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Emotional manipulation in the workplace

Hyde, JL ORCID: 0000-0002-5888-3251 2021 , 'Emotional manipulation in the workplace', PhD thesis, University of Tasmania.

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Most emotional intelligence research has focused on the positive aspects (the ability to make someone feel better) rather than the darker aspects (the ability to make someone feel worse). Emotional manipulation represents a dark aspect of emotional intelligence and is defined as the ability to influence another’s feelings and behaviours for one’s own self-interest or benefit (Austin, Farrelly, Black, & Moore, 2007). The potential contextual influence of the workplace setting on this nefarious type of emotional intelligence is yet to be explored. Given that one third of Australian employees attribute their levels of stress to issues in the workplace (Australian Psychological Society, 2015), it is imperative that researchers focus on the impacts of emotional manipulation in workplace contexts which may influence employee psychological health, wellbeing and productivity.
This thesis includes five studies undertaken to explore the dynamics of emotional manipulation in the workplace. Study 1 was an online survey of Australians’ (N=234) self-reported ability and willingness to emotionally manipulate others, their emotional intelligence and their levels of primary and secondary psychopathy. The results of an exploratory factor analysis revealed that people’s self-reported ability and their self-reported willingness to emotionally manipulate are moderately related, indicating that being able to manipulate others does not necessarily equate to acting on this ability. Higher levels of primary psychopathy positively predicted emotional manipulation ability while secondary psychopathy positively predicted emotional manipulation willingness. The results indicated that the anti-social and impulsive traits central to secondary psychopathy might precipitate engagement in emotionally manipulative behaviours.
The results of Study 1 suggested a measure of one’s ability to emotionally manipulate may not necessarily capture enacted behaviours. Therefore, Study 2 compared people’s willingness, rather than their ability, to manipulate others in both non-work and workplace contexts, in an online survey of Australian employees (N=567). Exploratory and confirmatory factor analyses revealed two distinct forms of emotional manipulation: malicious (overt attempts to induce negative emotions) and disingenuous (items reflecting insincerity and deceit). The Disingenuous factor (unlike the malicious factor) included the work and nonwork emotional manipulation willingness items, indicating that context does not influence these deceptive tactics. The results suggest that manipulating others disingenuously might be more habitual than contextually driven, perhaps because it is easier to conceal self-driven motives by using covert forms of emotional manipulation. The contextual influence of the workplace on malicious emotional manipulation suggested that that follow-up investigations were necessary to examine emotional manipulation in work-specific environments.
To expand on the findings in Study 1 which examined the relationship between psychopathy and emotional manipulation in non-work contexts, Study 3 examined how malevolent personality traits, emotional intelligence and gender correlated with one’s willingness to manipulate others in work contexts. In a sample of Australian employees (N=756), emotional intelligence predicted disingenuous forms of emotional manipulation in females only. In females, the magnitude of correlations between the Dark Triad traits and both malicious and disingenuous forms of emotional manipulation was similar. In males, both forms of emotional manipulation most strongly correlated with Machiavellianism, followed by narcissism then psychopathy. Therefore, at work, higher emotional manipulation reflects more general antisocial behaviours in females, and a relentless drive to achieve goals (i.e., Machiavellian traits) in males.
To assess the construct of emotional manipulation from a target’s (victim’s) perspective, Study 4 employed a qualitative analysis based on interviews with Australian individuals (N=23) who perceived themselves as targets of emotional manipulation in the workplace. Two pathways representing perceived emotionally manipulative behaviours and underlying motives were identified. In Pathway One, self-gain was perceived as the motive of emotionally manipulative behaviour classified as discrepant and divisive in nature. In Pathway Two, emotional immaturity was perceived as a contributor to behaviours perceived as relationally aggressive in nature (e.g., ostracism and undermining), that commenced following a rupture in a previously good working relationship with the perpetrator. Perpetrators in Pathway One were described as skilful in evading accountability, whilst those in Pathway Two remained steadfast in their opinions of not being at fault. The results suggest that there is a perceived level of sophistication in some emotionally manipulative behaviours compared with others.
Potential reasons for a perpetrator’s tendency to be divisive were investigated in Study 5 in a sample of American Mechanical Turks and Microworkers (N=240). The study measured threat reactions to a hypothetical description of a socially cohesive workplace, one’s willingness to emotionally manipulate others, the Dark Triad and contingent self-esteem. Malicious emotional manipulation was a positive predictor of threat to social cohesion for both men and women. For males, higher levels of both psychopathy and contingent self-esteem significantly predicted threat to social cohesion. The results suggest that socially cohesive environments may pose a threat to agency (power and achievement) in males at work.
The first unique finding of this thesis was that the construct of the dark side of emotional intelligence could be extended to the workplace. Second, trait psychopathy plays more of a role in emotional manipulation in females than males, suggesting the behaviour is more reflective of impaired interpersonal functioning. Third, a distinction can be made between more calculative uses of emotional manipulation for self-gain, and relationally aggressive behaviours that emerge after an incident between the target and perpetrator. Fourth, socially cohesive environments elicit stronger threat reactions in males with malevolent personality traits than in females, probably because men are more likely to value agentic rather than communal pursuits at work. An understanding that work processes (e.g., interventions, reward structures and organisation culture) are merely platforms for, or can even incentivise or encourage deviant behaviours, will help future victims and organisations manage emotionally manipulative behaviour.

Item Type: Thesis - PhD
Authors/Creators:Hyde, JL
Keywords: emotional manipulation, work place, dark triad, emotional intelligence
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