Gaslighting in the Workplace: What It Is and How to Spot It

Ask yourself these 3 simple questions to help you determine if you or your employees are being gaslit.

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Two young Asian businessmen are debating the year-end project

Gaslighting. You may have heard the term during a friend’s story about a bad relationship. You may have caught wind of it at work, or at a televised court hearing. Maybe you have felt it, but never had a word to describe the feeling. What does the term “gaslighting” mean, though? Why is it such an issue? Simply put, gaslighting is the gaining or maintaining of control over a person by manipulating them with a false narrative. If that sounds like lying, it’s because that is exactly what it is.

People use the term liberally these days because it has become a common power play both in the workplace and in social settings. It poisons an internal culture, turns employees against managers, and leaves people feeling hurt, confused, and invalidated.

Gaslighting is the gaining or maintaining of control over a person by manipulating them with a false narrative.

An extreme example at work

An employee at a health insurance company devises a way to streamline the benefits selection process for their clients. They float the idea to their superior, who applauds their efforts and mentions a promotion. The next day, a meeting is called to discuss the idea but you are not invited. Next thing you know, your superior has taken credit for your idea and happily accepted that promotion. When you go to the director and explain that it was your idea, your superior denies everything you’re saying.

Afterward, you may be confused. You may be hurt or angry. More likely, you’ll be all of the above. Those are all reasonable reactions. Whether they meant to or not, your manager gaslit you. They threw you under the bus for personal gain and did not take responsibility. They benefitted from your idea and used their access to the higher-ups to endear themselves in a dishonest manner.

This is an extreme example. Still, it happens more frequently than any boss knows or wants to admit. More commonly, though, gaslighting is done in small, initially harmless increments. Calling someone a name and then denying it to a manager or mediator is gaslighting. It becomes more harmful over time because it begins to have the intended effect of making the other person question their reality.

This behavior can be tough to spot because the person doing it covers their tracks with lies and “misunderstandings.” They have probably become quite skilled at tricking everyone in the room.

To help combat this harmful behavior, employers all over are working to help their workers identify gaslighting. Here are 3 simple questions that can help you determine if you or your employees are being gaslit.

1. Are the stories consistent? 

A telltale sign of gaslighting is inconsistency. What they tell you is not what they tell other employees, and what they tell them differs from their reports to bosses or managers.

Gaslighting looks and feels different than office gossip. Office gossip is often about trivial, often personal matters with little bearing on what you’ve been hired to do. Gaslighting is often intentional (but not always) and often takes the form of a promised promotion, supposed inclusion in an important strategy meeting, or complete denial that those things were ever on the table.

2. Are they dismissive?

Hiring managers who thrive off of gaslighting don’t benefit from hearing people out. They may not realize it, but to gaslight a coworker is to put everything on the line. That’s why it’s often managers who resort to gaslighting. They already have the leverage that accompanies seniority and they know that their word holds more weight. This is why it’s especially important to be intentional when selecting a manager.

If you run a business and you notice there seems to be a disconnect between managers and their teams, explore it. Ask the right questions.

If you run a business and you notice there seems to be a disconnect between managers and their teams, explore it. Ask the right questions. Establish a stronger line of communication that encourages managers and other employees to be forthcoming about any concerns they have.

3. Do you feel crazy for telling the truth?

This one requires a quick self-check-in. You were there. You know what happened, what was said, and what was promised. Even worse, you may have even noticed that this person has a pattern of gaslighting people on their team. Why, then, do you feel as if you’re crazy or in the wrong? Because the person gaslighting you is really good at it. This likely is not their first rodeo. Even more discouraging is the possibility that their ability to deceive could be the only reason they’re a manager at all.

Not only is this unprofessional, dishonest, and disrespectful behavior, but it’s also harmful to a company’s internal culture. And it often doesn’t get better without some kind of intervention. The bottom line is this: A gaslit employee is an unmotivated employee. An unmotivated employee is an unhappy employee. Your employees’ happiness is everything. It’s important to nurture trust, collaboration, and passion in the workplace.

Gaslighting destroys company culture and employee morale

Gaslighting doesn’t simply lower the morale of your employees. It infects your business’s internal culture with distrust and can cause personal and professional damage to those involved. Gaslighting is a direct attack on trust, as well as a distortion of someone’s reality. It can make or break someone’s entire experience at your company.

There are a vast number of reasons why people gaslight. There are also countless situations where gaslighting could be used. It could be entirely deliberate (and even malicious) or it could be something done unintentionally in pursuit of a specific feeling or goal. It’s imperative that you educate your teams on the dangers of gaslighting. Even more importantly, it’s helpful to have real-life examples or illustrations of what happens when gaslighting goes on for too long.

The emotional well-being of your employees is everything and should be of paramount importance to any employer. Gaslighting threatens the stability of internal operations and makes competent people feel like fools. It’s in the best interests of you, your workers, and your company to identify these tactics and curb them before serious damage is done.

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