Work-Life Strategies & Solutions

On the Evolution of Work Systems in the Digital Economy

Dissecting the Manipulative Helper

As a break from the topic of technology-driven changes in work-life, let’s turn to a work-related subject that will likely remain intact: difficult people and, specifically, a type of difficult person who generally goes unnoticed and unchallenged – the manipulative helper.

Overtly difficult people are a pain but are easier to spot, evade, and take action against compared to ones wearing the mask of a benevolent helper. Essentially, manipulative “helpers” inflict damage and get away with it because they’re presumed to have good intentions. Recognizing such individuals will help you make informed decisions about who to spend time and energy cultivating professional relationships with and, hopefully, facilitate success in building a quality network.

Mean people


My goal in writing this isn’t to instill paranoia but to provide the means to distinguish between someone who is attuned to your best interests from someone who isn’t (or, alternatively, someone who thinks he/she has your best interests at heart but is swayed by self-interest and doesn’t recognize it). Upon encountering someone who shows signs of being a manipulative helper, the aim is to strike a balance between 2 extremes: (1.) making a snap judgment and (2.) investing too much time and energy into a dysfunctional relationship – paid for in terms of the opportunity cost of building relationships with more genuine people.

In a recent experience, I’ve erred on the side of #2. Upon this occasion, a friend pointed out that, although the questionable “helper” didn’t get anything out of me, I still wasted time. My friend has played strategy games with me extensively and knows I can spend an agonizingly long time assessing situations. So, I thought I should put some work into fully understanding the manipulative helper’s smarmy ways.

Having pored over all the information I could find about manipulative helpers, I offer the results of my personal research which include: (1.) potential motives, (2.) tips for recognizing “red flags” and handling the situation and (3.) a self-check section for those who’re open to investigating their own motives for wanting to help others.

Why would someone pretend to be a benevolent helper?

  • Motive #1: Establish unequal reciprocal relations or “giving to get” – The manipulator gives unsolicited gifts/help to elicit guilt and a sense of obligation out of others and establishes a relationship that’s balanced in the favor of the helper. “Giving to get” is apparent when the giver glosses over what your true needs are (even when you are communicating them) because the giver would rather perform a self-appointed easy task in order to curry favor with you. So, manipulators hastily give gifts/help based on superficial, unverified judgment of your needs and interests – nevermind that the gift/help is of little or no value to you (and even the little thought they put into it doesn’t count!). “Helpers” may then pressure you (e.g., “Hurry, I need it tomorrow!”) into fulfilling his/her greater demands, making sure to get exactly what they want (unfair huh?). If each party received exactly what’s desired then it’s a fair outcome.


  • Motive #2: Attempt to dominate and control another – The helper repeatedly foists unsolicited advice/help onto another in order to position him/herself as superior (the one who knows better). In doing so, the helper influences the perceptions of the person receiving the help to grant the helper dominion and, ultimately, control over the receiver of the help. (Note: I don’t fuss over unsolicited advice/help that is given once in a long while. It’s relentless barraging of unsolicited advice or help gives away the adviser/helper’s issue with trying to control others.)


  • Motive #3: Take credit for another’s accomplishments – The helper steals another’s “thunder” (i.e., take’s credit for your success). In this situation, the helper tries to fool observers into thinking your success is due to the helper’s contribution without giving effective help. Essentially, the helper is rewarded for “help” that didn’t take much effort and didn’t contribute much to your success. Read “Overhelping” by Daniel T. Gilbert and David H. Silvera for a full explanation of this concept.


  • Motive #4: Demotivate and disempower the target – This is a passive-aggressive move, spurred by jealousy, designed to bring the target down a notch or two. It involves helping someone so much that this saps motivation. This is a variation of #3, except the target comes to ascribe his/her own success to the helper’s effort rather than to his/her own ability and effort. Thus, this person can become dependent on the helper (like #2) or be less motivated to put future effort into the activity he/she would otherwise be performing to the fullest extent if the helper hadn’t intervened in the first place. This is similar to paying people to engage in an activity that is intrinsically rewarding. People then come to attribute enjoyment of the activity as being due to extrinsic rewards and lose their intrinsic interest and motivation to perform the activity.

Note: These aren’t mutually exclusive as a manipulative helper can have more than one motive for “helping.”

Tips for recognizing “red flags” and handling the situation

  1. Be observant – Pay attention to how they treat others.
  2. Listen and exercise self-control – Regulate the expression of emotional reactions and adopt a neutral, receptive stance. Don’t frown or make disapproving expressions/gestures when people share information that implicates themselves as manipulative helpers (e.g., describing or boasting about their social climbing or ingratiating techniques – they do slip up occasionally!). Don’t shut this flowing spigot of information off!
  3. Maintain a strong sense of personal boundaries, be assertive, and don’t be afraid to say “no.”

Manipulators exhibit a few key traits such as a need to control others or take indirect routes to get what they want – stemming from anxiety, insecurity, and, mayhaps, desperation. Also, they may exhibit an over-reliance on charm and charisma. Furthermore, they have a poor sense of personal boundaries and lack true consideration of others. They don’t know where you start and they end, so they don’t have qualms about relentlessly barging in with unsolicited help/advice or pressuring you to fulfill their requests.

Check your motives

Finally, if you are innocently trying to help others, don’t understand why they don’t appreciate your efforts, and wish to examine your motives, see “How to Help Someone Who Won’t Help Themselves” by By Lori Deschene and  “How You Can Help Too Much” by Cherilynn Veland, LCSW, MSW. Veland’s article is good, but a few points of departure here: (1.) this article applies to plenty of men along with many (but NOT all) women, (2.) nurturing tendency differences aren’t just due to training and socialization, and (3.) it’s not always the case that “there’s nothing wrong with helping.” Some situations call for “tough love” – when it’s truly best to step back and let the other party handle the problem (even if said party is asking you to intervene), and just because taking a course of action feels good doesn’t mean it’s the right course of action.

So, to my dedicated readers, there’s my monthly long post. Just wanted to make this information available to all who’re seeking it and didn’t realize how much I could babble about this topic. Just goes to show how much “mean people who disguise themselves as nice people” bother me.

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