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Gaslighting at the Workplace

by Harwant Khush, Ph.D., Research Consultant, Tero International

Have you ever heard someone use such sayings to you, or have you used these on others?

"We talked about this before; don't you recall?"

"You are exaggerating?"

"Don't be too sensitive; get over it."

These are examples of how people influence, sway, and intentionally manipulate others' behavior. Such subtle, deliberate psychological abuses and actions are known as "gaslighting." Currently, gaslighting is labeled one of the "axis of workplace evils"(Gaslighting).

The pervasiveness of gaslighting at the workplace impacts its psycho-social environment, creates low morale, and may lead to legal liabilities. In addition, it affects the efficiency, effectiveness, and productivity of workers. Hence, it is vital to understand the concept of gaslighting, its pervasiveness, and its implications.

Gaslighting is a colloquial term originating from the 1938 play Gas Light and its film adaptation in 1944. In the film, a husband intentionally confused his wife by flickering gas-powered lights. When questioned, she was told that she was imagining and it was in her head. The husband was purposely and discreetly manipulating his wife's environment with the pretext of declaring her insane, confining her to a mental institution, and eventually taking over her rich inheritance.

Although the term gaslighting originated in a romantic relationship, it is now highly rampant in workplaces. A survey by Twitter on 3,033 respondents showed that more than 50 percent between 18 and 54 years of age had experienced gaslighting at work. Thus, it is vital to understand why it happens and how to manage it.

What is Gaslighting?

Gaslighting is a psychological manipulation in which the gaslighters (abusers) intentionally manipulate the gaslightees' (victims) environment to make them question their version of events, memory, and sanity.

American Psychological Association defines it as: "to manipulate another person into doubting his or her perceptions, experiences, or understanding of events."

Robin Stern, an expert on gaslighting, describes it as a "...a form of psychological manipulation, in which the 'gaslighter' seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual (the 'gaslightee') or members of a group, intending to make targets question their own reality - or question their memory, their character and/or sometimes their sanity."

Thus, gaslighting is a deliberate, intentional abuse to exert power and control over gaslightees. It is not a personality disorder, but are the tactics narcissists use to manipulate, exercise power, and control people. No one is born a gaslighter. Instead, it is a socially learned and gradually reinforced behavior from early childhood. Its immediate impact may make victims feel they have a mental illness, but its long-term effect will lead to anxiety, depression, trauma, and low self-esteem.

Reasons for Gaslighting in Workplaces

Organizational policies, inequitable power structures, and often manipulative behavior of administrators and other personnel contribute to gaslighting. According to Palta Hill, Assistant Dean at the Wisconsin School of Business, some of the crucial reasons contributing to gaslighting are:

In addition to these factors, competitive business contractors and clients can also downgrade the psychological environment. Thus, it is imperative to recognize and handle gaslighting to manage workplaces successfully.

Gaslighting Signs and Techniques

"It starts with a lie. Each day the lies amplify. Time goes by, the lies turn to gaslighting. Eventually, the lies become smears about you." - Tracy Malone

Gaslighters use multiple techniques and tactics to create doubt in their victims' views, judgments, and perceptions. These include blaming, spinning the truth, contradiction, persistent denial, and lying. Such tactics may be implied directly by verbal intimidation, gossip, or other forms of oppression. Psychology Today specifies commonly used strategies and tactics:

These and other gaslighting tactics make their targeted employees unproductive and impact their credibility, self-worth, and performance.

How to Deal with Gaslighting

For organizations to be productive and successful, workers should not face personal and professional harassment, toxic gossip, and scheming co-workers. Such actions impact employees' morale, efficiency, and fast turnover. However, employers and employees can curtail and successfully manage gaslighting. An article in Psycom.netprovides some such suggestions:

In conclusion, dealing with gaslighters is as complex as standing up to a tyrant. It gets complicated at workplaces because it impacts employees' financial, psychological, and physical well-being. However, employers also need to comprehend that employees cannot endure gaslighting actions for long. Employers should also realize that they do not have the power and control to manipulate employees.

An ideal workplace should encourage employees to have open dialogues with bosses, co-workers, and team members without fearing repercussions. The social and professional environment of workplaces should be where all employees work together for shared goals, cooperate, and collaborate while upholding personal integrity. Although gaslighting has become a crucial issue, it can be managed when employers and employees maintain a positive work environment to enhance work productivity.

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