The term “gaslighting” entered the public lexicon in recent years after this toxic behaviour became better identified and understood in personal and romantic relationships.
Gaslighting is also a popular game played by bullies and narcissists in the workplace; and it can have a devastating impact on both the individual victim as well as on the culture and performance of teams and businesses.
Very few people - if indeed any - can claim that they have never felt stressed or anxious as a result of challenging workplace relationships. Most working professionals have to manage complex relationships on the daily – perhaps with a colleague who is a jerk, with difficult clients, or a boss that falls short in the compassionate leadership department.
These are normal challenges that come with the territory.
However, gaslighting is a uniquely damaging attack on an individual. Not many people are able to correctly identify whether they are a victim of gaslighting, and even fewer are able to deal decisively with this behaviour.
Gaslighting is hard to identify and pinpoint because it is usually quite covert; and by its nature, is intended to confuse and make the victim question their sanity.
An abusive boss or co-worker who shouts, bullies and throws their toys is easy to spot, but gaslighting is more calculated and subtle, less overt and flies under the radar. It’s sneaky and sometimes hard to prove - and to make the situation much harder, the manipulative behaviour often doesn’t break any policies or rules.
It’s important for those facing severe toxicity at work to determine whether they are indeed a victim of gaslighting, as the consequences can be severe and life-changing if not identified and dealt with. Gaslighting can make you physically ill, with research showing higher risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke and diabetes linked to victims. It can also leave lasting emotional scars and make you more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety.
So how do you know if gaslighting is at play? Some telltale signs include:
Gaslighters seek to manipulate and control you by making you question your reality. You may feel confused or unsure of yourself and doubt your own abilities, judgment and memory. Gaslighting can make you feel like you are losing your mind, or like you are the only one who sees the truth.
You feel like you are walking on eggshells. If you feel like you have to be constantly vigilant and careful about what you say or do in order to avoid triggering your abuser's anger or criticism, you might be experiencing gaslighting.
You feel powerless and helpless, as if there is nothing you can do to change your situation. Regardless of what you try to do differently, you remain the target of criticism and blame.
You constantly feel defensive as all faults are projected onto you. During interactions, gaslighters sow confusion with long circular arguments that don’t seem to make sense - but they present them with such authority that you begin to question yourself.
Action to take
The first line of defence on the way to taking back power and addressing gaslighting behaviour is to start documenting everything.
Whatever your next steps, documenting everything will help you start to understand the situation better and embark on the healing journey, while also providing supporting evidence should you escalate the matter. From now on, start keeping notes, recording conversations, including witnesses in meetings, and recapping email conversations while including others in the trail. This makes it harder for them to deny, lie or back-pedal - and importantly, it also sends out a strong message that you are on to them.
Now is also the time to build your support network as well as outside interests so as not to let the gaslighting dominate your life.
Additionally, ensure that you reduce contact with the perpetrator as much as possible, while building new relationships with other leaders in the organisation.
Should you confront?
Abusers should be confronted with extreme caution, given that they are likely to be master manipulators and highly unlikely to admit fault. If the gaslighter feels their reputation is at risk, they will go to extreme lengths to cover themselves, which could exacerbate the situation.
Should you escalate?
Reporting someone for gaslighting is a serious decision that should be made carefully and with consideration of all of the factors involved. It's important to seek support and guidance from trusted colleagues, friends or mental health professionals before approaching HR, and to prioritise your own well-being and safety throughout the process.
Also be sure to understand the company’s policies, previous handling of similar situations, as well as the weight of your evidence.
Unfortunately, these types of corporate bullies are such deft manipulators that addressing the situation may backfire, leaving you in an even worse situation. If the organisation does not address this effectively, then your departure is probably inevitable - so start making plans for an exit.
* Goodman is CEO of Jack Hammer Global