Specific workplace bullying tactics can run from the obvious and transparent to the remarkably deceitful and calculated. Among the most treacherous of the latter is “gaslighting,” defined in Wikipedia as:
a form of manipulation that seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or members of a group, hoping to make targets question their own memory, perception, and sanity. Using persistent denial, misdirection, contradiction, and lying, it attempts to destabilize the target and delegitimize the target’s belief.
Gaslighting at work can range from orchestrated, manipulative aggressor-to-target behaviors, to HR officers expressing faux incredulity in response to claims of abusive mistreatment. Gaslighting appears on a recurring basis as a topic of discussion on social media among workplace bullying subject matter experts. It deserves some attention here.
Pop culture origins
Dr. Martha Stout, in her book The Sociopath Next Door (2005), describes the origins of the term:
In 1944, George Cukor directed a psychological thriller entitled Gaslight, in which a beautiful young woman, played by Ingrid Bergman, is made to feel she is going insane. Her fear that she is losing her mind is inflicted on her systematically by Charles Boyer, who plays her evil but charming husband. Among a number of other dirty tricks, Boyer arranges for Bergman to hear sounds in the attic when he absent, and for the gaslight to dim by itself, in a menacing house where her aunt was mysteriously murdered years before.
Naturally, Bergman’s psychological descent is hastened when no one believes her claims.
The almost psychopath as gaslighting expert
I’ve been touting the work of Dr. Ronald Schouten, lead author of Almost a Psychopath: Do I (or Does Someone I Know) Have a Problem with Manipulation and Lack of Empathy? (2012). Ron talked about the almost psychopath at work during a New Workplace Institute program. Here’s how NWI legal intern Kim Webster summarized his remarks:
On average, one person in a hundred meets the clinical definition for psychopathy. However, [Schouten] suggested that maybe we should be more concerned about the 10 to 15 percent of the population that almost meets the definition.
Schouten noted that most disorders are defined by sets of standardized criteria. For psychopathy, a 20-item scale is commonly used, measuring traits such as glibness or superficial charm, a grandiose sense of self-worth, pathological lying, manipulative behavior, lack of remorse or guilt, a shallow affect, and a lack of empathy.
The “almost psychopath” falls short of meeting the criteria for psychopathy, but nevertheless may exhibit many of the most disturbing traits and behaviors. In the workplace, a good number of almost psychopaths engage in bullying. They often escape detection and removal as they charm their superiors and exploit and abuse their peers and subordinates.
I submit that among almost psychopaths, you will find a bevy of gaslighting experts. In fact, the traits that characterize many an almost psychopath — especially superficial charm, pathological lying, manipulative behavior, and lack of empathy — serve up a great skill set for gaslighting practitioners.
Gaslighting at work: Workplace bullying
As Dr. Schouten has observed, almost psychopaths can function and be successful in everyday society. This means, of course, that a lot of almost psychopaths ply their trade in the workplace. And when they engage in bullying behaviors, woe to the targets, especially babes in the woods.
If you’ve ever experienced or witnessed gaslighting as a workplace bullying tactic, then you know what I mean. Manipulative mind games, twisted harassment, and stalking behaviors are often accompanied by denials that anything is going on. The goals are to undermine a target’s confidence, keep the target off-balance, and instill fear and paranoia.
Gaslighting often is discussed in the context of spousal and family relationships. It makes sense, then, that we see so many parallels between domestic abuse and workplace bullying. Perhaps the leap from Ingrid Bergman & Charles Boyer to The Office isn’t much of one after all.
This post was revised in March 2017. In addition, I posted a more general piece, “Gaslighting at work,” the same month. The new piece digs a little deeper into gaslighting psychology and relates the behaviors to management practices and opposition to labor unions.
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