Gaslighting is not just deployed by perpetrators in the realms of personal relationships and among families. This intentional psychological manipulation can also be seen within the workplace as a technique to influence and exert control over an individual. Gaslighting can be hard to pinpoint, but has an insidious impact on people and culture. Managers therefore need to be equipped to spot any red flags and confront the issue head on. Learning and development professionals have a role to play in ensuring managerial employees can effectively spot the signs of gaslighting and deal with it effectively.
How to recognise the strategies of a gaslighter through their behaviour and patternsA gaslighter downplays, denies truths or inaccurately retells events, playing on any insecurities and vulnerabilities to exert control over their target. They may tell you that you are “too sensitive” when making an inappropriate remark, or they may exclude you from something that you should be involved in, including meetings. Key signs that you are being gaslit include a persistent negative appraisal of your performance, looks, emotions, and the way you do things – both publicly (but subtly) and to you directly. You may be the target of gossip, and be made to feel belittled, excluded or inferior.
Leaders and managers must be equipped to spot and address gaslighting quickly, to ensure this toxic behaviour doesn’t permeate.When someone pretends to be helpful but sets you up for failure, or says one thing and then does another, or tells you that you are misremembering, you are being gaslit. Comments or ‘jokes’ about a person’s gender, culture, age or any other protected trait are always inappropriate and often a way to gaslight. They may say you are on target for a promotion but then ensure that you don’t get it by bad-mouthing you. They might block you from swapping to an alternative role in a different department internally. They may try to discipline you but not follow proper company processes or conduct any formal investigation. They may interrupt you when you are speaking or leave the room when you are talking.
Gaslighting is all about controlA gaslighter will always want to have control over their target and won't like to be challenged or proved wrong. They tend to be insecure themselves but deflect this by controlling and undermining others. They need to have power, can often be narcissistic and can be toxic leaders, but they aren’t often easy to spot.
The impact of being gaslitGaslighting is insidious and potentially very damaging. When you are being gas-lit you may feel uneasy coming to work. It can result in you wanting to move jobs, and it can affect your personal life, relationships and wellbeing. Because it can be so subtle it can be difficult to ask for help or support.
Dysfunctional behaviour affects everyone and can grossly affect the culture of the company.When repeated over time this behaviour can push someone off balance, making them feel their workplace is psychologically unsafe. It can leave them feeling isolated, questioning themselves and doubting the quality of their work, and who their friends are, causing them to lose confidence and self-esteem.
Why dysfunctional behaviour such as gaslighting must stopDysfunctional behaviour affects everyone and can grossly affect the culture of the company as psychological safety is lost, as with any sort of bullying. When people feel stressed and anxious, the environment won't be a happy, creative or productive one. An organisation will lose talent and absenteeism will increase as the target may dread going to work or feel they have to hide parts of themselves. Organisations won't get the best out of their people because both the perpetrator and the target’s attention is elsewhere. Suppose others notice the gaslighting and see the perpetrator is getting away with it. In that case, it will affect them either as ‘hopeless’ bystanders or by encouraging them to join in, especially if the aggressor is a role model.
When someone comes to you to report gaslighting behaviour, don’t downplay it or undermine them.