Gaslighters use a mix of lies, denials, gossip, insults, and more to hurt others and advance their own devious goals. But you can stop them in their tracks.
Jack is upset. At a meeting yesterday his boss put the blame on Jack’s team for a project being behind schedule. Jack confronts his boss, who denies the allegations and pretty much tells Jack he didn’t really hear what he heard. He suggests Jack is too sensitive; and he says he won’t hold Jack’s allegations against him or his team. Jack leaves the office frustrated and confused.
This is classic gaslighting; and it can damage morale, engagement, motivation, and productivity at work; and it can lead to turnover.
What is gaslighting? It’s when a person subtly and consistently sows doubt, denies words or actions, and makes their targets question their own memory and/or judgment.
While in this scenario Jack’s boss was the gaslighter, the perpetrator can be a negative manager, a conniving colleague, a disgruntled worker, or an angry client/customer. A gaslighter may target an individual or seek to hurt or discredit an entire group or team. Most often, a gaslighter trivializes, counters, or discredits the victim’s feelings; denies or pretends to forget something he/she said; and withholds important information (then lies about it).
If you’re not sure if gaslighting is happening in your company, look for these signs:
- Persistent negative narrative. The gaslighter consistently criticizes or attacks the victim’s credibility, service, work quality, and/or productivity. These negative comments are most often based on personal judgments and accusations, instead of facts or information that is validated by data or supported by other people.
- Negative gossip that is ongoing and often takes on the form of backstabbing. While the gossip may involve various people, the gaslighter is usually the source.
- Persistent negative public comment/publicity. This involves smearing or discrediting the victim (this may be a person, an organization, or a product) based on falsehoods, exaggerations, or biased opinions, although they may be presented as or suggested to be facts. This information is designed to damage the victim’s professional credibility and personal reputation.
- Negative humor. This often takes the form of hostile comments or insults disguised as humor or sarcasm. When the victim confronts the gaslighter, the response is usually something like, “I was just kidding. Can’t you take a joke?”
- Exclusion. This is when the gaslighter excludes the victim from meetings, activities, or projects, then denies it or rationalizes it when confronted.
- Bullying. In Jack’s case, his boss says, “You’re lucky you work for me. No one else would as patient and forgiving as I am.”
If you or a colleague is a victim of gaslighting, there are a few ways to deal with it:
- Keep calm and focus on the truth. Limit your interactions with the gaslighter as much as possible.
- Collect evidence. Take screenshots of texts and emails, take photos of damaged property, record dates/times and summaries of conversations, and record conversations (as legal and appropriate).
- Speak up. Gaslighting only works if it confuses you and makes you feel chastised or unsure. If you stand up, stick to the facts, and make it clear that the gaslighting isn’t having the desired impact, this makes the behavior ineffective. At the same time, if the person is using insults or personal attacks, call these out calmly and politely.
- Have confidence in your version of events. Don’t get into an argument with the gaslighter, who will take your engagement as a win. They more you argue your case, the more the gaslighter will dig in. You can simply say something like, “We clearly remember things differently. I hope we don’t have to revisit this in the future.” Make it clear that you are confident about your work and keep documentation of your efforts and accomplishments.
- Don’t play games. Avoid trying to “gaslight the gaslighter.”
- If the gaslighting continues, you may consider consulting HR or other organizational leader for guidance. This is particularly true if your reputation, mental health, or job is at risk.
What could Jack do? He could keep a a log regarding his team’s projects to present at the next meeting, particularly if his boss makes more false allegations. He also could advise his team to keep similar information and meet with them regularly to make sure they’re on the same page.