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Your “horrible boss” may be more toxic than you realise.

“Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse employed by a person who leads another to doubt themselves or even question their sanity,” said Rakhi Beekrum, a Counselling Psychologist based in Durban.

From missing important meetings due to mysterious last minute time changes to having your abilities constantly undermined - the signs of being gaslighted at work can be very subtle.

Gaslighting in the workplace

Gaslighting occurs more frequently in the workplace than we realise, said Beekrum.

It often involves someone striving for power in an unfair and dishonest manner by manipulating those they perceive as a threat. “Examples include having one’s work sabotaged, someone else taking credit for your work, being set up for failure with unrealistic deadlines, unfair and unwarranted criticism, having one’s abilities undermined, being excluded from conversations, emails or events or having malicious rumours spread about someone,” said Beekrum.

What are the warning signs of being gaslighted?

Look out for someone who lies, even blatantly when you know the truth. “Look out for a pattern of lies that may start out subtly but begin to occur more frequently,” said Beekrum.

Pay attention to the feelings that linger after a conversation. “If you constantly feel negative and doubt yourself because of what they have said about you, you could be dealing with a gaslighter,” she said.

Gaslighters actions rarely match their word, Beekrum said, “They will often say something and not follow through, but when questioned will deny saying it in the first place.”

Notice whether you seem to doubt yourself more often: “You will find find yourself constantly apologising even if you aren’t sure that you were wrong, excusing the gaslighter’s behaviour, feeling like you’re worthless, not good enough for others and being unhappy most of the time.”

The effects gaslighting can have on a person

A victim of gaslighting experiences severe stress. “They doubt their abilities and their worth due to repeated negative messages from the gaslighter,” she said.  

Victims become accustomed to having their feelings invalidated by the perpetrator. “They become withdrawn and will be less likely to seek help because they start believing what the perpetrator says. It damages one's confidence and self-esteem,” said Beekrum.

If you are being gaslighted in the workplace, Usha Maharaj, Success Strategist, Coach, Mentor and Facilitator, shared the best procedure to follow:

Unfortunately, in the case of gaslighting, there is no real structured approach to resolution, Usha said. “The steps taken will depend largely on your ability to handle conflict and on the extent of gaslighting you are being exposed to. Keeping in mind that you cannot change anyone but yourself, start with practising the skill of separating emotion from fact and responding to facts only. Adding your emotion to an already tense situation will make the matter significantly worse.”

If your behaviours are not contributing to the gaslighting, you need to consider further action. “Assess whether the individual would be receptive to an honest conversation about what you are experiencing and the impact it has on you. In some cases, individuals exhibiting tendencies of gaslighting may not be receptive to such a conversation or may react even more negatively as a result. Make your assessment keeping this in mind,” said Maharaj.

If you can have the conversation, arrive prepared. “Keep to the facts and how the behaviour makes you feel and create space for the individual to respond. End the conversation with agreement of the way forward.”

However, if you feel that the person would react negatively to the discussion, Maharaj suggests talking to a senior staff member. “Alternatively engage with your Human Resources team for guidance and assistance. There are formal processes that can be followed via HR in order to deal with matters such as this and your HR team should be equipped with the skills to handle the situation effectively,” she said.