By Sara Keli
It may start with an email that sows a small seed of doubt in the recipient’s mind. Then there’s mention of conversations that they’re sure never took place and out of the blue comments from colleagues asking if they are ok. Before you know it, you’ve got a full-blown case of gaslighting at work on your hands.
Not only can gaslighting have potentially disastrous impacts on individuals and teams, but it can also play havoc with your workplace culture and business performance.
In our recent LinkedIn survey of more than 100 people, 77% of respondents indicated that they have experienced gaslighting in the workplace. Indeed, gaslighting at work is a topic that we need to be talking about.
What is gaslighting?
Rupert Bryce is an experienced Psychologist, HR consultant and leadership development coach. Over the years he has seen his fair share of gaslighting behaviour, and coached leaders and individuals to navigate and stamp out the behaviour in their own workplaces.
“Gaslighting is manipulative and undermining behaviour that is actually quite deliberate and subversive,” explains Bryce. “The behaviour is deliberate but not obvious. Often the goal of gaslighting is to trigger self-doubt and make the target question their self-worth, decision making and even the more personal construct of who they are in the workplace. It’s a form of unwanted harassment, predominantly through deliberate manipulation.”
You may be familiar with the Dark Triad of workplace manipulation – Narcissism, Psychopathy and Machiavellianism. Bryce says that gaslighting is often a form of one of these behaviours but that it leans more towards Machiavellianism.
“For one reason or another, the culture tolerates or permits overly political behaviours that are driven from a feeling of fear or a threat that the victim presents. Often a person will engage in gaslighting behaviour because their own needs aren’t being met. They are driven by having their self-worth constructed around needing to control, win or dominate.”
Gaslighting at work can take many forms and is never just one instance. Rather it is a long, sustained pattern of behaviour that builds in intensity over time. Bryce says that a gaslighter may:
- Send an email to the gaslightee that questions the value or accuracy of a fact.
- Say something quite direct and negative in a one-on-one conversation with the gaslightee only to deny it when confronted about it later.
- Exclude the gaslightee from a meeting or event invitation and then berate them for their non-attendance.
- Insist that a conversation about a deadline or project occurred, even though the gaslightee knows it did not.
Essentially, the behaviour serves to undermine the gaslightee in an almost covert manner to incite self-doubt to the point where they will concede by moving or resigning.
The impacts of gaslighting at work
It goes without saying that the impacts of gaslighting at work can run deep and wide.
“Gaslighting starts with the seed of self-doubt,” explains Bryce. “Then they start to excessively worry, develop anxiety, doubt their contribution and their self-esteem, self-efficacy and self-worth all erode. At the end of the day gaslighting at work has very detrimental impacts to the outcomes the organisation is trying to achieve.”
With one team member – the gaslightee – suffering from the above-listed impacts, and another employee – the gaslighter – investing significant time and energy in this manipulative behaviour, the result can be quite toxic within the team and the organisation. If left unchecked, the gaslighting can be even more problematic.
“Some people get very good at manipulating their own workplaces for their own gain. When the gaslighting is allowed to continue, the behaviour is reinforced and it becomes a sport to them. Then the next person comes along and the gaslighting starts all over again.”
The challenges of identifying gaslighting behaviour
While other forms of workplace harassment are more easily pinpointed, by its very nature, gaslighting, particularly in its early stages, can fly under the radar. Gaslighters can appear very supportive and positive in group or public situations.
This in itself is why the behaviour is so damaging. The gaslighter denies conversations, appears supportive in team meetings and may even express concern about the gaslightee to other colleagues.
You might have a case of a gaslighter who has multiple face-to-face conversations with different members of the team saying they are concerned about the gaslightee because they missed a project deadline. Each of those colleagues then asks the gaslightee if they are ok. On the surface, it appears as though they are supporting their colleague when in reality they are working to sow further self-doubt. The gaslightee starts to feel like people are talking about them. And the project deadline they supposedly “missed”, well they are positive they never had the conversation the gaslighter claims they did to agree said deadline.
“When you look at more commonly discussed negative workplace behaviour, such as passive-aggressive behaviour, it’s much easier to call it out and put a label on it,” says Bryce. “The more overt control is much easier to detect. The challenge with gaslighting is that it’s delivered in multiple forms across multiple times with multiple people.”
Identifying gaslighting behaviour isn’t straightforward. However, that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. In fact, it’s imperative that it’s identified and appropriately handled. The risks are far too great to do nothing.
Managing and preventing gaslighting in the workplace
There is one concept that Bryce believes comes into play with identifying and managing gaslighting in the workplace, and that’s the bystander.
“Understanding the bystander effect is understanding why people don’t speak up about others. When people see really negative things in the workplaces they often don’t act because of this really strange presumption that if no one else is coming they’ll step in, but as soon as someone else steps in they sit back and worry.
“They think what they are seeing is bad but they don’t speak up because of a set of internal assumptions such as the belief that they’ll get sacked if they speak up or they justify their inaction because they have their own worries. The bystander effect relies on others stepping up and stepping in so you can take a more passive role. But sometimes that doesn’t happen and the impact of avoidance can be severe. People need to develop their way of finding courage and comfort to speak up in a timely manner.”
When Bryce is called into an organisation to help deal with gaslighting behaviours, he looks for the pattern and not the instance. That’s where bystanders come into play. The more instances of behaviour that are reported, the better the chance of establishing a pattern.
However, encouraging bystanders, or the gaslightees themselves, to speak up about the behaviour doesn’t just happen. It relies on systems and processes that guarantee safety.
“Organisations must allow people to speak up without retribution, reprisal and without it being a career-limiting move,” says Bryce. “It should be supported by the most senior people in the organisation.
“Gaslighting in the workplace can be managed and prevented when the organisational culture, behaviours, systems and processes are considered and reviewed regularly through things such as peer coaching networks, manager-once-removed conversations, upward feedback etc.
“All staff should have equal opportunity and access so that they don’t just think and feel supported but they have systems of support around them to whistleblow and report manipulative behaviour.” There is also a role for broader educational workshops to raise awareness of and prevent gaslighting. Workshops can help people to increase their self-awareness and resilience to identify the triggers of gaslighting and how it manifests in the workplace.
There is no place for gaslighting at work
Gaslighting at work is psychologically damaging and counterproductive to high-performance cultures. According to Bryce, “when individual insecurities are let loose and allowed to exist, it really detracts from the organisational purpose and values.
“There is a growing awareness around what we are doing to ensure we have workplaces where people want to come to work, to do a good job, to contribute. Our leaders have a very significant obligation to make sure employees have healthy, safe workplaces.”
Bryce also asserts that workplaces need to place humanity at the heart of decisions to maintain safe and purposeful workplaces.
“As workplaces are tending to be more flexible and digital we also need to maintain the humanity and the heart. It’s a human rights obligation but it also makes good business sense to have employees who are looked after and engaged. If you’re providing a safe, responsible and human workplace that will impact on discretionary effort, performance and organisational reputation.”