12 Ways Companies Manipulate Employees (W/ Examples)

Corporations lie and manipulate.

HR lies and manipulates.

And your boss lies and manipulates.

But The Power Moves is on your side.
And this article blows the whistle on corporate manipulation strategies, HR lies, and bosses’ machinations.

batman with the power moves logo

#1. Employees Matter

This is the most common and most pervasive corporate lie.

There is no HR department in the world that wouldn’t tell you that employees matter.
But that doesn’t make it any truer.

Why It’s A Lie

Says Dan Rust, author of Workplace Poker:

It’s not employees who matter, it’s the output of the employees that matters.

Big difference.

Remove the output and the employee becomes a cost. And then you will see how much you really “matter”.

hr manipulative quotes
= make them feel good, and they’ll build your business (for a pittance)

In my experience, there seems to be a connection between how menial a job is and how much hot air HR spouts about “talent” and “employees’ satisfaction”.

As a student, I had a brief stint in Infosys BPO, and if there is such a thing as a “monkey job”, that’s BPO (BPO stands for “business process outsourcing”).
And I have never heard as much crap about employees’ talent and skills since my BPO monkey days.

The funniest thing though?
The number of people who actually believed those corporate lies.

Manipulation Explained

We all have in-built mechanisms for “social accounting” (law of social exchange) and for reciprocation (Cialdini, 1984).

If the company can make us feel like they care for us, then we must reciprocate to rebalance the account.

And just like that, with a few empty slogans and some discount vouchers, companies turn 9 to 5 captives into happy and loyal corporate flunkies.

Example: Ray Kroc & McDonald

Ray Krok famously said that your business is only as good as the people you hire.

Which, on average, makes sense.
Yet, coming from Kroc, it’s the perfect example of how manipulative corporations really are.

ray kroc HR lie
Says McDonald founder and minimum wage skirter Ray Kroc

One of McDonald’s entries in the “mission and values” says:

We provide opportunity, nurture talent, develop leaders and reward achievement.

Of course, facts tell a very different story.
McDonald lost countless lawsuits for wage theft and university research showed that fast-food workers earn so little that many of them depend on government welfare to survive (which is the equivalent of saying that taxpayers are subsidizing McDonald’s profits).

There is one McDonald’s initiative that deserves a special note though.
I think the guys at corporate McDonald’s wanted to take the above Kroc’s quote literally.
But instead of elevating their hires to the high-quality company they wanted, they lowered McDonald’s communication to the low wages they offer.
And in a colossal brain fart, they offered the following tips to help their minimum wage employees make ends meet:

  • Return unopened purchases
  • Break food into pieces to feel fuller
  • Quit complaining or you only raise your stress hormones’ levels

What a great employer: first gives you a job and then teaches you how to survive with it.

#2. “We’re A Team”

This is so pervasive that most people even fail to see its manipulative side.

After all, teamwork is important for the success of corporations and individuals alike.
But there is a trade-off between the two.

And those who can see the dual nature of the teamwork best position themselves to win the career contest.

Why It’s A Lie

There are good reasons to be team players.

But there is also much gain from selfishness (for more on “public good games” read Thaler, 2015).

And guess who gains the most from which?
Team orientation benefits the corporation, while selfishness benefits the individual.

Many individuals fail to realize this basic truth because nobody is openly selfish. That would be a very poor strategy.
But the most Machiavellian players profess team-playing values, while maximizing for themselves.

This is the complete description of team-work for the more astute Machiavellian player:

We’re a team… Of selfish individuals who must hide their selfish drives with teamwork appearances

The most successful political operators indeed play a bit for the team, pretend to play a lot for the team… And they mostly maximize their own interest.

And look at this quote to see that’s not even morally objectionable:

andrew carnegie teamwork quote
=directing individuals’ accomplishments to my objectives

Here is the caveat: the “organizational objectives” are, of course, Andrew Carnegie’s objective.
And the same is true for every business owner.
Being a team player benefits the owner far more than it benefits the individual.
And that’s why corporates all over the world push the “team player” mantra (= be a good working bee for us).

When Team Culture Masks Abuse

There can be strong conflicts of interest between teams and individuals.

And when the “team culture” is taken to the extreme, it can be used as justification to abuse the individual.

  • The miners complain about dangerous working conditions? It’s not good for the whole Rio Tinto, fire them.
  • The unionists complain of wages too low to live? Not good for Carnegie’s steel company, hire the goons to break the strike.

Ray Dalio also takes an extreme “team first” position in his acclaimed “Principles“, where he basically says that:

What’s good for the whole is good
Ray Dalio

Ray Dalio’s team-first approach could easily become abusive towards the individual.

But of course Dalio prefers that approach: he is the owner.
Ray Dalio is the owner of that whole, which makes him a slightly biased source (being ironic there).

Owners are inherently biased towards the whole because they own the whole.

And what’s good for the whole is not necessarily good for you.
As a matter of fact, this “team first” value could easily justify cruelty and abuse towards the individuals.
We have seen it played out in history a number of times already. For example, the Jews were supposedly not good for the whole nation. So… Eliminate them.

Here is the same law re-written from a more cynical -but realistic- point of view:

What’s good for the whole is good for the owner
The Power Moves

Manipulation Explained

Allow me some quick theory.

Group selection is controversial in evolutionary psychology (Pinker, 2012).
But, from an organizational point of view, it’s fair to assume that groups with selfless individuals outperform groups where individuals pursue more selfish strategies (Sloan, 2007).

And that’s exactly what organizations angle for when they push team values.

The corporate incitement for teamwork seeks to discourage more individualistic pursuits which might be good for the individual but bad for the company.

Organizations with 100% selfless individuals promote the corporation’s success -and increase its bottom line-.
The whole -and the owner- wins.
But it’s all to be seen whether or not the individual also benefits from a selfless strategy.

The question then becomes whether the corporation returns the favor and shares the spoils.
In simple words: does a winning corporation fairly rewards its selfless employees?
Generally speaking, don’t count on it.
People -and owners- often being selfish, it’s often a very small trickle that seeps down the chain.

trickle down theory

Instead, you’re probably better off learning office politics and actively seeking as much of those spoils as possible.
Which, incidentally, might be the best way to address economic inequality.

The best way to address large-scale social-economic inequality is at the individual level, with individual’s empowerment

The Power Moves

Example: Howard Schulz & Starbucks

There are countless examples.

One of my favorite though is Howard Schulz, founder of Starbucks and author of “Onward“.

In “Onward” Schulz makes a big show of loving his people.

Schulz was in so much pain for having to fire his beloved staffers. You know, for Howard they were family.

Yet, he did do fire a whole bunch of them.
And then did it again.

There is nothing inherently wrong with having to fire people.
Businesses exist to turn a profit, and would disappear if forced to operate at a loss.
But when you talk about family and “standing together”, and then you fire your own family members… Then you also realize that the family and standing together thing is a big con.

Schulz also thought that really good teams don’t need unions (unions defend workers’ interests).
And he always ferociously fought to keep unions away from Starbucks.
Basically, he said:

Since I love you guys, I forbid you to join union and seek a better bargain.

Nice manipulative trick to keep all the bargaining power on his side.

pamphlet against starbucks titled "help us take the bitterness out of starbucks coffee"

#3. We’re A Dream Team

The next step from “we’re a team”.

In the overzealous efforts of celebrating victories and hiding defeats management loves to gush how great the team is.

Easy manipulation, since people love it too. Everyone wants to be a dream player part of a dream team.

Why It’s A Lie

The “we’re so great” corporate BS is common.

Yet, it doesn’t mathematically add up.
Dream teams are, by definition, a minority.

Simple math then tells us that most execs are lying with the “great team talk”.

So here is a quick litmus test against condescending execs: how much are you being paid?

It’s only a dream team if everyone’s on a dream salary

If you are at around the market salary, then you’re not in a dream team.
No shame in that. It just means that you’re being the victim of another corporate lie.

Manipulation Explained

How does this technique work?

In two ways:

  1. Make people feel good for being part of a special team, and they will work harder to keep up that flattering reality
  2. Set yourself up as a good judge, and people will work to avoid feeling like “not good enough for your expectations”

The latter is called “attribution”.
Research has proven that attribution is a highly effective technique to improve performance (Miller, 1975).

What does it mean, more practically?
That when you tell people they are good, you incentivize them to be good (ie.: work hard), so they can confirm the expectations and feel good about it.

In other words: people tend to rise to the level of expectations.
This is a technique Carnegie also recommends in his classic “How to Win Friends and Influence People“.

Finally, assessing people’s performance also leverages what I refer to as “judge frames”. Judge frames increase the soft power that managers have on employees.
Also read:

Example: Pixar & Ed Catmull

Ed Catmull is the former CEO of Pixar and author of Creativity Inc.

Catmull prided himself on “having institutionalized creativity”.
His job, he said, was to hire the best talent and remove the barriers to creativity.

I quote him:

What is the point of hiring smart people if you don’t empower them to fix what’s broken?

Probably Catmull didn’t think his employees’ salary needed any fixing and he took it upon himself to ensure their wages stayed below market value.

Catmull insists he did it for the “long term good of the company”.
What a real leader!

scene from toy story with caption

Jesse: This isn’t a family! This is a prison! You’re a liar and a bully!

Jesse in Toy Story 3 might have as well addressed his creators’ CEO.

#4. We’re A Family

This is the advanced manipulation level of “we’re a team”.

You can see it more often in early-stage startups (and in mafia-like organizations).
Enter shared values, field trips, drinking together and, of course, “changing the world together”.

Part of the “we’re a family manipulation” include:

  • Using inclusive names for low-level employees (ie.: “partners” for baristas in Starbucks and “associates” for Walmart)
  • Management’s big show of openness (ie.: open-door policies, dressing down, talking informally, etc.)
  • Easy-going, anti-hierarchical attitude (“bring your whole self to work”, you know, “just be yourself within the family”)
  • “Hip” job titles (“ninja”, “hacker”, “customer happiness”)
  • Informal attire (just come as you just left your sleeping room)

BTW, about the latter, if you want to test start-up open-mindedness, try to go to work with a suit and see what happens (hint: they’re not gonna be very open-minded about that).

Why It’s A Lie

It’s not a family.

As simple as that.

You can change titles, clothes, or keep your door open, but the fundamentals dynamics of power don’t change.
And the power dynamics in companies have nothing in common with families.

One above all: bosses fire employees. Families don’t fire family members.

team work companies lies
Ants die for their queen ant. Be my guest…

Manipulation Explained

The “family manipulation” arches back to evolutionary psychology.

We are all hardwired to break our backs for our families because we share a large chunk of our genetic coding with them (Hamilton, 1964).

And that’s what corporations are trying to do.
By framing workplaces like families corporations seek to encourage in their (disposable) employees the same level of affiliation and dedication that they have for their families.

Of course, the biggest beneficiaries of the family frame are owners, CEOs and company leaders.
As a rule of thumb, the higher the manager, the bigger his incentive to play the family card (and the more likely it is that it’s all a big lie).

Example: Peter Thiel Encourages Founders To Act Like Mafia

The PayPal mafia
Corbis/The Telegraph

If you think I’m exaggerating, take a leaf from Peter Thiel’s book.

Peter Thiel is a famous entrepreneur and founder of PayPal, and he encourages founders to seek a culture that resembles a cult or mafia.
One of the chapter’s titles is, verbatim: “mechanics of mafia”.

Not by accident, the mafia calls itself “la famiglia”, or “the family”. That’s an effort to evoke a superior sense of belonging from its members.

See an example from The Godfather himself:

Godfather: but don’t ever take sides against the family again (ie.: the family loves you… But only long as you do whatever it’s good for the family)

Remember this: when an owner says the organization comes first, they are telling you that you are expendable.

So watch out for those “family” talk because family-first organizations require lots of sacrificial lambs on the altar of profit.

#5. Lofty Goals (Improving The World?)

We are in the era of “Start With WHY” and moonshots.

Nobody is out to win and succeed for themselves. And nobody wants the limelight because of their narcissistic tendencies.
And God forbid if any entrepreneur wants to make money.

No, today everyone wants to change the world for the better or, in millennia’s parlance, “want to make an impact”.

Why It’s A Lie

Guys, it’s simple:

It’s either we all turned into transcendental creatures who all outgrew their natural and inner selfish drives, or… Someone is lying.

Even the worst narcissists and sociopaths these days use this front.
Tai Lopez, for example, wants to help people (and not finance his fetish for sportscars).
And even Elizabeth Holmes, the fraudster CEO of Theranos, said that it’s not about the money but the vision.

Manipulation Explained

Why do corporate want to frame their missions with lofty ideals?

Well, for one, because the owner looks better.
You know, kinder and prosocial, rather than selfish.

And second, psychology research tells us that intrinsic motivators like higher goals and ideals can drive people more powerfully than extrinsic motivators such as money and benefits (Daniel Pink, 2011).

That’s great news for employers, who are now all busy concocting grand visions to help the world.
With lofty missions, companies can pay less money, while getting more dedication.

This technique seems to work especially well with millennials, a generation packed with well-meaning simpletons who seek to “make a positive impact” (what does that even mean?).

sociopath elizabeth holmes lies
When you have big dreams to impact the world… There are no limits to hypocrisy

What a win-win!
Stephen Covey would be proud.
The employers win. And the manipulated employees feel like they’re winning.

Example: Bill Gates Helps The World… But Is Ruthless With The Competition

Bill Gates vision was that of a “PC in every desk and in every home” to make the world more productive.

And today Bill Gates cures diseases to make the world a better place with his Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

I am grateful for Gates’ work, but it’s rare that you will meet any dominant business leader who’s not ruthless and cunning.
And Gates is no exception.
Several memoirs of tech leaders who competed against Microsoft (like Ben Horowitz) tell us that Bill Gates went out of his way to squash them.
It was either “accept my offer, or I’ll lose money to drive you out of business”. Talking about “offers you can’t refuse”.
And Gates also officially fell out of the law when he settled for Microsoft’s abuse of monopoly power.

And, like pretty much all corporations, he does his best to avoid taxes:

Gates might want to cure malaria. But he surely doesn’t want to pay one more cent in taxes. 

#6. “It’s Not About Me, The Owner”

“It’s about you, dear employees”.


It’s about the mission, and you, dear employees, are making it happen

You will see the self-effacing manipulation with very charismatic or very powerful founders who tend to hog all the attention.

What they do then is to play the self-effacing game to avoid being branded like the power-hungry and narcissist individuals they probably are.

There are two types of self-effacing manipulation:

  1. “it’s not about me, it’s about the vision”
  2. “it’s not about me, it’s about the people”

Why It’s A CEO Lie

People who become CEOs and work all the time are usually highly driven to succeed, win, and dominate.

Sure, some of them also have a vision that includes others, but it all starts with the self.

Elizabeth Holmes, our example of self-effacing business leader, wrote at 9 years old she wanted to discover “something that mankind didn’t think it was possible to do”.
That’s not the behavioral cue of modesty. That’s the cue of unbridled personal ambition.

Manipulation Explained

The self-effacing manipulator aims at becoming a transcendental type of leader.

Indeed the archetypes of the self-effacing leaders are often found in pro-social religions.
Jesus Christ was a self-effacing leader who not only sought no (apparent) credit but literally carried the cross for all his disciples.

How can we not love the leaders that do it all for us?
They almost seem too good to be true.

Well, turns out, some are too good to be true!

Similar self-effacing figures in popular folklore are Robin Hood, Don Quixote and Che Guevara who, on paper, fought for the people.

Example: Elizabeth Holmes

Listen to how Holmes self-effaces:

Elizabeth Holmes: We have a belief system that it is not about us or about technology but about giving people a basic right

Little later people found out that Holmes defrauded not only investors and partners, but also the patients whom she so touchingly wanted to help.

If you have read “Bad Blood“, then you know that Holmes was possibly a sociopath or psychopath.
Yet the deeper question here is: is she an exception or is she just the most blatant example?

#7. We Care About Stakeholder, Not Just Shareholders

In this day and age, it’s not about the shareholders anymore.
It’s all about stakeholders and society at large.

Here are the stakeholders:

  • Employees
  • Customers
  • Society
  • Environment

The last one is particularly popular today.
Even fossil fuel companies joined the (green) party:

corporate environmental lies

When Shell joins the Green planet movement, you know someone is taking you for a ride.

Manipulation Explained

Companies care about profits.
And since these days showing an environment-friendly facade helps to sell well, companies have adapted.

Needless to say, that facade is often more marketing than facts.

As this European Commission study shows, 60% of shoppers prefer to buy environment-friendly products, but corporate information is so misleading that, I quote:

European consumers are not able to make an informed choice (of what’s real or fake environment-friendly).

Where Is The Manipulation

Same as consumers, employees want to feel like they are good and caring human beings.
Cognitive dissonance (Festinger, 1957) then dictates that working for unethical companies would make them feel bad.

So companies feed employees just what they want to hear (ie.: the goody-good ethical hypocrisy).

Example: Phil Knight & Nike

I quickly went through “Shoe Dog“, Phil Knight’s autobiography.

Phil Knight says that he rented sweatshops “just like any other business did”.

And then he adds that they went after him because Nike provided a better target.
Which is the equivalent of saying:

Everyone was a POS so I thought it was OK to be a POS and now everyone is on my case becuase I’m famous

Knight is reminiscent of the Nazi excuse “I was just following orders”.
But instead of following orders, he was following the rather amoral business diktat of squeezing as much profit as possible.

And there is nothing inherently wrong with wanting to maximize profits.
It just feels next-level self-manipulation when in that same book Knight prides himself on treating his sponsor athletes “like real people” and not as a “conduit to earn more”.
Wow, how nice!
Millionaire athletes must have been so touched by Knight’s niceness.

Maybe the kids in the sweatshops wished he had just extended that kindness one little step further.

#8. We Win Together – Or Lose Together

Businesses love to talk up and celebrate “team victories”.

And often you win and lose together, that’s true.

But the consequences of both wins and losses couldn’t look any more different for owners, CEOs, and employees.

Why It’s A Lie

When the team loses the CEO gets a golden handshake and you get the sack.

When the “team” wins, the big shareholders get the cash and you get a pat on the back, a pittance and a useless corporate party that will steal even more of your personal time.

huge yacht and small boat
It’s not about winning “together”, it’s about the split of the spoils

Manipulation Explained

Research shows that groups prefer leaders who seem similar and closer to the group they lead.

And the opposite is also true: the further removed and privileged the leader seems, the less the followers want to sacrifice themselves for the group (Haslam et. al., 2006).

This can create problems for modern corporate leaders.
Much social psychology research also shows that men become more risk-seeking and prone to rioting when they feel like they are not given an equal chance in life (Hopkins, 2013).

But people on top don’t like unrest and risk-taking men and they’d rather have an obedient and submissive workforce.

When corporate leaders say or imply you all win together, they are trying to pre-emptively stave off all thoughts of unfairness to make you feel you’re all on the same boat.

Finally, by talking about “togetherness”, leaders try to position themselves as part of the in-group.
And leaders who are part of the ingroup enjoy a much stronger leadership and command a much more loyal followership (see Haslam, 2001) -at least among the most gullible majority-.

Example: Walmart & Sam Walton

Sam Walton was a ruthless money-grubber and faced much criticism for the way he treated his workforce.

Until, he says in his memoirs “Made in America“, he had a revelation while traveling in England.

Walton decided Walmart would consider its employees as associates and would let them part of the company’s success through stock-sharing options.

How nice what Walton says.

Critics, who also have facts on their side, are not nearly as celebratory.
Walmart paid 352 million to settle 63 lawsuits over wages, including forcing employees to work off the clock.

And Walmart employees are so poorly compensated that the state of California alone pays them $86 million a year in financial subsidies and food stamps.

Maybe money can’t buy you love, but Walmart employee’s stock options can’t even buy you food.

#9. We Work Hard, Play Hard

If you worked in startups, you probably heard this.

And you know what this picture means:

manipulative startup "work hard, play harder" slogan written on whiteboard

Startup Manipulation Explained

It works like this:

  1. Positioning to attract young grads: Youngsters have a bigger “leisure drive” (Aarsen, 2007), and startups position themselves as “cooler” places for fun, which helps them attract young talent out of university
  2. Subtle frame of “giving your all”: The slogan promotes a “hard & fast lifestyle” that is all about “giving it one’s all”, squeezing youngsters at the peak of their availability (biggest beneficiary being the company, of course, since you work far more than you party)
  3.  Social scalping: From a social exchange point of view, they promote your giving (hard-work), while not pledging anything (it’s not “work hard, make a lot money”, mind you, it’s “work hard, play hard”. The company pitches nothing)

The manipulation is still the same: squeezing the most output possible from employees, while giving back as little as possible.

To keep the charade, the founders might buy some games and beers for the office and once a year throw a company party with the cheapest booze and food they can find.
Those parties were great learning experiences for me. The managers getting sleazy and sloppy with the pretty -or less unattractive- female employees was one of the reasons why I knew I had to forge my own way in business.

Worst part?
You might have to attend the sleaze-fest or you’re not part of the “company family”.

My advice is to attend that party, have fun, and pretend to buy into the manipulative “work hard, play harder” mantra.

But deep down, know the truth.

And the only hard partying is what the founders and shareholders engage in, including top booze, maybe cocaine, and probably top-shelf hookers, too.
What they throw for the company’s rank and file is just a front -often, on the cheap-.

#10. We Are Driven By Values

My first company had it in its tagline:

Driven by values

Every single company today lists values and beliefs.
And they always sound so good and inspiring, don’t they?

Why It’s A Lie

An organization is an inanimate construct, it has no values in and on itself.

The values you read are either:

  • What the founder liked most -or, more commonly, what make him sound good-
  • The values that better serve the business

So values are either there because the founder wishes he had them, or because they’re good for the bottom line.

Manipulation Explained

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs postulates that we strive for higher ideals once our most basic needs are met.

So once the organization takes care of the basic needs with a salary that is as small as it can get away with, the higher-ideal manipulations begin.

Company’s values appeal to our higher selves and have three objectives:

  1. Make employees work harder as they (falsely) believe they’re contributing to some common “good”
  2. Make employee more loyal
  3. Make employee less selfish and more pro-social (good for the organization)
  4. Increase the sense of homogeneity and like-mindedness among members

The last one is interesting.
If we believe we share similar values, it means we’re alike. And since we like people who are like us (Cialdini, 1984), you become a better team player (again, good for the corporation).

Finally, even money-driven companies without values are replacing your values.
As Storr explains in his analysis of status and groups, even industries that value money such as banking and law create a money-driven culture that assigns status to the hardest workers and to the biggest earners.
Since we are social animal, everyone working in those organizations naturally tend to take over the same values. Result… They value and chase money, and work accordingly.
Yes, in those cases the employee may profit financially, but… At the cost of losing his own values, and toiling his life away for the organization.

And the ultimate winner is always the organization.

Case Study: Goldman Sachs & The Muppets

Goldman Sachs, the most (in)famous Wall Street investment bank lists among its core values:

  • Integrity
  • Honesty
  • Putting the clients’ interests first

How surprising to find out that Goldman’s bankers internally referred to clients as “muppets”.
How even more surprising that a few years prior Goldman Sachs settled a 550 million fine with SEC regulators for, in fact, swindling their clients with the cr@ppy subprime CDOs which fueled the financial crisis.

What Machiavellian Bankers Show Us

Funny thing:

Goldman Sachs runs employees’ surveys.
And the results at the time of writing this article showed that none of the employees picked transparency and integrity as the highest value and they all picked “teamwork and winning”.
LOL, What a nice move to put “teamwork” next to “winning” -“How to Lie With Statistics“, anyone?-.

GS shows that in an environment of selfish Machiavellis people know the rule:

Pay lip service to the higher ideals and focus on amassing resources.

#12. We Make An Impact (Build A Legacy With Us)

Maslow was a smart guy, but he missed a few important human drives.

One of them is the “legacy drive” (Aarsen & Altman, 2006).

Indeed, some of the most powerful values one can summon are transcendental.

Appeals to eternity leverage our unconscious wish of transcending the physical world, contributing to something eternal.
Few are frank enough to admit it because, unconsciously, they are afraid of how narcissistic that would sound -a mistake based on not accepting one’s darker drives, by the way-.

The “making an impact” that we saw earlier is an example of an appeal to eternity.
When we “make an impact” and we “leave a dent in the universe”, people feel like they’re defying death.

Some appeals to eternity are:

  • “Changing the world”
  • Disrupting
  • “Moonshots” (see popular speaker Peter Diamandis)
  • Anything that’s “never been done before”
  • Working on the “biggest / most advanced” project etc.

Why It’s A Lie

I can tell you with almost complete certainty that no human being will ever be remembered forever.

And the idea of “changing the world” is ludicrous. The world changes anyway, and any changes are nothing but transitions.

In short, the goal of “being remembered forever” is not only aggressively narcissistic, but it’s also plain stupid.

And no, that’s not sad.
Quite the opposite: it’s empowering and liberating (and it helps you break free of manipulative leaders).

Manipulation Explained

We are the only animals on this planet who are aware of our own mortality.

That must impact our psychology and behavior somehow, and terror management theory is a branch of social psychology researching exactly that.

TMT has received its fair share of criticism, but it has passed laboratory scrutiny (Burke et al., 2010) and it’s solid science.

TMT postulates that the conflict between self-preservation and our cognition of death pushes us to unconsciously pursue values, ideals, and goals that make us transcend the physical realm.

Burkeman in “The Antidote” says that people primed with subtle reminders of death:

There you have it: seek a charismatic leader, defend the group and punish outsiders.
The definition of a sect.

And that’s why conservative leaders also leverage the fear of physical harm and death: it rallies the troops behind the (supposedly) strong and charismatic politicians (Bush the Vietnam war’s skirter in military uniform, anyone?).

These are all behaviors that corporations would be happy with. Act like a sect, follow the leader and give your all… For eternity -and for the founders’ more physical income-.

TMT theory has been used to explain the birth and persistence of religions.
And that’s why, in many ways, No Logo author Naomi Klein was quite right and prescient when she said that the best brands are the new religions (brain scans confirmed it too, eventually).

Example: Steve Jobs & Elon Musk

Steve Jobs was the master of this corporate manipulation.

Everything about Jobs was about “changing the world”, “making an impact” and “putting a dent in the universe”.

steve jobs most persuasive quote

By reflection, people who joined Apple as employees were also part of that “universe dent”.
They also “changed the world” and they all put in their (futile) claim to eternity.

Elon Musk also leverages appeals to eternity.
The whole spiel on “making us an interplanetary species” is a big moonshot at “making history”.
And people really get stupid trying to join Musk’s team. That’s the power of the charismatic, death-defying leader.

Do All Employers Manipulate?


But so does pretty much everyone else.
The very human nature of maximizing one’s own returns leads most humans to be natural manipulators (Wright, 1994).

Better questions would be:

  • Do corporations manipulate more than individuals?

Still yes.

Corporations gain when individuals forego their interest for the corporation, which makes manipulation a survival need and a competitive advantage for corporations.

Plus, by their own very organized structure and by virtue of the people they attract in leadership roles, corporations can manipulate more effectively and at a larger scale than individuals can.

  • Do all corporations take advantage of employees?

That depends on what one would consider a “fair” and “non-abusive exchange”.

Your best bet is always to put negotiation leverage on your side though.
Because, given the chance, most corporations do try to keep as much as possible and give out as little as possible.

  • Should employees always be wary of their own employers?

There is a natural, opposing duality in the relationship between organizations and employees.

Both can be better off cooperating and, often, both are better off.

Ideally, there would be a fair 50/50 split for the pie.

But, like in a public goods game, either one -but not both- can be much better off by taking more of the pie and short-changing the other.

The human tendency is to always take more and give less, but without exaggerating too much (see various experiments of ultimatum games).
But some bad apples, of course, will try to take much more and give much less.

Employees must be aware of this potentially adversarial relationship.

  • Do leaders roles go to the worst of human beings?

No, not necessarily.

Driven, and even driven to get rich, is not synonymous with “bad”.
Driven men are the men who move the world forward. Without them, we’d be still stuck in stone-age.
We need driven people.

But it’s also true that ruthless and Machiavellian individuals can have an easier time climbing corporate ladders (see: Machivellis at the top).

Albert dunlap with lion
“Chainsaw” Albert Dunlap

This all might point to an even deeper question: is it even moral to work for corporations?

The Morality of Corporations Over Individuals

This is what we gleaned so far:

  1. Many CEOs are self-absorbed individuals who care little about others, yet
  2. Corporate manipulation is all about getting employees to forego their self-interest for the group’s allegiance (depersonalization, in psychology)

Let’s be clear about something: getting people to care about the group can be a very good thing.
It is, after all, what holds our societies together and it’s often a win-win.

But selfish leaders can also leverage group allegiances for darker purposes.

Whether it’s used for good or for the founders’ personal gains only depends on how the employer rewards the employees for foregoing the self in favor of the organization.
I don’t know the specifics of your company and it’s your responsibility to judge your own company.

And I underline “responsibility”.

So take a hard look.
What’s behind your company’s slogans and values?

And don’t forget to contribute

Finally, lemme clarify that this article is not an encouragement to expect a salary without giving back.

Expecting strangers to care for you without giving back is the definition of free-loading -and one of the worst examples of entitlement mentality-.

My recommendation is that you focus on giving while critically observing your work environment and assertively demanding a fair balance of give and take.

If you don’t see a fair environment or if your fair demands are not met, then consider you might be doing something better with your time.


There are many areas of potential conflicts of interest in work relationships.

Organizations tend to manipulate employees into dropping their individual interests in favor of the group’s interests.

That’s not always necessarily wrong.

But it’s often the case that the company gains with the employee’s pro-social behavior while the employee does not always gain in equal measure.

This article is high in cynicism.
It helps you uncover the reality of things beyond corporate lies and HR manipulations.
But don’t go to the other extreme.
Instead, use it to critically assess your company and find a place where you can play win-win.

Ultimately, you want to be an “enlightened cynic” approach, you want to be an enlightened individualist, and move towards “enlightened collaboration” for win-win.

For reality-based career strategies, see Power University

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