Leadership and Manipulation: Donald Trump Case Study, Part 1
I get a lot of requests to write about Donald Trump’s personality. Let’s start with an update to two articles I wrote in 2016 during Donald Trump’s campaign for president.
Trump is good. I mean, really good. When it comes to imposing his will on others, without their awareness or permission, Trump is one of the best I’ve ever seen in this generation. Webster defines manipulation like this:
Manipulation is to control or play upon by artful, unfair, or insidious means especially to one’s own advantage.
At Next Element, we teach communication and conflict tools to help leaders better negotiate diversity and conflict. During our training and coaching programs when people begin to recognize the power of these tools to influence behavior, some get nervous and ask us if this isn’t just manipulation. Great question. The difference is that our methods are designed to support environments that are safe, curious, and consistent; just the opposite of manipulation.
The best defense against manipulation is awareness. To illustrate how manipulation works I’ve studied Donald Trump and identified six tactics. I describe the first three tactics in this post, the next three in next week’s Episode 2. With each, there’s a positive leadership lesson!
Oversimplify and Repeat
Oversimplifying complex issues invites people to think less, and respond more from their emotions, especially fear. Trump is a master of oversimplifying. “I’m going to build a wall and Mexico is going to pay for it,” is the oversimplified statement. The more complex version is, “I will reduce our trade deficit with Mexico by $10 billion, and use that extra revenue to pay for the wall.” The first statement invites strong emotional responses and polarization without meaningful dialogue, the second invites people to think.
Trump takes pride in his willingness to “tell it like it is” and rejects political correctness in his discourse. In principle, I admire that as well. However, many people will not be able to distinguish “telling it like it is” from “oversimplifying.”
Repeat, repeat, repeat. If you hear it enough times, it must be true, right? Listen to Trump in interviews, and pay special attention to how many times he repeats the oversimplified phrases, even within his answer to a single question.
Positive Leadership Lesson: Great leadership clarifies without oversimplifying, guides meaningful dialogue without shutting down conversation, and validates emotions instead of stoking fear.
Discount Others’ Reality
Manipulation relies on the other person questioning their perception of reality. This is one of the most powerful reasons that victims of abuse don’t leave; because they believe phrases like, “Nobody would love you,” or “No one would believe you.”
Trump’s version. “Nobody listens to you.” “Believe it or not, I’m more presidential than anyone except Abe Lincoln.” These phrases are insidious and powerful. The first one was aimed at a reporter. It was a personal attack aimed at discrediting him and getting the rest of us to believe his perspective was worthless. The second one, used frequently whenever someone questions Trump’s behavior, invites others to question their knowledge.
If anyone said, “I am more presidential than Abe Lincoln,” it would have much less impact than adding, “Believe it or not,” to the beginning. This subtle change sends the subliminal message, “It’s true and if you don’t believe it, you are the one who is stupid.” Ripley’s Believe It Or Not is a book of outrageous facts that most of us would never know are real. We accept them as true once we learn the facts to support it. Trump invites us to bypass our logical, curious brain and simply accept the assertion because it’s said with confidence and repeated.
Positive Leadership Lesson: Great leadership affirms instead of discrediting, promotes debate rather than shutting down dialogue, under-promises and over-delivers instead of making outrageous claims.
Interrupting is a classic manipulation technique because it is a coercive show of force to exert dominance. The most important outcome of interruption is that it stops any dialogue that challenges the manipulator’s position or questions their authority. Novice interruptors yield to their own impulses, interrupting simply because they can’t wait to talk or are feeling defensive. Skilled interruptors like Trump are much more tactical. Their interruption is carefully timed and executed for maximum intimidation.
Positive Leadership Lesson: Great leadership seeks first to understand and respects other perspectives even during disagreement.
Tune in next week to Episode 2 for the next three manipulation tactics and positive leadership lessons.