What does gaslighting look like at work - and how to manage it
‘What exactly is gaslighting at work?’
The term gaslighting, and its characteristics are derived from the 1938 play “Gaslight”, where one man's obsession with an old crime leads him to systematically manipulate his wife into thinking she is going mad. It is seen as emotionally co-ercive or controlling, and the perpetrator is often doing it, deliberately, to suit their own ends – whether psychologically (ie. it is common behaviour for narcissists who “need” to control; or practically – someone is trying to achieve their agenda). While the original story is one of an intimate relationship, it can also happen in the workplace. Strangely enough however, while it can feel personal and malicious, it is not always the case. Often someone who is capable of gaslighting doesn't really "see" you as a person at all, simply as an obstacle to achieving their own ends - while in some ways this is painful to not feel seen, perhaps it can counter the pain of it being personal.
Behaviours particular to gaslighting include:
- Emotional manipulation eg. “Love bombing” through words and actions, interchanged with esteem damaging comments eg. "you’re over-sensitive” or “I knew you’d mess that up”
- Defensively projecting behaviours if anyone dares to question anything eg "You’re always accusing me of…” or “You obviously have trust issues.”
- Blatant lying eg. taking credit for work in an open forum and then dismissing any complaint with more negativity eg “That’s hardly being a team player”
- Isolating someone from others who might bring perspective (sometimes with extra lies eg "All I'm doing is looking out for you - you don't need people like that around you.")
- Subtle control eg. “You and me, we’re a team, we don’t need anyone else” encouraging dependency.
Situations or experiences:
As well as the above examples, in the workplace one might experience situations such as:
Covert bullying and cliques: Excluding someone from meetings, or deliberately making decisions when they are absent. It may also include playground behaviours such as forming cliques, silos or alliances who all go to lunch together, or all socialise outside work together deliberately not inviting others.
Asking you to be complicit: This might involve asking someone to sign off something they didn’t witness, or “tweak” a grade, or turn a blind eye. If it is a senior employee asking this of a junior, they may even say “I’ll take full responsibility” to encourage compliance.
Dismissing ideas/Talking over: While this may not be as explicit as someone saying “your degree is worth nothing” (although it can happen), what is more common is being given the chance to speak, but then not being acknowledged; or being cut off before finishing.
The problem with any form of gaslighting is that it takes a while for it to register that it is happening and it can be hard to address for fear of repercussions.
BUT, there are some things you can do.
5 Tips if you think you are being gaslighted
1. Keep a diary: Record events with dates and times. This can help reaffirm memory and ensures that any discussion is rooted in facts and evidence. Keeping copies of any written correspondence, and make sure conversations with the potential gaslighter, are followed up with an email summary – even if it takes a couple of minutes extra to be written can offer further protection.
A template summary may be:
a. Thank you for taking the time to meet with me.
b. We discussed…
c. My understanding of the next steps is that…
2. Be aware of options for escalation: Find out who the senior chain of leadership/reporting is – however, approach where possible, approach the immediate manager first unless it is about them, in which case speak to HR for advice on making a report.
- If meeting with HR or a manager, write an agenda for the meeting to remain on track
- Seek the support of the relevant union. This can include having them join meetings to take notes and have an extra pair of eyes and ears. Brief them on the desired outcome and what they are being required to do.
- Have the evidence to present the case
- Access the whistleblowing policy (if there is one, this will often be highlighted as part of the induction process) and follow procedure, otherwise, seek advice from the union.
3. Practice assertive phrases: Statements such as “I don’t remember it happening that way” , or “What I said was…” especially with evidence – can re-establish the balance of power without causing a confrontation.
4. Treat cliques with professional politeness: Remember, a clique is not essential for success. However, if the clique involves a direct senior – consider tips 1 and 2.
5. At worst, leave. No job is worth damage to mental and emotional health – however, consider using the exit interview to give an account of the experience to potentially help those who remain.
Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author with a specialty in the practical "how to take action", rather than just giving explanation and advice. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; or her Radio Show "The Wellbeing Lounge", and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilience. For self development tools based within positive psychology: click Her YouTube Channel . Twitter/IG @draudreyt
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