Gaslighting at work and what to do about it

Changing behaviours at work. Bad behaviours destroy value and cost businesses more than they realise! 

In this article I’m going to highlight an insidious behaviour called “gaslighting”, which is a form of psychological abuse. It can seem the stuff of movies, but it happens, and is devasting to those targeted by the “gaslighter”.

Gaslighting is an informal term coined from the 1938 thriller (“Gas Light”) by novelist and playwright, Patrick Hamilton. In the play, the husband, Jack Manningham, attempts to convince his wife, Bella, she is going insane and ‘hearing things’.

A gaslighter uses a false narrative to create a ‘distorted reality’ that makes someone doubt their perception or recollection. It can occur in any context and at any scale.

Gaslighting is hard to detect and harder to prove, but is destructive on a range of levels. It damages self-esteem, reputation and credibility; impacts well-being and productivity; creates confusion, self-doubt and feeling unstable within oneself. Life for the ‘target’ becomes surreal and distressing, and they may be unaware of the manipulation for some time. When they find out, the damage is already done.

To leadership and peers, gaslighting can look like a ‘personality clash’, being too sensitive, poor communication, jumping to conclusions, or paranoia – in fact, anything other than a vindictive psychological campaign!

A smokescreen

Gaslighting starts off with small acts such as sneers or insinuations that take the target by surprise, and often remain unchallenged. Over time seemingly isolated acts grow into a “smokescreen” to hide intent.

An ‘incompetent’ new recruit

In one case, a worker said of a new recruit: “I have to teach him but the problem is he doesn’t know anything”. Not only was the new recruit not trained, many co-workers believed he was incompetent and knew little.

What was really going on? It turned out that his colleague saw the new recruit as a threat, refused to co-operate, and spread false allegations that were largely unchallenged. The recruit was devastated and thought the whole organisation was against him.

Poor time management

In a different case, a coworker said to their boss: “I invited him [to the client meeting] but perhaps he has time management issues”. Their colleague hadn’t been invited (so didn’t attend the client meeting), and the seed of incompetence was planted in front of leadership.

That’s how it started. The colleague was routinely left out of meetings and management had to step in. Did the gaslighting stop? No, the strategy changed instead.

The colleague was mocked in front of clients and their knowledge/experience dismissed. The ‘character attacks’ continued behind the scenes for 18 months! The colleague was unaware of this sustained campaign and couldn’t understand the growing hostility from other workers.

Once a gaslighter gets away with it, they tend to become bolder, and even outrageous claims are made and believed!

What doesn’t work

Before we look at strategies that do work, let’s examine what doesn’t.

Ignoring the problem

A typical business day contains many issues, and leadership/management don’t want more – especially those related to their people ‘not getting on’. This may seem trivial to them  compared to ‘more important problems’. You’ve hired adults, not children, so they should fix the issue between them, right?

Unfortunately, resolution and harmony is not what the gaslighter wants. If the organisation is a ship, the gaslighter is someone who is steadily boring a hole in the bottom. Your ship is steadily taking on water! Is ignoring that smart thinking?

Just a personality clash

The most common ‘diagnosis’ for conflict between workers is a personality clash. So it’s natural to try and remedy this by building rapport. However, it doesn’t work for gaslighting and this can baffle management.

Here’s why:

  • What’s in it for the gaslighter? It’s not in their interest! They’ve gone to a lot of effort to discredit their victim, and they’re not going to stop until they get what they want.
  • The victim has to face their abuser, damaging their well-being further.
  • The victim feels the added pressure of resolving a problem they didn’t create.
  • It dismisses what’s really going on exacerbating the problem!

Gaslighters don’t find lying a problem. Children know the difference between right and wrong from an early age. Gaslighters make a choice – and they choose to inflict suffering. This is really important to understand.

So what does work?

There isn’t a “one size fits all” solution, and it’s a very difficult issue to address. Nevertheless, here are some suggestions that can help.

For the victim

  • Stay away from the gaslighter – it’s my number one recommendation. It won’t fix the problem, but will open up space to relieve some of the pressure.
  • It’s not your fault – even though you’re the target of abuse, you’re in the gaslighter’s way of getting what they really want.
  • Find support within the organisation. It’s important to have someone believe in you, even if they may be powerless to change the situation.
  • Never meet the gaslighter alone – always have a witness/support.
  • Keep a record – write down activities/events with dates and times as it’s easy to forget.
  • Know your rights – the organisation has a duty of care, but don’t expect the organisation to know how to handle the situation!
  • Keep emotions under control – it’s natural to be extremely upset and defend yourself against false accusations. However, in the cases I’ve seen, high emotions put off the very people you are trying to convince!
  • Stick to the facts – don’t indulge in gossip, criticism or speculation.
  • Get help – start the healing process. Don’t be ashamed of seeking professional help.
  • Get training – to build resilience and develop yourself. Getting a better perspective of yourself will boost self-esteem and offset the negativity being faced.
  • Leave – if all else fails walk away from the organisation. This is really hard to do and seems unfair. Why let the gaslighter “win”? It’s more important to protect your well-being and find a better environment that values you.

For the organisation

  • Know your employees! Are they proving their value through excellence or by defaming their colleagues?
  • Build teams that trust and care – put in the effort to change the culture.
  • Stay alert for behaviours – such as amplifying mistakes, being “too busy”, repeating false accusations (even if proven to be false), making scenes in public, suggesting another person is misinterpreting things, is sensitive, or has no sense of humour.
  • Listen – with compassion and non-judgement to what a victim is saying. They’ll be confused and upset, not understanding why they’re being targeted.
  • Take action – act quickly to nip problems in the bud.
  • Transparency – is essential as it starves the gaslighter. For instance, discuss work issues openly. The gaslighter will use misdirection or avoidance tactics and these will come to light fairly quickly.
  • Focus on the “how” – not just on the results. How was the work done? How did the team collaborate? What issues were there and how were they resolved?
  • Vocalise organisational values – regularly remind everyone what these are and what behaviours are acceptable.
  • Develop better people skills at all levels of the organisation through training and support.

Do you want to create value all the way from leadership through to ‘delighting the customer’? Then get in touch and I can help you acheive that!

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