Gaslighting at work used to solely refer to the deliberate psychological manipulation by a colleague or boss aimed to make you question your memory or perception of events, or at worst even your own sanity. Today workplace gaslighting perpetrators often exploit their professional power with the intention of influencing and controlling an individual. With Antibullying week (13th – 17thNovember) approaching, Thom Dennis, CEO of Serenity in Leadership reveals why gaslighting needs to be addressed as part of anti-bullying workplace strategies.
As gaslighting can be hard to pinpoint it is not surprising that there is little research on how widespread it is to date. CIPD research in 2019 showed that 15% of employees in the UK experienced bullying over the past three years and one poll by MHR Global of 3033 people aged 18-54 years old revealed 58% of respondents have experienced gaslighting during their working lives.
How to identify a gaslighter by their behaviour, patterns and tactics?
A gaslighter downplays, denies truths or inaccurately retells events and plays on any insecurities and vulnerabilities to exert control over their target. They may tell you that you are “too sensitive” when making an inappropriate remark, or they may exclude you from something that you should be involved in, including meetings. Key signs that you are being gaslit include a persistent negative appraisal of your performance, looks, emotions, and the way you do things – both publicly (but subtly) and to you directly. You may be the target of gossip, and be made to feel belittled, excluded or inferior. When someone pretends to be helpful but sets you up for failure, or says one thing and then does another, or tells you that you are misremembering, you are being gaslit. Comments or ‘jokes’ about a person’s gender, culture, age or any other protected trait are always inappropriate and often a way to gaslight.
A gaslighter may take your belongings, deny it and subsequently restore them when you are out of the room. They may proffer strict codes of behaviour and then do the opposite. They could fail to tell you about a meeting so that you miss out and are reprimanded for not attending. They set you up to fail. They may say you are on target for a promotion but then ensure that you don’t get it by bad-mouthing you. They might block you from swapping to an alternative role in a different department internally. They may try to discipline you but not follow proper company processes or conduct any formal investigation. They may interrupt you when you are speaking or leave the room when you are talking.
A gaslighter will always want to have control over their target and won’t like to be challenged or proved wrong. They tend to be insecure themselves but deflect this by controlling and undermining others. They need to have power, can often be narcissistic and can be toxic leaders but they aren’t often easy to spot. They can use subtle tactics, or charm and charisma which they quickly swap in and out of, making the presentation of gaslighting confusing. When you are at some sort of breaking point they may alter their strategy and start encouraging you or complimenting you which has the effect of wrong-footing you, adding to the confusion.
How gaslighting affects the individual
Gaslighting is insidious and potentially very damaging. When you are being gas-lit you may feel uneasy coming to work. It can result in you wanting to move job, affect your personal life and relationships and well-being, and because it can be so subtle it can make it difficult to ask for help or support. When repeated over time this behaviour can push someone off balance, make them feel their workplace is psychologically unsafe. It can leave them feeling isolated, questioning themselves and doubting the quality of their work, and who their friends are, causing them to lose confidence and self-esteem.
If you have strong self-awareness you might be more able to notice what’s going on and see it in a dispassionate light but if you are stuck in the cycle of somebody’s poor behaviour towards you it is very easy to be damaged by it.
Why gaslighting, gossip and other dysfunctional behaviour at work tarnish company culture
Dysfunctional behaviour affects everyone and can grossly affect the culture of the company as psychological safety is lost, as with any sort of bullying. When people feel stressed and anxious, the environment won’t be a happy, creative or productive one. An organisation will lose talent and absenteeism will increase as the target may dread going to work or feel they have to hide parts of themselves. Organisations won’t get the best out of their people because both the perpetrator and the target’s attention is elsewhere. If others notice the gaslighting and see the perpetrator is getting away with it and not being made accountable, it will affect them either as ‘hopeless’ bystanders or by encouraging them to join in, especially if the aggressor is a role model.
How to deal with gaslighting at work – If you are the target
Workplace discrimination is a significant concern and should not be accepted by any organisation. If you experience workplace gaslighting based on your religion, race, gender or sexual orientation, it is advisable to start a harassment complaint.
Gauge your emotional well-being. If you consistently feel anxious, confused, or emotionally drained after interactions with someone, it may be a sign of gaslighting. Trust your instincts even when the gaslighter is trying to confuse and wrongfoot you. Look for constant denial, undermining behaviour, manipulation, contradictions and blame-shifting. Record the gaslighter’s actions and consult with trusted colleagues. Explain the situation in detail and ask for their support and valuable insights.
Meet with the gaslighter. If you feel you have the strength to deal with it then you might be able to arrange a meeting with the gaslighter, in the presence of others, to tackle the bullying and call them out to disarm the negative behaviour. Setting boundaries for yourself is empowering and helps to lift you out of the gaslighter’s influence.
Get support from trusted leaders and talk to someone if the gaslighting is affecting your wellbeing and mental health. Focus on self-care to stay balanced.
How to deal with gaslighting at work – As a good leader
Identify the signs. Hopefully, the organisation and its leaders are trained and equipped to deal with bullying of any sort. Be sensitive for the classic but subtle signs of a gaslighter and for colleagues who have recently changed and are demonstrating low levels of self-esteem. For example, if you are in a meeting and someone who should be there hasn’t been invited then question it.
Do not deny or minimise what the target is saying when they come to you to report behaviour that they are finding undermining. Actively listen and give assurance that action will be taken. They are likely to have already gone through several stages of self-doubt. Discounting feedback is damaging and re-traumatising. Great care is needed.
Don’t be a bystander if you are a witness. If you don’t call out poor behaviour you are condoning it. No one should look the other way. Ask the perpetrator – “what is your intention?” Take a stand for the sake of the target but also everyone around them. The more we don’t call bullies out, the more powerful they become. It can be hard for whistleblowers to stand alone but there is power in numbers.
Clearly inform the gaslighter that you are aware of their actions and are watching. Ask for evidence of what they are saying about the target. Follow antibullying protocol and if needs be, put them on a probationary period.
Training – As with any anti-bullying strategy, leadership training on how to maintain standards of behaviour, how to deal with difficult situations when people are being traumatised and how to be a support are crucial. Furthermore, teams need specific training on what gaslighting actually is and what the signs are to look out for and to understand the power of language.
By Thom Dennis, CEO of culture and leadership specialists, Serenity in Leadership