for creating a better future. And that better future benefits everyone. Most importantly, the leader behaves in a manner that is consistent with his or her values.

How do you know if you are being manipulative? Ask yourself the following three questions:

  • What is my intention? Are you focusing on your personal ambitions and needs or an outcome that benefits everyone? Manipulators are only concerned about themselves. They exhibit what Wharton Professor Adam Grant refers to as “taker” mentalities. In pursuit of their own needs, they rarely take the time to understand the needs of others. Leaders want to understand people, their needs and seek their engagement in the creation of something that benefits everyone.

  • Am I being honest or saying whatever will get me what I want? Manipulators will say or do whatever is necessary to get what they want. They stroke egos, apply pressure, or threaten dire consequences. Leaders speak the truth, even when it is not the popular thing to say. And leaders are also transparent about how and why they are doing things.

  • Am I open to alternatives? Manipulators always have a reason for why things need to be done their way. Leaders are always willing to listen to and explore alternative because they realise that someone else may have a better idea or solution.
  • If your answer to all three of the above questions is an emphatic “NO” then you’re probably using leadership and not manipulation to get things done. If you hesitated, then it’s time for further reflection.