Manipulate to Coach? NO!

One of my colleague quoted a paragraph from Jurgen Appelo’s “How to Change the World” mini-book, and questioned that “how to tweak the environment to manipulate people’s behavior?” and trigger a fierce discussion. The quote as below:

Self-organization happens within a boundary (FIGURE 17). The environment constrains and influences how people behave. And you can tweak the environment. Therefore, when you manipulate the environment, you automatically also manipulate the behavior of people.

Here might be one web link related with the quote itself:

I believe that environment does “affect” people: “This is true. E.g. there were scientific experiments shown that, just turning on more lights or later turn off some lights would have a big impact on worker’s productivity. And for software teams, the book “Beautiful Teams” also shared similar stories, that e.g. arrange the pantry or toilet in the middle of office space would increase the interactions among engineers, and it helps with the communication flow, and after they restructured the office design, productivity dropped.”

To my understanding, “direct” and “manipulate” are different, directing is more about provide the information and lead, while manipulating is more about getting people to a direction without really knowing why. Manipulation is somehow a bit non-ethic. For the manipulation part, I listed a Chinese book  《厚黑学》. For more about how environment influence people’s behavior, I would suggest the movie :

Giving people different titles would affect their behaviors too.

Ari Pekka Skarp said he “places more emphasis on the dialogue / social constructionism, while Jurgen seems to utilize more systems thinking. I think there is a place for both thinking.” He mentioned his blog entry “Three ways of thinking about organizations” during the discussion. He argues that “it isn’t really the setup that changes the behavior, it is more about what they think is the meaning of the change.”.

My opinion is, even though the end-result does is not really predictable, but could be directed. Like in Ikea shop, you could really predict how people walk through the shop, but they made its layout in a way that people would tend to choose the root Ikea preferred. If we change the environment, and intentionally leave people limited choices or the most biased choice, they’ll most probably choose that one. Even though at the same time we provided other choices, check the pricing model of some newspapers e.g. hardcopy $10/month, e-version $7.5/month, hardcopy+e-version $10/month. You could influence and direct people’s decision. While this kind of solution is too purposed, and I considered it as manipulation. I prefer to not use it, coz myself don’t like to be manipulated by others. (while been directed is acceptable.) The reason I don’t like manipulate people is, it may works for short term benefit, but it might hurt the long-term relationship. E.g. if I manipulate the teams I’m supporting, while they found out they’re manipulate later, I’ll be doomed.

In the book <Agile Coaching>, Rachel Davies also shared her opinion on this:

Some coaching techniques we read about could be labeled “manipulative.” For instance, you might deliberately make a mistake to draw in the person who you’re working with to correct it. I prefer to avoid such ploys and be transparent about what I’m doing. A different way of encouraging someone to do the same thing is to say, “Now that I’ve written a few story tests, it’s your turn.”

Well, if you ask me should we manipulate people while coaching? I would say NO! NEVER!


Xu Yi is a professional Agile & Lean Coach, check out more at

Posted in Agile, Englist Post
2 comments on “Manipulate to Coach? NO!
  1. A-P Skarp says:

    I was trained in a family therapy tradition, which utilizes a systemic view to therapy. My teacher used to use the phrase “Can I manipulate you a little?” in his work with clients. Then he proceeded with making some interpretations and giving different viewpoints to them. I think that is a very effective and transparent – ethical – way to do it.

    So I agree with Liz that it is possible and often even desirable to try to consciously affect the thinking and acting of the clients. However, my values say that it is best to do it transparently. In that way you are empowering the clients and not making them dependent on your interventions. This is the reason I included this as one of the principles in “Wu Wei Coaching”:

  2. Liz Keogh says:

    Fascinating. You’ve prompted me to ask a question about this word on the English Stack Exchange:

    I’m quite manipulative, but I tend to do it explicitly, letting people know what psychological tools I’m using (Benjamin Mitchell would be proud of me) and pretty much always for other people’s benefit (I’m a professional Agile coach).

    For me, manipulation is the difference between doing what seems *right*, and doing what’s *effective*. I’ve found that it’s usually just as effective to let people know why you’re behaving a certain way, using certain terms, etc., but often there isn’t time to do this at every single interaction. Usually, my efforts are directed at showing people choices they may not have thought of before (thus changing their environment). I can’t imagine any situation in which opening up more choice to people is a Bad Thing.

    I also find it fascinating that we’re perfectly prepared to have our behaviour changed by *charismatic* people, but not by *manipulative* ones – as if the deliberation behind the behaviour makes a difference.

    My crowning achievement of the last couple of years is that some people seem to think I’m now quite charismatic… but maybe that’s just what happens when benevolent manipulation becomes a habit.

    Manipulate to coach?

    Hell, yes. Every time.

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