What is gaslighting in the workplace: Examples & Tips to handle it as a leader

Santhosh
13 min read
What is gaslighting in the workplace: Examples & Tips to handle it as a leader
What is gaslighting in the workplace: Examples & Tips to handle it as a leader

In the vast tapestry of workplace dynamics, gaslighting is a dark thread that threatens to unravel the very fabric of trust, integrity, and mental well-being.

You might be surprised to learn that millions of employees in the United States report experiencing workplace bullying, with gaslighting being one of its most insidious forms.

But what exactly is gaslighting, and how can leaders navigate this treacherous terrain to ensure a healthy and positive work environment?

Let’s delve into this critical issue, and shine a light on real-world examples of gaslighting in the workplace, unveiling the tactics that manipulators employ to cast shadows of doubt. But fear not, for we'll also provide leaders with a toolkit of strategies and tips to confront gaslighting.

What is gaslighting at work?

Employee is feeling stressed in the workplace
What is gaslighting at work?

Gaslighting at work is a form of psychological manipulation in which an individual, typically a coworker or supervisor, seeks to undermine another person's perception of reality, causing them to doubt their thoughts, feelings, and experiences.

This behavior often involves persistent denial or distortion of facts, trivializing concerns, and making the target feel as if they are overreacting or being irrational. The goal of gaslighting is to gain power and control over the victim by eroding their self-esteem, confidence, and trust in their judgment.

It can create a toxic and emotionally abusive work environment, leading to stress, anxiety, and decreased job performance in those who experience it. Recognizing gaslighting is essential to address and combat this harmful behavior effectively.

Where did the term "gaslighting" come from?

Employer is being toxic with an employee
Where did the term "gaslighting" come from?

The term "gaslighting" originated from a 1938 stage play titled "Gas Light," written by British playwright Patrick Hamilton. This play was later adapted into two films, one in the UK in 1940 and another in the United States in 1944.

The story revolves around a manipulative husband who tries to convince his wife and those around her that she is going insane. He does this by dimming the gas-powered lights (hence the title "Gas Light") and then insisting that the level of illumination has not changed, which leads his wife to question her perception of reality.

The central theme of the play and films is psychological manipulation and the deliberate undermining of someone's confidence in their perceptions. The husband's actions are intended to make his wife doubt her sanity and her ability to trust her judgment.

The term "gaslighting" has since become a widely recognized concept in psychology and popular culture.

It is used to describe a form of emotional abuse and manipulation where one person seeks to gain power and control over another by causing them to doubt their reality or memory.

Gaslighting can take many forms, including denial of facts, trivializing the other person's feelings, and persistent lying, all to destabilize the target's confidence and make them more dependent on the gaslighter.

What is considered gaslighting in the workplace?

Employees are pointing at an employee
What is considered gaslighting in the workplace?

Gaslighting in the workplace is a form of psychological abuse and emotional manipulation where an individual, often in a position of authority or power, seeks to make another person question their perceptions, memories, and reality. It is a destructive behavior that can have serious consequences for the victim's mental and emotional well-being.

Here are some key characteristics and examples of gaslighting in the workplace:

  1. Denying reality: Gaslighters often deny facts, events, or statements that they previously confirmed, causing the victim to doubt their memory and understanding. For instance, a manager may deny having approved an employee's time off, even though they did so in writing.
  2. Trivializing concerns: Gaslighters downplay or minimize the victim's concerns and feelings. They might respond to an employee's complaint about a heavy workload with statements like, "You're too sensitive" or "You're overreacting."
  3. Shifting blame: Gaslighters frequently shift blame onto the victim for issues or mistakes that aren't their fault. They might say, "You're the reason the project failed" when it was actually due to the manager's mismanagement.
  4. Withholding information: Gaslighting can involve selectively withholding information or feedback to keep the victim in the dark or create uncertainty. For example, a supervisor might not share critical project details and then blame the employee for not meeting expectations.
  5. Projecting false accusations: Gaslighters may project their shortcomings or unethical behavior onto the victim. For instance, an individual who regularly takes credit for others' work might accuse a team member of being untrustworthy.
  6. Isolating the victim: Gaslighters may work to isolate the victim from colleagues, friends, or family, making them more dependent on the abuser's perspective. This can occur through tactics like spreading rumors or criticism about the victim.
  7. Using emotional manipulation: Gaslighters use emotional manipulation techniques to gain control, such as guilt-tripping, making the victim feel responsible for the abuser's behavior, or using praise and flattery to maintain their power.
  8. Constantly changing the rules: Gaslighters may change the rules or expectations frequently, making it impossible for the victim to meet their standards. This creates a sense of confusion and inadequacy.
  9. Discounting feelings: Victims are often told that their feelings are irrational or unwarranted. For example, if an employee expresses frustration about a heavy workload, the gaslighter might respond with, "You're just being paranoid."
  10. Repetition of false information: Gaslighters repeatedly assert false information until the victim begins to question their understanding of the situation. Over time, the victim may start to accept the false narrative.

Gaslighting can lead to serious psychological and emotional distress, including anxiety, depression, self-doubt, and a sense of powerlessness.

Recognizing these behaviors is essential, and addressing gaslighting in the workplace requires creating a safe environment for employees to report such behavior and taking appropriate action against the perpetrators.

Is gaslighting an HR violation?

HRs showing thumbs down for gaslighting in the workplace
Is gaslighting an HR violation?

Gaslighting in the workplace can indeed be considered an HR violation, as it goes against the principles of a healthy and respectful work environment. Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation that seeks to make someone doubt their perceptions, memories, or sanity.

When it occurs in the workplace, it can lead to serious issues, including a hostile work environment, stress, anxiety, and reduced job satisfaction. HR departments should take gaslighting complaints seriously and have processes in place to address such issues.

This may involve conducting thorough investigations, providing support to affected employees, and taking appropriate disciplinary actions against the perpetrators. Prevention is also key, with HR teams promoting a culture of open communication, respect, and trust within the organization to discourage such behaviors from occurring in the first place.

What are gaslighting phrases?

Employer is having a heated conversation with an employee
What are gaslighting phrases?

Gaslighting phrases are manipulative and psychologically abusive tactics that are used to make someone doubt their thoughts, feelings, and perceptions.

They are often employed by individuals or even in certain power dynamics to gain control or maintain dominance over another person. Gaslighting can have severe emotional and psychological effects on the victim.

Here are some common gaslighting phrases:

  1. "You're too sensitive." - This phrase is used to dismiss the other person's feelings and emotions, making them feel like their reactions are unwarranted.
  2. "You're imagining things." - Gaslighters often try to convince their victims that what they perceive or remember is entirely fabricated.
  3. "You're crazy" or "You're losing your mind." - These statements undermine the person's mental stability, making them question their sanity.
  4. "It's all in your head." - Gaslighters may deny the existence of a problem, making the victim feel irrational or delusional.
  5. "You're being too paranoid." - This phrase is used to make the victim question their gut feelings and instincts.
  6. "You're making a big deal out of nothing." - Gaslighters minimize their victim's concerns, causing them to doubt the validity of their feelings.
  7. "I never said that" or "You're remembering it wrong." - Gaslighters often deny their statements or actions, making the victim question their memory.
  8. "You're just trying to seek attention." - This phrase discredits the victim's need for support and validation.
  9. "You're the one who's always causing problems." - Gaslighters shift blame onto the victim, making them feel responsible for issues they didn't create.
  10. "You're just being dramatic." - Gaslighters may downplay the victim's emotions, making them feel as though they are overreacting.
  11. "You're too controlling." - This accusation is often used when the victim tries to assert boundaries or seek independence.
  12. "No one else has a problem with me." - Gaslighters may isolate the victim by suggesting that they are the only ones with issues, thus undermining their concerns.
  13. "You're just trying to play the victim." - This statement makes the victim feel guilty for seeking understanding and support.
  14. "You're ungrateful." - Gaslighters manipulate the victim's sense of gratitude and make them feel like they should accept mistreatment.
  15. "You must be cheating or hiding something." - In intimate relationships, gaslighters may use baseless accusations to create mistrust and insecurity.

Gaslighting phrases are harmful because they erode an individual's self-esteem, self-worth, and trust in their judgment.

Recognizing these tactics is essential to protect oneself from their damaging effects and maintain a healthy sense of self. If you suspect you are a victim of gaslighting, seeking support from a mental health professional or a trusted confidant is crucial.

12 Gaslighting in the workplace examples

Employee is getting punched through computer
12 Gaslighting in the workplace examples

Gaslighting in the workplace is a toxic behavior that can have severe emotional and psychological consequences for employees. It involves manipulating or distorting facts, events, or situations to make a person doubt their perceptions, memory, or sanity.

Here are 12 examples of gaslighting in the workplace:

  1. Denying promised benefits: A manager promises an employee a raise but later claims they never made such an offer, making the employee question their memory.
  2. Project sabotage: A colleague intentionally withholds vital project information, and then accuses the victim of incompetence when the project falters.
  3. Blame shifting: When mistakes occur, a gaslighter blames others, even when they are clearly at fault. They manipulate the situation to make others feel responsible.
  4. Undermining confidence: Constantly belittling an employee's skills and abilities to the point where they begin to doubt their competence.
  5. Selective amnesia: Gaslighters may conveniently forget conversations, agreements, or promises, causing their target to question whether the interaction even took place.
  6. False accusations: Accusing an employee of behavior they did not engage in, causing them to defend themselves against false claims.
  7. Invalidating emotions: Dismissing an employee's feelings, such as telling them they are "overreacting" or "too sensitive."
  8. Silent treatment: Isolating an employee by ignoring them or excluding them from meetings and social interactions.
  9. Withholding information: Deliberately not sharing critical information and then blaming the victim for being uninformed.
  10. Constant criticism: Relentless criticism, no matter how well the employee performs, erodes their self-esteem and self-worth.
  11. Unreasonable expectations: Setting unrealistic goals or expectations and berating the employee when they inevitably fall short.
  12. Projecting fault: A gaslighter projects their flaws and insecurities onto others, making the victim feel as though they are responsible for the gaslighter's issues.

Recognizing these behaviors is the first step in addressing gaslighting in the workplace. Both employees and employers must foster open communication, a culture of respect, and policies that protect employees from such toxic behavior.

Addressing gaslighting helps create a healthier and more productive work environment.

How to deal with gaslighting at work as a manager?

How to deal with gaslighting at work as a manager?
How to deal with gaslighting at work as a manager?

Dealing with gaslighting at work, whether as a manager or an employee, is crucial for maintaining a healthy work environment. Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation where someone attempts to make another person doubt their perception, memory, or reality.

Here are some strategies for handling gaslighting in the workplace, particularly if you're a manager:

  1. Recognize the signs: The first step in dealing with gaslighting is to recognize the signs. Gaslighters often use tactics like denying their actions, shifting blame, and questioning your memory. Be aware of these behaviors.
  2. Document everything: Keep detailed records of interactions, especially when you suspect gaslighting. Note dates, times, locations, and people present during the conversations. This documentation will be valuable if you need to address the issue formally.
  3. Maintain self-confidence: Gaslighters often target individuals with low self-esteem. Building and maintaining self-confidence is essential. Trust your instincts and feelings; don't let anyone undermine your self-assurance.
  4. Seek support: Share your experiences with trusted colleagues, friends, or mentors. Discussing your concerns with others can provide emotional support and help you gain different perspectives on the situation.
  5. Set boundaries: Establish clear boundaries for acceptable workplace behavior. Communicate these boundaries to your team and address any violations promptly.
  6. Confront the issue: If you're certain of gaslighting, address the problem head-on. Choose a private and non-confrontational setting, express your concerns, and use your documented evidence as necessary.
  7. Involve HR or senior management: If the gaslighting continues or escalates, involve your HR department or senior management. They can mediate the situation, conduct an investigation, and take appropriate action to address the issue.
  8. Offer training and education: Consider providing training on workplace behavior, emotional intelligence, and communication skills. This can help prevent gaslighting and improve overall workplace relationships.
  9. Encourage open communication: Promote open and honest communication within your team. Encourage employees to speak up about their concerns and assure them that their voices will be heard.
  10. Support the targets: If you have employees who are victims of gaslighting, offer your support. Listen to their concerns, assist them in addressing the issue, and ensure they feel safe and valued in the workplace.
  11. Set a positive example: As a manager, your behavior sets the tone for your team. Demonstrate respectful and transparent communication, and model the behavior you expect from your employees.
  12. Review workplace policies: Ensure that your organization's policies and procedures address workplace harassment and provide clear guidance on reporting and handling such issues.
  13. Self-care: Coping with gaslighting can be emotionally draining. Take care of your mental and emotional well-being by practicing self-care and seeking professional help if needed.

Dealing with gaslighting in the workplace is a challenging task, but it's essential to maintain a healthy, productive, and respectful work environment. By recognizing the signs, addressing the issue, and fostering open communication, you can create a workplace where gaslighting is less likely to occur and where employees feel safe and valued.

13 Tips to deal with gaslighting at work

Employee feeling burnt out in the workplace
13 Tips to deal with gaslighting at work

Gaslighting at work can be a challenging and distressing experience, as it involves manipulative behaviors that undermine a person's confidence and perception of reality. Here are 13 tips to help individuals deal with gaslighting at work:

  1. Educate yourself: Understanding what gaslighting is can be the first step in recognizing it. Learn about the common tactics used by gaslighters.
  2. Trust your instincts: If something doesn't feel right, it probably isn't. Trust your gut feelings when you suspect manipulation.
  3. Document everything: Keep a record of incidents, including dates, times, locations, and what was said or done. This can be essential if you need to address the issue formally.
  4. Seek support: Talk to trusted colleagues, friends, or family about what you're experiencing. They can provide emotional support and an outside perspective.
  5. Stay calm: Gaslighters often try to provoke strong emotional reactions. Practice remaining composed and assertive during interactions.
  6. Set boundaries: Establish personal life boundaries and make them clear to your colleagues. Let them know what behavior is unacceptable.
  7. Confront the issue: Politely but firmly address the gaslighter, expressing your concerns about their behavior. Use "I" statements to explain how it affects you.
  8. Maintain confidence: Gaslighters thrive on undermining self-esteem. Focus on your accomplishments and maintain self-confidence.
  9. Use empowering language: Instead of saying, "You make me feel," say, "I feel this way when this happens." This shifts the focus to your feelings.
  10. Stay professional: Continue to perform your job to the best of your ability, and don't allow the gaslighting to affect your work quality.
  11. Consider mediation: If the issue persists, suggest mediation or a meeting with HR to address the problem with a neutral third party.
  12. Know when to escalate: If all else fails and the situation worsens, you may need to escalate the issue to higher management or HR.
  13. Self-care: Gaslighting can take a toll on your mental health. Prioritize self-care, seek therapy or counseling if necessary, and consider support groups for those who've experienced similar situations.

Remember that dealing with gaslighting is not about changing the gaslighter but about protecting yourself and maintaining your well-being. In some cases, it might be best to consider whether staying in the current work environment is the healthiest option for you.

How can an employee experience platform help you curb gaslighting at the workplace?

How can an employee experience platform help you curb gaslighting at the workplace?
How can an employee experience platform help you curb gaslighting at the workplace?

An Employee Experience Platform (EXP) plays a vital role in addressing and preventing gaslighting in the workplace, which involves manipulative tactics to make employees doubt their perceptions, memories, or sanity. Here's how an EXP can help curb gaslighting:

Transparent feedback mechanisms

EXPs often include features for anonymous feedback and surveys. This empowers employees to express their concerns and experiences openly without fear of retaliation. When multiple employees report similar issues, it becomes harder for gaslighters to dismiss these concerns as isolated incidents.

Documentation and accountability

Many EXPs enable employees to document their interactions and communications, including meetings, emails, and performance evaluations. Having a clear record of what was said or done can help employees validate their experiences and hold gaslighters accountable for their actions.

360-Degree feedback

EXPs often facilitate 360-degree feedback, where employees can provide input on their colleagues' behavior and performance. This creates a balanced view of interactions and can reveal patterns of manipulation or gaslighting.

Resource accessibility

Employee Experience Platforms frequently offer resources related to mental health, workplace ethics, and reporting procedures. Employees who suspect they are being gaslit can access these resources to understand what they're experiencing and how to address it.

Data Analytics

EXPs can analyze data from surveys and feedback to identify trends and patterns. If multiple employees report behavior indicative of gaslighting, the platform can flag these concerns, making it easier for HR or management to intervene.

Training and Awareness

EXPs can provide training modules and resources to raise awareness about gaslighting and its detrimental effects. By educating employees and managers about gaslighting behavior, organizations can create a culture that rejects such manipulative tactics.

Peer and manager assessments

By incorporating peer and manager assessments into performance evaluations, an EXP can provide a comprehensive view of employee behavior. Managers and peers can provide valuable insights into whether gaslighting or manipulative tactics are occurring.

Escalation paths

Employee Experience Platforms can define clear escalation paths for reporting issues related to gaslighting. Having a structured process ensures that employees have a way to escalate their concerns if they believe their experiences are not being addressed adequately.

An Employee Experience Platform can serve as a proactive tool to identify, prevent, and address gaslighting in the workplace. Through transparent positive and negative feedback mechanisms, documentation, training, and support for whistleblowers, EXPs empower employees and create a culture of accountability and fairness. This, in turn, helps organizations maintain a healthier and more productive work environment by curbing gaslighting behaviors.

Conclusion

In the complex landscape of the modern workplace, recognizing and addressing gaslighting is crucial. As leaders, we must be vigilant, fostering a culture of trust, empathy, and open communication.

By understanding the examples and following the tips outlined, we can dismantle the toxic roots of gaslighting, ensuring that our teams thrive in an environment where their voices are heard, their experiences validated, and their potential unleashed. Let's lead by example, and together, we can create workplaces that shine with respect and genuine collaboration.


Santhosh

Santhosh

Santhosh is a Jr. Product Marketer with 2+ years of experience. He loves to travel solo (though he doesn’t label them as vacations, they are) to explore, meet people, and learn new stories.