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This is part of a series looking at micro skills – changes that employees can make to improve their health and life at work and at home, and employers can make to improve the workplace. The Globe and Mail and Morneau Shepell have created the Employee Recommended Workplace Award to honour companies that put the health and well-being of their employees first. Read about the 2018 winners of the award at

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How do you reduce your risk of being negatively affected by those who you consider your friends and acquaintances, either in your work or personal life?

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This is also considered negative social manipulation -- where those around you are a bad influence on you and lead you to alter your personal behaviour in ways that don’t benefit your productivity, health or wellness.

Some might ponder this question and find it difficult to determine how to respond. Here’s one definition of manipulation: an act that influences another person’s feelings or behaviours. For many, the word manipulation brings up a negative connotation and is something to be avoided.

The purpose of this microskill is to reduce your risk of being negatively socially manipulated by your peers.


It’s possible for one person to be negatively socially manipulated by another who consciously has no intention of creating harm.

One study published in the New England Journal of Medicine that ran over a period of 32 years found that a person who hung around individuals who were obese had a 57 per cent chance of becoming obese themselves. And if they became a close friend to someone who was obese, the chances increased to 171 per cent. Some may not think of obesity as a disease, but it is indeed one. The Canadian Medical Association declared that obesity is a chronic disease that’s preventable, and its treatment often requires more support than just changing lifestyles.

This is one example of how a person can be negatively socially manipulated. The act of hanging around other people resulted in changes in behaviours with respect to food and activity. This kind of manipulation creates the conditions for social conformity. Peer pressure that is overt or covert, along with a desire to fit in with the obese group, results in changes of behaviour.

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The first step is understanding that we can be negatively socially manipulated and the people doing so may have no intention to harm. However, adopting their lifestyle choices and behaviours over time can damage our health, because developing obesity increases risk for disease.


Each day we’re faced with many challenges. One issue that many people struggle with is the challenge to fit in with a peer group, whether at work or in our personal life.

If we don’t have a frame of reference for what negative social manipulation is, we’re much more likely to be influenced to engage in behaviours such as gossiping with colleagues, over eating, drinking too much, smoking or using drugs – all because we want to feel accepted and to fit in.

When we have a level of awareness and anticipate negative social manipulation, we’re likely to make healthier choices. Life is about making choices, and the more often we make informed choices, the less likely we will be negatively socially manipulated. We can still choose to be around people but don’t need to adopt their unhealthy lifestyle choices.


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To go forward sometimes we need to go backward. Evaluate all your current social interactions to determine whether you’re being negatively socially manipulated in any way. Make an honest evaluation of your current relationships, behaviours and routines and their potential impact on your health. This may be where to start to take control of your decisions and health.

To move forward with a daily plan that reduces risk for negative social manipulation, it is helpful to first define your personal goals with respect to your health and happiness. This activity can set your expectations with respect to what you will and will not do to achieve your personal goals.

To take charge of a situation that’s not supportive of your personal goals you may need to consider changing your environment and look for likeminded people with similar goals in your work and personal life. This can leverage positive social manipulation. For example, you may not feel like working out at the gym, but once you get to your exercise group the energy and inspiration of the group can motivate you and you end up having an excellent workout. Then it also inspires you to keep up this routine.

In cases where you don’t want to move away from a peer group or close friend, an alternative is to change your behaviours and set clear personal boundaries on what you will and will not do. This is a clear signal that you’re breaking away from negative social manipulation and taking charge of your own decisions and choices.

If your peer group or friend really cares about you they will support and encourage you to make any change in your behaviour that will achieve your personal goals (such as stopping smoking or drinking, and improving your nutrition and diet). If they don’t, you may decide to break away from the negativity and look for people who are striving for the same goals as you.

The more we’re aware and alert, the less likely we’ll be negatively socially manipulated. Keep in mind that social manipulation can be both positive and negative. Looking for positive social manipulation that inspires and motivates you can be another approach to promoting long-term health goals.

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Bill Howatt is the chief research and development officer of work force productivity with Morneau Shepell in Toronto.

You can find all the stories in this series

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