Gaslighting in the Workplace Part I: What Is Gaslighting and Who Does It?

Have you ever had a friend or coworker complain about how they can’t seem to do anything right at work? Or that their manager is super condescending but keeps stealing their ideas? Or they bring up a coworker who’s bullying them to HR, and HR sees them as the problem for being “too sensitive”?

These are signs of gaslighting, which is when someone lies and twists the truth until the victim thinks they’re crazy, an idiot, or completely incompetent. For examples of what gaslighting may look like at your job, check out this amazing medium post from comedian, Sarah Cooper.

cartoon of gaslighting example, when asked a question, answer a related but much simpler question

My favorite example.

You’ve probably been gaslighted. But don’t worry, the person doing it to you probably had no idea what they were doing. Regardless, the impact is generally the same – PTSD. I was gaslighted and only discovered my PTSD over four years after it had occurred, and it explained the relentless struggle I’d gone through since then. I never want this to happen to anyone ever again.

I’ve compiled behaviors from ten interviews including five victims of gaslighting, three HR managers, one diversity & inclusion consultant, and one lawyer who used to defend gaslighters in court. Each had stories that were so outrageous, they wouldn’t even qualify as fiction. Every person was pulled from my network, so there may be some inherent bias between the types of people I spoke with.

Below, you’ll find the gaslighting behaviors that occurred to or were witnessed by two or more people. See if any of these sound familiar, either because you’ve seen these behaviors in someone else, or they’re sparking some self-awareness.

Gaslighting Behaviors

  • I will do anything to convince others that I am right.
  • I have a compulsive need to control others.
  • When an employee submitted a formal complaint about me, I retaliated, denied it (even if they had evidence), and/or justified the behavior.
  • I’ve turned my team against another employee.
  • I don’t use pleasantries with some employees like, “please, excuse me, pardon me,” and/or give them the silent treatment, especially if they need to communicate with me to get their work done.

Other Behaviors Exhibited by Gaslighters

  • I recruit others to bully an employee, talk trash, start rumors, etc.
  • When confronted, I back off and avoid confrontation, then get back at them in a passive aggressive and/or unforeseen way.
  • I yell at employees and/or get into their personal space.
  • I do not respond to efforts to reconcile differences.
  • I’ve thrown things at other employees such as paper messages or chairs.
  • I’ve called other employees names and/or mocked them, especially if they were crying.
  • I cannot accept feedback or criticism without blaming others.
  • I am dishonest.

Remember, anyone can be gaslighted or a gaslighter. Just because we can’t imagine ourselves doing these things because we have the identity of being “a good person” (don’t we all), doesn’t mean we’re incapable.

I think that movies are helpful for illustrating examples of gaslighting that many of us have seen. The movie Hidden Figures illustrates this well, where Caucasians accept the status quo. But in reality, they are rationalizing the bullying of people of color. Racism in general is a telling example of how anyone can be a bully, regardless of their identity as a “good person”.

What’s also interesting is that all five of the gaslighting victims I interviewed were gaslighted by a boss. It seems to be more tempting and more easily justifiable if someone’s in power and on the hook for bigger responsibility. Of course, perspective matters as managers often think employees have more power because they don’t have as much responsibility or “as much to lose”, but this was not seen in this study. Again, this is not a recipe, just behaviors to look out for that were seen by two or more people.

Gaslighting Behaviors of Managers

  • My values and integrity shifted when I was promoted to management.
  • I do not lead by example.
  • My primary mission is to advance myself, not the employees I manage or my colleagues, even to their detriment.
  • When my employees make a mistake, I do not defend or support them and instead place the entire blame on them.
  • I treat some employees differently than other employees. I make them follow rules that no one else must follow, I’m stricter about rules with them, I threaten to write them up.
  • I snap at (certain) employees for making small errors.

If you’re still unsure, check-in with someone who’s straight with you, not just a trusted friend or colleague. Odds are, if you gaslight at work, you gaslight elsewhere. Think of other areas in your life where you may feel attacked or triggered. If someone immediately says, “Oh, no, of course not! You would never do those things,” but your gut is still nagging at you or you feel insecure (which we all are, but gaslighters in particular), check-in with someone who doesn’t agree with you whenever you ask, “Can you believe they did that?” It’s possible that you’ve surrounded yourself with people who validate you.

If you are a gaslighter, don’t worry. There’s hope, and we’ll cover that in Part II.

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