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Articles - Conflict and Confrontation in Family - Business

Recognizing manipulation can save the family business

Thursday, March 13, 2003



By Kathy J. Marshack, Ph.D., P.S., P.S.

How many of you will admit that you secretly admire the con artist? Even if you have been conned yourself, don't you think that the victims are just a little too naive? Don't you harbor just a little desire to get something for nothing just as the con does? Don't you wish you could be so clever?

The truth is that the con knows that you are not so different from him or her. The only real difference is that you have created an illusion that you are different, that you would never stoop to manipulation, that you would never willfully take advantage of another person. Because you are not so different, but are in denial about it, the con swoops in and relieves you of your money, your pride or your sense of safety.

I thought it might be interesting to look at the confidence game as it is played everyday in families and family firms throughout America. Snowing the ones you love creates incredible suffering not just in the short run but potentially for generations.

If you are to learn about the confidence game in your own family and family firm, the first thing you need to recognize is that you are just as capable as anyone of being manipulative. As difficult as it is to admit that we can be conned, it is even more difficult to admit that we can do the conning. However, the mark and the con are two sides of the same coin.

To investigate your manipulative qualities, ask yourself a few questions:

1. Are you in sales? 2. Does your business require that you use persuasion, diplomacy, and charm? 3. Have you ever lied? 4. Have you ever taken advantage of another's ignorance or naiveté? 5. Have you kept something you didn't pay for? 6. Have you ever cried in order to get your way? 7. Have you ever intimidated your opponent into capitulating? 8. Have you ever hurt someone else? 9. When you have hurt someone else, did you say, "I didn't mean to do it." 10. Have you kept a secret to avoid conflict? 11. Have you ever "dropped names"? 12. Have you ever changed the subject when the topic was too close for comfort? 13. Just once, was money your only concern?

The tools of persuasion, diplomacy and charm can be used ethically or unethically. They are like a hammer and screwdriver. The hammer and screwdriver can be used to build a house or to break into someone's home. The choice is up to the individual using the tools.


Likewise, persuasion, diplomacy and charm can be used to swindle or to negotiate a mutually rewarding settlement.

If you truly want to end the con game within your family firm, you need to take a look at your own manipulative nature. Being conscious of your own manipulations, even the ones that you didn't mean to do, allows you to be ethical. With consciousness comes choice. Choosing to be ethical in your communications and dealings with others requires that you take the time to understand others and to be understood fully. There is no room for conning. The risk of destroying trust is too great.

The word con is actually an abbreviation for confidence. Therefore the con game is really the confidence game. The success of the game is to create confidence within the victim for the manipulator.

By having confidence in the con artist, we are handing over our trust, or temporarily suspending our disbelief. No matter how outrageous the con's behavior, once that person has your trust and confidence, the con artist can have their way with you.

Some of you may already know some of the signals of a scam and pride yourself on escaping. Some of the less well-known signals are more intuitive, however.

Feeling ashamed is a signal of manipulation. Feeling impressed or awed is another one. Feeling special or flattered by attention from someone you hardly know is a giveaway. An obvious clue to a con game is when there is no pay off to you. A little trickier is recognizing that you are being used when you are doing more work than the other person in the relationship. When the other person never seems to come through for you, but always has a good excuse, you can be sure you are being manipulated.


Less recognizable are the signals that you are doing the manipulation. But an easy test is to ask yourself how you would feel if the tables were turned. For example, when you hear those words "I didn't mean to, " how does it make you feel? Do you feel mad, confused, trapped? As much as forgiveness is a virtue, so is taking responsibility for one's mistakes and correcting them.

The person who uses the "I didn't mean it" con game is not taking full responsibility for their error. It's as if no wrongdoing was done if the person I didn't mean to. So the next time those words start forming on your lips, stop and make a straightforward apology for your actions and offer to clean up the problem, whether you committed the deed accidentally or intentionally.

Another way to investigate your own manipulative nature is to ask others how they feel. In a family this is a perfectly legitimate question. Because you may be hot on an idea and have charmingly persuaded everyone else to cooperative with you, does not mean they all agree with you.

Check it out. If you have bullied the others into submission, or charmed them into acquiescing, but deep down inside they do not agree, what kind of agreement do you really have? How much support are you really going to get in the long run? Do you really have your family's trust or are they just afraid of you?

Recently I met a very well known and successful businessman who is unaware of his covert con game. He is charming, persuasive and has many followers who agree with his every word, including family members. He makes frequent and generous promises which he does not fulfill. He keeps lunch dates waiting for hours. He jokes about his lack of follow through because he is such a busy man. He makes expensive propositions to others as if he is interested in partnering, yet he never puts his checkbook on the line. His behavior is so outrageous that it is amazing that others do not catch onto him. But the truth is the worst con artist is the one who believes in his or her own scam.

If your goal is to make a lot of money or to have a lot of power, and you don't care how you do it, then there is no point in your reading this article. But if you truly want to prosper as a family as well as a family in business, then it requires time to clean up the covert confidence games that are played at home and at work with the ones you love.