Gaslighting in the workplace
Have you experienced gaslighting?
The term gaslighting is rooted in the 1938 play Gas Light and its film adaptations which has been subsequently used in clinical research literature. Wikipedia says:
Gaslighting or gas-lighting is a form of mental abuse in which information is twisted or spun, selectively omitted to favor the abuser, or false information is presented with the intent of making victims doubt their own memory, perception, and sanity. Instances may range simply from the denial by an abuser that previous abusive incidents ever occurred, up to the staging of bizarre events by the abuser with the intention of disorienting the victim.
Very often referenced in relation to domestic abuse, people are surprised to hear the term in the workplace. But it happens there too. Because women generally have a softer communication style and are considered to be more emotional, they are frequently targets of this behaviour. At best, it can be bulldozing by a forceful personality. At worst it is a form of bullying.
Psychology Today, cites a few common signs of workplace gaslighting. Constantly having to second-guess a colleague or boss is high on the list. Wondering if you are being too sensitive or emotional. Questioning your judgements of certain situations and doubting your memory of interactions instructions. Your perception of reality is being turned upside down.
Gaslighting when combined with belittling or humiliating someone, can be damaging to their their self-confidence and professional image. It's not always intentional but damaging nevertheless.
Peggy, a customer service representative says "My last boss had me doubting my own sanity. I thought I had the onset of early dementia. She has a very powerful personality and speaks with force and conviction all the time. She never expresses doubt. Emails with instructions never arrived in my in box. Assignment deadlines were given without telling me ("you must have forgotten") and times and places when key information was shared were a complete blank. ("I mentioned it on xxxx, after the monthly meeting, Joe was there too.") When I tried to raise this issue, there was a patronizing insinuation that I was "a sensitive soul," with a suggestion I might need some support for stress.
Even though I reached all my KPIs I received a poor performance review based on inadequate organisation skills, erratic communication and obstructive manner. This had never happened before. I had always been a star performer and lead member of the team."
Although men are more guilty of aggressive bullying, when the bully is a woman, the bullying tends to be softer and more covert, the target is more likely to be a woman as well. Read: How to deal with a bully boss
Irena recently joined a high-profile team in a well known international organisation. She was the only outside hire ever in the department. She was not formally onboarded and from the outset she felt antagonism from the people who now reported to her. She believes that they resented her arrival and the new layer which had been inserted into the organisation. Meetings continued to be held with senior members of the hierarchy without debriefing her or including her. Conversations stopped when she entered the room. Discussions she had with individual team members were shared openly and the head of function was told that she was causing management tension. He expressed doubts about her appointment and publicly reduced the scope of her role without consultation. Irena started to feel undermined, doubt her approach and lose confidence. At the time of writing she is on sick leave.
There is a significant difference between poor performance or management style and gaslighting.
Here are 4 things you can do immediately to combat gaslighting:
- Talk to your colleagues. Share your experience. Is it just you or do they have the same problem?
- Keep records and benchmark situations.
- Confirm requests and assignment details by email.
- Ask for, or seek; a mentor or coach. When confronted with criticisms of your work, log a complaint and escalate if you need to.
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Gaslighting is insidious and can do a lot of damage. Make sure you speak up.
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