Gaslighting is a psychological phrase that refers to a particular pattern of behaviour where one person manipulates or attempts to manipulate another’s perception of reality. While it’s usually applied to romantic relationships, it can occur in a variety of settings—including the workplace. We might complain about bad bosses, “toxic” coworkers, or just plain-old office bullies, but gaslighting is a type of workplace harassment that’s on another level entirely.
Gaslighting is arduous to notice. However, it can have a significant effect on you, your team, and your company. This article is a guide to gaslighting, its impact on employees, how to know if it’s happening to you, or happening your team, and steps to reduce its effects.
The Fear of Gaslighting
Being accused of being oversensitive, loopy, blowing matters out of proportion— might be one of the top reasons for not reporting the numerous incidents employees experience in the workplace. It appears no matter how high we climb the corporate ladder, we hold back. Whether it’s gaslighting, potential retaliation, or being absolutely ignored, we doubt we will be heard.
On those rare events when we’re heard, folks who fall victim to terrible behaviour or blatant harassment are frequently “dealt with” quietly, if at all. Issues are swept under the rug before anybody knows. So, even if the bad actor gets a warning or more severe actions are taken, nobody else learns from this lesson.
Companies and leaders desperate to defend their reputations and avoid litigation, make it vanish quickly. Perhaps those who helped “clean it up” get a reality check, however, as long as there is no exposure, no public shaming, no act of contrition, these events will still take place.
Gaslighting in the workplace.
Gaslighting is deliberate, a well-organized process that uses lying and false information to make the victim doubt themselves, their capabilities, their instincts, and their own sense of reality.
Broadly, it’s when one person manipulates another person into questioning their own potential and self-confidence. Also, as this generally occurs in boss-employee relationships. But, it can happen anywhere regardless of hierarchical arrangement. More than bullying or mere dishonesty, gaslighting at the workplace is a deliberate form of abusive manipulation.
Effects of Gaslighting on Employees
Gaslighting can take an otherwise high-performing individual and flip them right into a low performer who finally leaves the company. That is because, over time, the target or targets of gaslighting experience:
- Lack of motivation
- Low self-esteem
- Stagnation of career growth
- loss of capability to make decisions
- Anxiety and/or depression, which can eventually result in physical illness and/or PTSD
Spotting a Gaslighter
When we consider an ordinary bully, we think of a person who is outright harassing you and making life miserable in a clear and public manner. In short, we think of bullies as people who thrive on humiliating others.
However, in the aspect of gaslighting at work, it’s often an extension from one person to another that comes from feelings of insecurity. Frequently, the individual doing the gaslighting is a downright witty or captivating person. They use their excellent people skills and plenty of humour that “sounds innocent but has underneath handed passive-aggressive comments”
Specifically, a gaslighter can:
- Listen long enough to collect information from you. But, they (the gaslighters) are not absolutely engaged in the listening process to show signs that they really care about what you are saying.
- Lie and make you feel it was your fault they had to lie.
- Take facts and twist it around to their advantage and use it against you or others.
- Gossip as it gives them higher ammunition.
- Appear confident, but if you look at them carefully, these individuals are the most insecure people because of their inability to self-regulate their very own emotions and thoughts.
- Make you feel you are not enough.
Anyone can be a victim of gaslighting.
Gaslighting in the workplace can occur in a few ways. It commonly happens among a supervisor and a subordinate employee at work where there’s a power dynamic at play. But, it can happen to anyone at work. The hierarchy doesn’t really matter, where it matters with authority is clearly an abuse of power. Where a person in charge uses this power to get someone to comply, or get someone to feel less than, or maybe even try to squeeze them out.
Signs of gaslighting
It can be hard to point out specific examples of gaslighting at work. However, to zero in on such instances, it’s good to focus on situations and relationships in which a co-worker or boss told you something, and they later tell you they said something completely different. For example, consider these scenarios:
“You remember clearly that your boss said your project was due next week, but today he has now threatened to fire you because you haven’t completed it yet.”
“Your co-worker tells you they overheard your boss talking badly about you.“
“Your co-worker tells you that your boss said to take your launch at noon. Your boss tells you they said no such thing.“
Individually, these instances might not amount to a great deal, however, collectively, they can shape a pattern of behaviour that results to gaslighting.
Some other examples can include someone making racist, sexist or different derogatory comments but later acting as if they didn’t.
Or, you observe that you’re being left off important Email threads by way of “accident” and all of a sudden you’re overreacting to the situation.
More commonly, you might have a boss or co-worker take credit for an idea you came up with, only to tell you they needed to tweak the design to make it better. In which case, are you sure it’s your idea?
If You Suspect you’re being gaslighted, here’s what to do.
The significance of documenting times when an employee feels harassed can’t be overstated (and yes—gaslighting at work is a form of workplace harassment).
Have another co-worker in a meeting with you and the possible gaslighter. Try to limit your communication to written formats so that you have something in writing to reference. Re-affirming to yourself your own self-confidence and abilities may also assist in fighting any lingering doubts about your skills that someone else might be trying to instil in you.
Finally, it’s essential to place boundaries early on. Ask yourself, what does respect look like to you? If you don’t know what your limits are with other people, then you’ll not be able to identify when a person has crossed the line.