Have you ever been on the receiving end of a gaslighting experience? Prove it.
Easier said than done actually and that is why gaslighting is such an insidious and damaging behavior that has the capacity to do extraordinary damage within your workplace if you don’t deal with it quickly and effectively.
WHAT IS GASLIGHTING
The term gaslighting originated from a play way back in 1938 called, funnily enough - Gaslight. It’s the story of a woman whose husband slowly manipulates her into believing she is going insane. The play's title refers to the way in which the abusive husband slowly dims the gas lights in their home, while pretending nothing has changed, in an effort to make his wife doubt her own perceptions.
OK, that’s a personal relationship…. so how does it translate into the workplace?. Too easily unfortunately. It is extremely difficult to identify as the perpetrator is engaging in sly and manipulative behaviour that is designed to make the victim question themselves. When confronted, gaslighters will tell you that you, their accuser, or witnesses to their behaviour, are mistaken. A gaslighter will claim others are irrational, that others have behaved badly and that they in fact are the victim, that a situation has been misinterpreted – they will deny all as they endeavour to avoid taking responsibility for their behaviour while continuing to undermine their victim. Gas lighters will always have a very good response to any questioning and can be very believable as they continue on their manipulative path.
IS GASLIGHTING BULLYING?
Gaslighting is a highly covert form of bully behaviour. Whilst we usually believe bullies to be obvious in their behaviour with repeated and sustained attacks on their victim in which humiliation is often an end goal, those engaging in gaslighting will be far more subtle. They plant doubt by making a victim question their own reality or they will ‘suggest’ to a superior that their victim is unreliable, untrustworthy, unstable (often times without using those words, but making comments that make the manager doubt the performance or integrity of the employee being gaslighted). It’s a gradual and subtle process that ultimately has the victim unable to pinpoint what is happening while colleagues and managers are likely to accept the negative portrayal as fact because enough ‘evidence’ has been seeded over an extended period of time. Ultimately this is a powerplay and before too much damage is done to productive and effective team members, you need to put a stop to it.
Remember, bullying at work, as defined by the Fair Work Act 2009, occurs when:
RECOGNISING THE BEHAVIOUR
You want to deliver on a healthy and positive work environment but how do you recognise gaslighting in your workplace? It’s not easy but there are warning signs or techniques that gaslighters may use. These may include:
In spite of presenting as confident and secure people, gaslighters are often some of the most insecure personalities who engage in this nasty behaviour in order to make themselves feel better or to build their own confidence.
A CASE OF GASLIGHTING
Sam was called into a meeting with her direct manager and was told that her attitude needed adjusting. This came as a surprise to Sam as she had recently been through a performance review with her director and had not only met, but exceeded many of her goals for the year and was ahead on budget. In fact, she’d received a bonus and was thanked for her hard work and team efforts.
Presented with this accusation made Sam feel confused and hurt. Sam asked for more details and was told that rolling her eyes in meetings was both immature and was setting a poor tone for the more junior members of the team. The manager told Sam that she had never witnessed Sam behaving in this manner so “please don’t shoot the messenger”, but that the director of the group had and she was very unhappy with Sam. Sam knew she didn’t roll her eyes in meetings and had been told at the review that her attitude was exemplary. This was not the first instance of the director sending a message via the manager that was meant to address a shortcoming in Sam’s professional behaviour or productivity – it had been going on for months but the director never raised these issues directly with Sam. What was going on? Why did this keep happening and why didn’t it come up at the review? The only thing she was sure of was that she always felt off kilter with this manager and never felt that things were as they seemed but why would they make this stuff up? Her manager was on her side – she said so! Sam had lost confidence and there was no way she was going to confront her director.
The ongoing feeling of uncertainty and hits to her self-assurance was taking its toll. Sam was done – she was losing sleep, demotivated, and generally unhappy, so she quit and was quickly employed elsewhere and was making her mark quite successfully. Months later, she bumped into her old director and she was asked why she left. Sam had nothing to lose so she told the director that she felt the messages were unfair, that her professionalism had been called into question and that she had no recourse to address the issues. The director was quite taken aback – she knew nothing about the communications that were occurring. As it turns out, the manager who was relaying the fake messages was the problem and used her position to undermine and destabilise Sam to the point that the business lost a solid employee who was now applying her skills and ability in a rival business.
While this case study paints one picture of gaslighting it’s important to be aware that gaslighting from colleagues, rather than managers, is very common and can be even more nefarious. Just because a management relationship isn’t in play, doesn’t mean that the situation isn’t damaging!
THE DAMAGE IN YOUR WORKPLACE
No one wants to see employees in conflict or unsettled. It impacts the overall culture and feelings of wellbeing within your business and will ultimately impact productivity. When you are trying to build an engaged and healthy work environment, this sort of toxic behaviour is absolutely unacceptable. And it’s not confined to employees harming their peers - when you have a more senior team member gaslighting direct reports you will see an increase in employee turnover and you will have to bear the increased recruitment costs that will inevitably be required. And there is the breakdown of trust that can occur if employees see this negative behaviour occurring and no action being taken which is going to further facilitate a contaminated work culture and no one wants that.
HOW DO YOU STOP GASLIGHTING IN YOUR BUSINESS
Gaslighting is an insidious behaviour and as outlined above, constitutes bullying. It should therefore be covered by your Harassment, Victimisation and Bullying Policy in which a complaints and remedy process are outlined and clear to all employees. It is essential that as an employer, you take seriously your duty to reduce or eliminate risks to workers health and safety as outlined under work health and safety laws. Ensure your policy is well publicised and accessible within your work place and that it is seen as a living breathing document and not just lip service to offset legal requirements. Provide training and ensure your business values reflect your position on promoting positive behaviour within your team as well as for clients and suppliers. And openly discuss gaslighting so that employees who begin to question themselves can openly discuss their concerns!
Any employee who begins to suspect that they are the victim of gaslighting should be advised to start documenting incidents, no matter how small. It is easier for senior managers or HR to manage a gaslighter when they have evidence to bring to the table. Gaslighters are adept at sidestepping any blame, so it’s important that incidents, no matter how trivial, start getting documented.
Managing employee behaviours can be one of the biggest challenges you will face as an employer but HR Staff n’ Stuff can reduce the stress by helping you get the right policies in place, assisting you in developing your company values and supporting you in investigating complaints and managing any disciplinary action that may be required as a result. Contact us for a confidential discussion regarding your business needs – we’re here to help when you need us!
The HR Staff n' Stuff team all contribute to our blogs. Enjoy the read!