We’ve heard the term “gaslighting” a lot over the past year, mostly in politics. We’ve seen candidates claim unconditional truth and refuse to acknowledge anything different, even when presented with factual evidence to the contrary. Gaslighting describes a type of psychological abuse in which the victim is manipulated into doubting his or her sanity. In addition to campaign tactics, we often hear about it in personal relationships, but gaslighting happens in the workplace as well.
A History In Film
You may be surprised to learn this term has been around for a while. It originated from a play that became a movie titled Gaslight in 1944 starring Ingrid Bergman, who won her first Academy Award for her portrayal of a woman who is being gaslighted by her husband. I won’t give away the ending, but over time, her husband slowly and systematically makes her think she is losing her mind.
He isolates her from her friends and family, hides objects so that she thinks she has lost them, changes facts so it appears she is forgetful and shames her in front of the servants. The husband manipulates his wife because he is hiding a terrible secret, but this type of victimization also happens between employers and employees.
Signs Of Gaslighting
Someone who gaslights undermines you in the workplace. This can be a negative manager, a conniving coworker, a prejudiced team, an unhappy customer/client or even a slanderous competitor. They live for control, demonstrate that power unabashedly and make you feel you are dependent on them for your job. Here are some examples of typical gaslighting behavior at the office:
• Openly shames someone in front of colleagues
• Treats someone terribly in front of clients
• Engages in name-calling
• Spreads rumors, gossips and outright lies to discredit you
• Employs negative humor and sarcasm
• Bullies others
But it doesn’t stop there. I’ve heard examples of true sabotage in the workplace, like files being deleted from computers and managers changing performance evaluations post-signatures. Gaslighting is a trait of a narcissist and a sign of mental illness.
A client — we’ll call her Melissa — once shared a gaslighting experience she had back in the 1980s when she was a new employee for an oil and gas company (and one of the few females in the industry). Melissa was given an assignment that was supposedly a “training” assignment. As a geologist, she was assigned to geophysics. Since this wasn’t her area of expertise, she quickly tried to get up to speed but later learned that her superior thought she asked too many questions.
She remembered one particular presentation where she was discussing drilling prospects in Louisiana. One of her superiors rapidly fired questions at her, and she was able to answer them all without fail. He then pointed to a well on the map that was outside the area of discussion and started asking questions about that site. Melissa didn’t know the answers since it wasn’t part of the assignment. However, he continued to aggressively ask her question after question so that she had to say “I don’t know” repeatedly in front of a room full of colleagues.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t an isolated incident. Melissa was put into a position where she was constantly questioned, which had a snowball effect. She started to lose her confidence and question whether she had made the right decision to become a geologist. When she later examined her personnel file and saw the paper trail that was being laid to set her up and justify a future layoff, she decided to take control and turn things around to her advantage.
She enrolled in an MBA program where the company paid 75% of employee tuition. Even though she had been out of school for five years, she got 100% on her first statistics test. She knew then that she was the intelligent woman she once thought she was. Once she resumed that attitude, she stopped being the victim. The company paid to reeducate her, she moved to a different department and had a long and prosperous career there.
Melissa got out of the situation by making a lateral move and rising to success. Unfortunately, that’s one of just a few strategies that typically work in a gaslighting situation. The choices are usually to leave the company or try to get into a new vertical under someone else’s supervision. You can try to address the problem with your boss on your own, but that’s not recommended. They usually go on the offensive when they are confronted, and rarely will you emerge unscathed. In my experience, going to human resources or the gaslighter’s superior typically doesn’t work either because that person is aligned with the right people.
That’s part of the reason why gaslighters get away with their bad behavior. They build strong relationships with those in power so that they are deeply trusted, and they get rid of people who threaten them. They are smart, ruthless, charismatic and are so convincing that others are blind to their manipulation. If you become a target, it’s almost impossible to survive in that environment.
Distinguish The Flame
There’s a difference between a tough boss and a gaslighting supervisor, so be able to tell the difference. A strict manager will give you feedback to help you succeed. A gaslighter doesn’t want you to thrive so they will sabotage your efforts and insult you along the way.
If you are being gaslighted, document every interaction including dates, times and quotes, and do it on your personal device, not one that is company-owned. Regularly ask to review your personnel files.
Lastly, get out of that environment. If you don’t, you will question yourself and lose your confidence, which takes an emotional toll. Loss of sleep, anxiety, depression and questioning your own sanity can trigger nervous breakdowns. People who gaslight often prey on empathetic people. Be on the lookout for the signs so you aren’t the next victim.
If you are experiencing a gaslighting situation in your life, a coach can help you through it.