How gaslighting is rearing its head in the workplace

Tuesday, May 24th, 2022 09:00 | By
Photo of angry boss unhappy with female employee performance

Has your superior or colleague ever invalidated what you know to be true forcing you to question the facts and, ultimately, yourself and your ability to do your job?

If so, you may be a victim of gaslighting. Gaslighting is commonly talked about in terms of intimate relationships. However, many employees continue to experience it in the workplace.

Gaslighting is when someone uses psychological manipulation in order to bring someone else’s sanity into question.

“It is a form of psychological abuse and like all other forms of abuse, the perpetrator usually hopes to gain a level of control over their victims. The workplace is often a melting pot whereby people of diverse backgrounds, cultures, personality traits and beliefs all come together to form a team with a common goal. The manifestation of these differences is usually expressed behaviourally, good and bad, and often affects interpersonal relationships with colleague,” says psychologist Faith Gichanga.

Changing goalposts

Jennifer Gitau an Information Technology expert, knows this form of abuse too well. She has been following up on her employer’s promise to give her a promotion and pay rise for a while now.

She is always promised that this would be done once she completes a certain project. But after she is done on her part, her employer changes the goalposts.

“I have been faithful to deliver my end of the bargain. But when I ask about my raise, my boss always plays the victim and never wants to fulfil his end of the bargain. At the end of the day, I am the one who apologises, which always leaves me frustrated,” she says.

Manifestation of abuse

There are various ways that gaslighting manifests in the workplace. For instance, someone may undermine the way you work just to make you doubt your skills or yourself. It can also entail making another person question their memory, their sanity through denial, contradiction, misdirection or outrightly lying. 

“At the workplace, gaslighting may take various forms. It could be, for example, having a verbal conversation and agreeing on an action point with a colleague, only for the person to deny the existence of such a conversation or misremember what was agreed on. It may be a colleague or a superior who says one thing but does contrary instead,” Faith explains.

Other ways that it may manifest, the expert says, is when a colleague pretends to be helpful when a superior is watching or chooses to offer encouragement to a colleague during meetings while he or she really doesn’t care about the person, in the absence of an audience.

Or when someone at work downplays their adverse behaviour toward you or your work or when they are used to lying about things, big or small. A co-worker might offer to handle a part of a group project you are spearheading then later deny it, saying something like “Don’t blame me if you can’t get your work done!”

A gaslighter may also conveniently forget to invite you to an important meeting or to send you a crucial document that is to be tabled during a meeting in order to destabilise or discredit you.

Someone may say one thing in person and then denies it over email. Constant criticism, dismissing or belittling one’s work, continuously changing expectations, not communicating essential information, making promises and then denying them, saying they are working on something behind the scenes, but doing the opposite, taking credit for other people’s work, and many other, all point to gaslighting.

“One might be told that what they are doing is incorrect even when they are following the instructions given. Raising concerns in the company will have you dismissed or have your version of what’s happening denied.

You have a feeling of helplessness where one feels like they can’t do anything right. Your views and contributions are ignored. Boundaries are ignored and you often feel a desperate need to please or win their approval. You feel mentally and physically exhausted. You sometimes question if you’re losing your mind or if there’s something wrong with you,” shares Faith.

The psychologist says this behaviour is damaging to workplace cohesion. It also affects productivity. “It creates a toxic environment where employees may not feel emotionally safe and as a result, feel like they have to look out for themselves and have to keep watching their back. Sometimes, employees may form cliques to look out for each other, which is also a threat to teamwork.

Gaslighting affects the mental health of the victims, such as lowering self-esteem or feeling anxious at work, which in turn lowers employee performance and productivity. This means that it is in the best interest of an employer who notices or is made aware of such behaviour to act fast and decisively to squash that kind of behaviour or organizational culture,” she continues.

How to cope

Gaslighting is dangerous because it is sneaky. It does not happen all at once and usually, there is little proof to show others that it is happening. This means that it can get the best of anyone, no matter how self-assured they are.

Faith says that despite the fact that gaslighting is real, there are various ways that employees can prevent or cope with it.

First of all, it is important to document all conversations with a gaslighter.

“After every verbal communication, it is important to follow up with an email and when possible, to have a copy, or at least one other person in the know. It is also useful to avoid interactions with a gaslighter as much as possible, or if you must, let the interactions be as brief to the point and as un-emotive as possible, a strategy known as grey-rocking. This means that even when they get to you, instead of confronting them, take it up with a superior or the human resource office, but not with the individual,” she says.

If all else fails and there are other work options, an employee may leave that work in order to protect their mental health.

“Counselling therapy is also indicated to help cope or reverse the effects of gaslighting as sometimes leaving the environment may simply not be enough,” she says in the ending.

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