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Gaslighting at work: how do you manage it?


It’s a common form of psychological abuse in romantic relationships, but this expert says gaslighting is also a problem in our workplaces.

“Didn’t you get my email? We moved the meeting ahead by an hour.”
“I never said I was going to give you a promotion, where did you get that from?”
“The rest of the team are saying you’re not pulling your weight. I think you’re doing fine though.”

If you’ve encountered someone saying something like this to you, you might have been on the receiving end of a gaslighter and chances are you didn’t notice.

It’s likely you’ve heard of the psychological term ‘gaslighting’ in the context of a romantic relationship. But it also exists within our workplaces and it’s a really complex behaviour to identify and manage.

The ‘professional’ gaslighter

“Gaslighters have a very domineering personality,” says Amberley Meredith, consultant at Being Well Process and a registered Australian psychologist.

She says this behaviour can occur both vertically (between co-workers) and horizontally (between a manager and their direct report) in a workplace.

“If they know what your weak spots are, they will use them against you – usually in subtle and cruel ways. They’re different from the narcissist who just wants everyone to think they’re fabulous, the gaslighter wants to manipulate and control. People can become completely unhinged by this process.”

Gaslighters will utilise very elaborate and subtle forms of manipulation in order to achieve their desired outcome. The difference between someone who gaslights and someone who perpetrates overt forms of bullying is visibility.

Bullies are often reactionary. They’ll openly criticise or make fun of a co-workers’ appearance, work or status, and often they bully in a pack. Gaslighters usually act alone – and they’re playing a long game.

They’ll take their victim on a rollercoaster of emotions. They might establish trust by initially confiding in them or making promises, only to later deny they ever did such a thing. A gaslighter doesn’t want to make their insidious behaviour obvious. They’re all about sowing the seed of doubt and carefully watering that seed over time.

“They will tell your co-workers and the other managers that you have mental health issues, or that you’re crazy and incapable of doing your job. They will discreetly point out ways in which you can be seen to be lying or are unreliable. Part of this behaviour includes aligning other people against you. This erosion of your workplace self-identity is done gradually. This means you are unlikely to question what is happening, and you more than likely start to believe what you are being told and accept that you are the problem,” says Meredith.

She says it’s hard to put a blanket reason across why gaslighters do what they do. All circumstances need to be assessed on a case by case basis. However, she says there are some common themes at play.

“Invariably, you can probably expect some kind of trauma in their background where they’ve felt out of control. People don’t just wake up and suddenly think, ‘I’m going to be a gaslighter now’ – it’s gradual.”

So, what about the difference between being a gaslighter and a manipulator? In an article for Psychology Today, Dr Stephanie Sarkis – who wrote a viral blog post and book on gaslighting – says it’s a fine line. We all have the ability to be manipulators, it’s something we learn from childhood, but thankfully most of us aren’t capable of gaslighting.

“[Manipulation is] not always bad. It’s just how we learn to work the system. But when it becomes a series of behaviors where the sole intent is to gain control of someone else, then you’re getting into gaslighting behaviors,” she says.

How HR can identify a gaslighter

Meredith says there are seven traits that gaslighters often exhibit:

1. Telling frequent lies and being prone to exaggeration

2. Rarely admitting to having flaws

3. Diverting or becoming highly aggressive when criticised

4. Projecting a false image

5. Social rule breaking and boundary violation

6. Emotional coercion/guilt tripping

7. Manipulation to gain self worth and/or pleasure

She also says if there’s a high turnover rate underneath a particular manager, and the exit interviews aren’t shedding light as to why, this could be another indicator that a manager has been gaslighting their employees.

Another sign can be a high level of absenteeism from the gaslighter themselves. “They often want to be the victim,” she says.

“For example, if you’re having a difficult time in your personal life or you need to attend a medical appointment and you tell a gaslighting manager, they will sometimes fabricate that they’ve got an even worse illness or that they’re struggling personally. They turn it all around onto them. As the employee, you feel sorry for your manager, so you keep coming to work. The manager then starts taking time off to validate that lie.”

She also says it’s common for gaslighters to be quite incompetent in their roles; their behaviour is used as a means to distract a co-worker or manager from that incompetence.

“It’s the Kansas city shuffle. Everyone looks left, so you can do what you want on the right.”

What it looks like at work

Gaslighters are generally dramatic and intense. Meredith says they can go from zero to a hundred very quickly. As a manager with a gaslighting direct report, it can be very hard to call them out for poor performance. When confronted with their inadequacies – say, they haven’t finished a project and it’s past the deadline – they’re likely to cloak the mistake in accusations and attacks on the person raising the issue.

“If they’re having a big go at you, and you’re having to defend yourself, you can forget the original reason you approached them,” says Meredith. And that’s their exact intention.

In an article for Whimn, Natalie King recounts a gaslighting experience that occurred while she was pregnant with her second child. Her new boss pulled her in for a performance review and was extremely critical of her.

The boss said things like, “It’s not really your fault everything is such a mess. I’m sure you tried your best – you just don’t have it in you to do the job properly,” and “I’ve spoken to everyone in the team and every last one of them indicated the problem is you.”

The following day, when King raised that she had an issue with this feedback – which she felt was inconsistent with her actual performance – the boss denied she had said anything.

King recalls that her boss said: “I came away from our chat feeling so positive. You have completely misunderstood me. I didn’t say any of those things – I would never say that. You are great at your job. Maybe the pregnancy hormones are clouding your judgement?”

The stress and anxiety of working under a gaslighter forced King to go on maternity leave two months early, but when she returned justice had been served. The gaslighting boss had been uncovered and demoted; King was able to return to the job she loved.

The ripple effect

Like most forms of workplace harassment, the impacts of gaslighting can spread beyond the people involved. Once there’s a crack in a team, everyone feels it.

“Workplace gaslighting creates a tense, toxic, unsafe and unpleasant working atmosphere for almost everybody who is either directly or indirectly involved,” says Meredith.

Gaslighters waste organisations’ time and money. Their behaviour can lead to an increase in sick/stress leave, noticeable reductions in productivity across a team, disengagement following an erosion of trust and recruitment/onboarding costs due to an increase in employee turnover.

“It can also lead to presenteeism, where both the gaslighter and their victims are caught in their own relational drama – which removes them from performing in the roles. Not to mention involving coworkers in the unfolding drama; who may try to step in to resolve the issue. This causes others to be distracted and creates an extensive misuses of time and energy.”

Advice for employers

For employees who feel they’re being gaslighted, Meredith says, “Notifying HR is the first step. To protect themselves, employees should start recording conversations in a journal or send messages to a trusted friend so they can look back later and see if there are any inconsistencies that are arising in someone’s behaviour.”

Managers might have an even trickier time managing this behaviour. Because gaslighters are known to engage in the blame game, it can be hard for managers to know if they’re talking to the gaslighter or gaslighted.

Gaslighters will often ensure they have a foot in both camps, says Meredith, gaslighting both up and down the ladder to ensure they can also control those who are managing them.

“Managing this behaviour can become quite dangerous because the gaslighter can become very accusatory. They might claim harassment or gender discrimination; they threaten and almost hold companies to ransom. If you haven’t got a skilled and confident HR group, it can easily be thrown into the ‘too hard’ basket.”

She suggests gathering as much information as possible prior to approaching the gaslighter about their behaviour. While they’re unlikely to agree with you, it’s important to show them the evidence and give them the opportunity to respond before going to a higher up. Most importantly, don’t get sucked into their web.

“Addressing professional gaslighting requires a high level of accountability to occur at the senior levels. It necessitates meaningful cultural change and often the removal of incompetent and divisive staff,” says Meredith.

“Those who have been victims of gaslighting can develop trauma based mental injuries and adjustment disorders from being exposed to this form of psychological manipulation, and may require therapy to help them adjust and adapt to what they have been exposed to.”

DISCLAIMER: this article is general ONLY in nature and is not advice
First published HRM Online, 21 June 2019
Kate Neilson