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Thom Dennis

Serenity in Leadership Ltd


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What is workplace gaslighting and how can you spot the signs?

Gaslighting is an insidiously toxic behaviour that organisations must factor into anti-bullying workplace strategies.

In the past gaslighting at work used to be associated with intentional psychological manipulation by a boss or colleague, aimed to make you doubt your recollection or perception of events, sometimes seriously affecting the target’s mental wellbeing.

Increasingly workplace gaslighting perpetrators use this technique to influence and exert control over an individual.

As gaslighting can be hard to pinpoint it is not surprising that there is little research on how widespread it is to date. CIPD research in 2022 showed that 15% of employees in the UK experienced bullying over the past three years. Furthermore, a MHR Global poll of over 3,000 people aged 18-54 years old revealed 58% of respondents have experienced gaslighting during their working lives.

How to recognise the strategies of a gaslighter through their behaviour and patterns

A gaslighter downplays, denies truths or inaccurately retells events, playing on any insecurities and vulnerabilities to exert control over their target. They may tell you that you are “too sensitive” when making an inappropriate remark, or they may exclude you from something that you should be involved in, including meetings.

Key signs that you are being gaslit include a persistent negative appraisal of your performance, looks, emotions, and the way you do things – both publicly (but subtly) and to you directly. You may be the target of gossip, and be made to feel belittled, excluded or inferior.

A gaslighter will always want to have control over their target.

When someone pretends to be helpful but sets you up for failure, or says one thing and then does another, or tells you that you are misremembering, you are being gaslit. Comments or ‘jokes’ about a person’s gender, culture, age or any other protected trait are always inappropriate and often a way to gaslight.

They may say you are on target for a promotion but then ensure that you don’t get it by bad-mouthing you. They might block you from swapping to an alternative role in a different department internally.

They may try to discipline you but not follow proper company processes or conduct any formal investigation. They may interrupt you when you are speaking or leave the room when you are talking.

Gaslighting is all about control

A gaslighter will always want to have control over their target and won’t like to be challenged or proved wrong.

They tend to be insecure themselves but deflect this by controlling and undermining others. They need to have power, can often be narcissistic and can be toxic leaders, but they aren’t often easy to spot.

The impact of being gaslit

Gaslighting is insidious and potentially very damaging. When you are being gas-lit you may feel uneasy coming to work.

It can result in you wanting to move jobs, and it can affect your personal life, relationships and wellbeing. Because it can be so subtle it can be difficult to ask for help or support.

Dysfunctional behaviour affects everyone and can grossly affect the culture of the company.

When repeated over time this behaviour can push someone off balance, making them feel their workplace is psychologically unsafe.

It can leave them feeling isolated, questioning themselves and doubting the quality of their work, and who their friends are, causing them to lose confidence and self-esteem.

Why dysfunctional behaviour such as gaslighting must stop

Dysfunctional behaviour affects everyone and can grossly affect the culture of the company as psychological safety is lost, as with any sort of bullying.

When people feel stressed and anxious, the environment won’t be a happy, creative or productive one. An organisation will lose talent and absenteeism will increase as the target may dread going to work or feel they have to hide parts of themselves.

Organisations won’t get the best out of their people because both the perpetrator and the target’s attention is elsewhere. Suppose others notice the gaslighting and see the perpetrator is getting away with it. In that case, it will affect them either as ‘hopeless’ bystanders or by encouraging them to join in, especially if the aggressor is a role model.

If you don’t call out poor behaviour you are condoning it.  Ask the perpetrator – “what is your intention?”

How leaders can manage suspected gaslighting at work

Leaders and managers must be equipped to spot and address gaslighting quickly, to ensure this toxic behaviour doesn’t permeate.

1. Look for the classic but subtle signs of a gaslighter

Be sensitive to colleagues who have newly lowered levels of self-esteem. For example, if you are in a meeting and someone who should be there hasn’t been invited then question it.

2. Don’t downplay or dismiss what the target is telling you

When someone comes to you to report gaslighting behaviour, don’t downplay it or undermine them. Actively listen and give assurance that action will be taken. They are likely to have already gone through several stages of self-doubt. Discounting feedback is damaging and re-traumatising. Great care is needed.

3. Don’t look the other way

If you don’t call out poor behaviour you are condoning it.  Ask the perpetrator – “what is your intention?” Take a stand for the sake of the target but also everyone around them.

The more we don’t call bullies out, the more powerful they become. It can be hard for whistleblowers to stand alone but there is power in numbers.

4. Let the gaslighter know you are on to them

Ask for evidence of what they are saying about the target.  Follow antibullying protocol and if needs be, put them on a probationary period.

5. Ensure leaders are trained and equipped to deal with bullying of any sort

Leadership training on how to maintain standards of behaviour, how to deal with difficult situations when people are being traumatised and how to be a support are crucial.

Furthermore, teams need specific training on what gaslighting is and what the signs are to look out for and to understand the power of language.

How to manage if you are being gaslighted at work

Gaslighting doesn’t only impact junior colleagues. Middle and senior managers can also be at the sharp end of this toxic behaviour by their ‘peers’. You may feel it’s happening to you. If so, here’s what to do.

1. Start a formal complaint

Discrimination should not be accepted by any organisation. If you experience workplace gaslighting based on your religion, race, gender or sexual orientation, it is advisable to start a harassment complaint.

2. Check how you are feeling and share with someone you trust

If you consistently feel anxious, confused, or emotionally drained after interactions with someone, it may be a sign of gaslighting. Trust your instincts even when the gaslighter is trying to confuse and wrongfoot you.

Look for constant denial, undermining behaviour, manipulation, contradictions and blame-shifting. Record the gaslighter’s actions and consult with trusted colleagues.

Explain the situation in detail and ask for their support and valuable insights. Focus on self-care to stay balanced.

3. If you feel able, arrange a meeting with the gaslighter, in the presence of others

This will help you tackle the bullying and call them out to disarm the negative behaviour. Setting boundaries for yourself is empowering and helps to lift you out of the gaslighter’s influence.

Interested in this topic? Read Six common toxic traits harming your organisation

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