Gaslighting is a psychological term which means an aggressor manipulates someone into doubting reality. Gaslighting is now a fairly well-known term as the topics of domestic abuse and abuse of power have become mainstream conversations. While the general public may be aware of gaslighting in personal and romantic relationships, gaslighting in professional settings is less discussed. Gaslighting at work is a topic all professionals need to be aware of.
The subject of gaslighting by employees or peers seems to be less discussed. One reason for that may be that inherent power differential in the boss/employee relationship makes employees more vulnerable to gaslighting. Leaders or managers can also be subject to this behavior, however.
Leaders must set expectations for staff; this is true in relation to behaviors, performance, outcomes, and policy adherence. Leaders who set expectations and then are later met with denial of those expectations by their team members may be at a loss for how to respond. Certainly, a trend in team members all denying that expectations were set or something was effectively communicated, reflects on the leader. That is an opportunity for improvement. When a single team member denies communication took place, however, that is reflective on that employee.
An employee who develops a pattern of behavior, such as denying communication took place, denying the content of the communication, or manipulating a leaders’ words, is a dangerous person to have on a team. While some of this behavior can be quantified, such as a missed deadline which was previously put into writing, other aspects of this behavior may be insidious and difficult to define.
Leaders who are consistently met with an employee who misquotes them, denies facts, and eschews all knowledge of verbal communication, may feel they are the ones losing their grip on reality. Leaders are rarely coached through how to deal with being gaslighted by one of their team members. Even more rare is coaching in how to deal with this behavior from peers.
While there is a trend in business to attempt to rely less on email communication and have more face to face interactions with people, leaders must not forget that establishing a written history of communication for employees and peers who live outside reality is critical. Leaders who wait until this behavior has been ongoing for months, or longer, will have an uphill battle to fight if they decide coaching that person off their team is the only reasonable option.
Leaders may not even realize what is occurring until the behavior has been ongoing for some time. Women especially may be apt to apologize for a perceived communication failure and may chalk the experience up to an opportunity for them to improve. It is critical to be in tune with this as a pattern of behavior. Singular events may hold little meaning but patterns are be trusted and investigated.
Gaslighting does occur at work and leaders and employees need to be attune to what it looks like and the negative impact it can have on teams and outcomes.