Gaslighting in the workplace
November 8, 2023
Have you ever encountered problems or tension in the workplace and had difficulty understanding why? Or felt that you were doing everything in your power to live up to the expectations of your role and found yourself constantly coming up against criticism and dead ends? Sometimes, these types of frustrations and challenges are caused by gaslighting in the workplace.
According to Merriam-Webster, “gaslighting” refers to “the “psychological manipulation of a person usually over an extended period of time that causes the victim to question the validity of their own thoughts, perception of reality, or memories and typically leads to confusion, loss of confidence and self-esteem, uncertainty of one’s emotional or mental stability, and a dependency on the perpetrator.”
Gaslighting shows up in the workplace when the target is penalized or terminated for something they are not doing or don’t understand. The ultimate goal is to prevent the target from succeeding in their role. Unfortunately, because of the psychological distress it causes and the way that perpetrators manipulate the target and those around them, it can be hard to spot and address.
Gaslighting is a form of workplace bullying that must be addressed due to its consequences. Overtime, gaslighting in the workplace can lead to:
- Unhappiness at work
- Feelings of dread about the workplace
- Decreased productivity
- Termination and resignation
- Sleep disturbances
- Substance abuse
How to spot gaslighting in the workplace
So, considering the negative impacts, shouldn’t team members be aware of how to spot gaslighting when they see it? Here are five ways that gaslighting may show up in the workplace.
The perpetrator makes negative comments about you in front of your co-workers or in public
Having someone brazenly criticize you in public can quickly leave you second-guessing your value as a part of the team. When it takes place without another team member stepping in it is easy to believe that there is truth to the insults and critiques.
No one deserves to be insulted or humiliated in front of their co-workers. Pay attention to this red flag for gaslighting.
The perpetrator denies things that they have done
One of the most classic signs of gaslighting is a person denying what they have done or claiming to have forgotten.
Some refer to this as the classic “hand in the cookie jar” tactic: doing one thing and then looking you in the eye and saying they did no such thing. One reason this is a common gaslighting tactic is that their pretend sincerity can make the victim feel that they are the ones who are mistaken.
Remember: gaslighters are comfortable with lying. Always watch what they do and not what they say.
You have your accomplishments glossed over, ignored, or talked about as failures
One reason people gaslight in a professional setting is that they feel threatened by the success of the people around them. Therefore, they struggle to feel comfortable witnessing the success of others. Loving to be the only focus of praise and positive attention, they will automatically seek to rob anyone else of the same opportunity.
You deserve to feel proud of your wins at work. Pay attention if the same person appears to take this away from you.
Similarly, a gaslighter may accuse you of mistakes you know you didn’t make or blow small mistakes out of proportion.
Next, your co-worker tries to pit you against other co-workers or claims to have heard negative things about you or your job performance.
Gaslighters are the ultimate agitators and enjoy conflict more than a healthy, secure person does. Often referred to as “splitting” and “triangulation,” this behavior involves manipulating people through the use of indirect communication and speaking poorly about others behind their backs.
This common gaslighter tactic serves the perpetrator in multiple ways. First, it undermines the ability of those around them to have effective workplace relationships. It also elevates the perpetrator as they construct a false sense of trust with all involved. And third, it prevents those in the triangulation from being productive in their roles due to their increased insecurities and suspicion of those around them.
Another way you may be able to identify a gaslighter in the workplace is by the language they use. Typical of many gaslighters, your co-worker may say things like:
- “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
- “I never said that.”
- “I don’t remember saying that.”
- “That’s not what happened.”
- “You’re misinterpreting everything.”
- “You’re too sensitive.”
- “You’re reading too much into this.”
Pay attention to these common phrases that people use to be manipulative in the workplace.
Last, if you find you are second-guessing yourself or feeling confused about interactions with your co-worker you may be experiencing gaslighting.
The end game of any gaslighting behavior is to cause the target to question their reality or truth.
If you once experienced a strong sense of confidence in your ability to perform your role and then, after repeated interactions with your co-worker find that confidence compromised, you may want to consider if gaslighting is taking place. Second-guessing yourself also looks like:
- Feeling unusually unable to make decisions at work
- Questing your recollection of things
- Feeling confused about what someone is telling you happened
- Feeling you can’t do anything correctly
- Thinking you are to blame when things go wrong
What to do about gaslighting in the workplace
Because gaslighting often goes undetected by some and not others, it can be difficult to address. However, you deserve a workplace that feels supportive and where you feel that you can thrive. If you suspect that gaslighting is preventing this, you need to address it. Here are some things that you can do:
First, begin to document as much as possible as soon as you suspect your co-worker is mistreating or trying to manipulate you. Whenever there is an incident make sure to record:
- The date of the event
- The time of the event
- Who was present
- What was said
- What behaviors occurred
Keep the information on a personal device that no one in your organization has access to.
Avoid the gaslighter
It is typically best that you do not try to confront your co-worker about their behavior. Because they are skilled manipulators, gaslighters are nearly impossible to reason with, to have productive conversations with, and are often unable to reflect on their own actions. It is better to avoid engaging with them as much as possible.
Meet with your supervisor once a week
Because gaslighters seek to undermine the position their target holds in the workplace, it is important that you are clear on the expectations of your role and hear from your supervisor directly about whether or not you are meeting them. Be proactive and ask to have regular meetings to discuss your assignments and ongoing performance.
Report the abuse
Once you have documented a pattern of behavior on the part of your co-worker, it is important that you report the gaslighting to HR or to your supervisor. Depending on how seriously they take your complaint and how they respond, you will know what steps to take next.
In some cases, the abuse, and the lack of response by your supervisor, need to be reported to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. If you think your situation should be reported, contact the EEOC to ask for guidance.
Leave if you can
There are some instances where it is better for our mental health and well-being to look for employment elsewhere. Remember, how we feel about our jobs has a significant impact on how we feel about our lives in general and can seriously impact our mental and physical health. While it can be frustrating as well as challenging, removing yourself from a toxic work environment is many times the best thing you can do for your happiness and for your career.
Learn more about wellness at work:
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