Gaslighting at work

Gaslighting is a form of deliberate manipulation intended to disorient, confuse, and frighten those on the receiving end. Many discussions about gaslighting occur in reference to personal relationships, often in the context of domestic or partner abuse. However, gaslighting can occur in other settings as well, including workplaces. In fact, I predict that we’ll be hearing a lot more about gaslighting at work during the years to come, and I’d like to survey that waterfront.

Despite growing awareness of the term and its underlying behaviors, the idea of gaslighting is so rooted in pop psychology that there are no “official” definitions from more authoritative psychological sources. Indeed, the best definition that I’ve found comes from Wikipedia, a distinctly non-academic source:

…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.

Dr. Martha Stout describes the origins of the term in her excellent book, The Sociopath Next Door (2005):

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.

Gaslighting steps

In a Psychology Today blog post, Dr. Robin Stern, author of The Gaslight Effect (2007), offers a list of questions to determine whether someone is dancing what she calls the “Gaslight Tango.” Here are several that are especially relevant to the workplace:

  • “You are constantly second-guessing yourself.”
  • “You ask yourself, ‘Am I too sensitive?’ a dozen times a day.”
  • “You often feel confused and even crazy at work.”
  • “You have the sense that you used to be a very different person – more confident, more fun-loving, more relaxed.”

“Crazy at work.” Gaslighting can be, and often is, crazy making.

Intentional, but not necessarily maliciously so

Yes, gaslighting is often employed to intimidate, confuse, frighten and/or diminish its target. In this way it is a significant, malicious, dignity-denying abuse of power.

However, in a smaller share of situations it may be used to fight back against injustice, mistreatment, or abuse, to basically keep the other side guessing. Why a smaller share? Because gaslighting does not come naturally to most of us. “Thinking like a gaslighter” can mean having to think like a psychopath, sociopath, or severe narcissist. It’s not a pleasant place to be.

Gaslighting and workplace bullying & mobbing

Gaslighting usually involves a power imbalance grounded in formal hierarchy, interpersonal dynamics, or both. This makes the workplace a prime host for such behaviors, with bullying a frequent variation. As I wrote several years ago in one of this blog’s most popular posts:

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”….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.

My hypothesis is that a large percentage of the most virulent, targeted bullying and mobbing campaigns involve serious amounts of gaslighting.

Management gaslighting in union organizing campaigns

Gaslighting is often used by employers to oppose labor unions. They use deceptive messaging to get workers to doubt their common sense:

  • “We’re all in this together, so do you really want a union to interfere with that relationship?” — If everyone is truly in this together, then how has the pay gap between high-level executives and rank-and-file workers become so wide and deep over the past few decades? These vast divides exist in most organizations that oppose unions.
  • “If you vote for a union, then you lose your individual voice” — This dubious claim assumes that the individual worker had a meaningful voice to begin with! (Imagine an entry-level administrative assistant or retail store worker approaching their manager with a request to enter into negotiations about their pay and benefits.) On balance, unionized workers have a lot more legal and contract protections for expressing work-related concerns than do non-union workers.
  • “We can’t control what happens if a union is voted in” — This is a classic gambit meant to plant confusion and fear of the unknown about the consequences of a successful union election.

Gaslighting and managerial pronouncements

We may think of gaslighting as being targeted at individuals, but sometimes it’s a group experience on the receiving end.

When an executive, manager, or senior administrator invokes the term “transparency” (or some variant) and it feels like they’re merely being transparent about being opaque, that’s potential gaslighting. When human resources announces changes in employee relations policies that offer more “flexibility,” “freedom to choose,” or “streamlining” that will advantage all, when in reality it means lower or fewer benefits and/or more hassle, that’s potential gaslighting.

If your response upon hearing such pronouncements is along the lines of “hold it, this makes no sense” or “do they really think I’m that stupid?!,” well, then, look for the gaslight.

What gaslighting is not

Of course, now that gaslighting has become a more popular term, it is inevitable that it will be misused or confused with other behaviors. Over the years, I’ve read and heard about claims of gaslighting that do not appear to be the case. Gaslighting is generally not synonymous with:

  • An honest disagreement, even an intense or heated one;
  • An argument that includes misunderstandings, sometimes on both ends;
  • Individuals being obstinate or stubborn;
  • Erroneous, even confusing, orders and instructions;
  • One side or multiple sides talking past, over, or through each other;
  • “White lies” meant to mask a more painful or difficult truth;
  • Instances of incivility; or,
  • An incoherent explanation.

Of course, gaslighting could become a part of these interactions, but it is not their equivalent.

A gray area is when people are, well, “messing with each other’s heads.” This can occur in dysfunctional relationships of all kinds. I’ll leave it to readers to make a call on this. (As I see it, the devil rests in the details.)

At the worst end of the spectrum

Like any other form of manipulation, instances of gaslighting are not equal in frequency and severity. The worst cases, however, are truly disabling and debilitating, the products of scary minds capable of inflicting serious psychological abuse. I hope that gaslighting will gain greater attention as we continue to address behaviors in our society worth preventing and stopping.

Types of workplace bullying and potential legal protections in the U.S.

Last year, counselor Rosemary K.M. Sword and noted psychologist Philip Zimbardo wrote up a nice little summary about the types of bullying that one might encounter in our society, including workplaces, for their Psychology Today blog, Time CureI’d like to take a quick look at those categories and then briefly discuss what potential legal protections may be available in cases of bullying at work.

Sword and Zimbardo identified six basic categories of bullying, while recognizing that these forms may overlap:

  • “Physical Bullying” covers “physical actions to gain power and control over their targets.”
  • “Verbal Bullying” uses “words, statements and name-calling to gain power and control over a target.”
  • “Prejudicial Bullying” is grounded in “prejudices people have toward people of different races, religions or sexual orientation.”
  • “Relational Aggression” refers to “a sneaky, insidious type of bullying that manifests as social manipulation.”
  • “Cyberbullying” involves the use of “the internet, cell phones or other technology to harass, threaten, embarrass or target another person.”
  • “Sexual Bullying” involves “repeated, harmful and humiliating actions – sexual name-calling, crude comments, vulgar gestures, uninvited touching or sexual propositioning – that target a person sexually.”

Sword and Zimbardo offer further explanations for each category; I suggest reading the complete post for the full profiles.

Their solutions emphasize responses for helping children who have been bullied. There’s less that applies to adult targets. However, their blog is primarily about “(n)ew approaches to overcoming PTSD, depression, and anxiety,” so it may be of general interest to readers here. (By the way, Dr. Zimbardo may be especially familiar to some readers for his book The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil.)

Legal and liability perspectives

In the context of workplace bullying, some categories are more relevant than others in terms of potential legal protections, employee benefits, and employer liability in the U.S. Here is a very brief summary, with my usual disclaimer that it should not be considered or relied upon as legal advice:

Prejudicial bullying and sexual bullying are clearly the most obvious candidates for legal intervention, as they directly implicate employment discrimination laws. However, workers still need to prove that the bullying was motivated by their sex, race, or some other characteristic covered by these laws.

Physical bullying that causes injury may qualify a target for workers’ compensation and, in some instances, open doors to tort claims such as assault and battery against the aggressors.

With cyberbullying, much depends on the content. Obviously, if it involves, say, sexual harassment, then legal protections may apply. But generic bullying may escape legal responsibility.

Verbal bullying that causes disabling emotional distress may qualify a targeted workers for workers’ compensation and, in some cases, create tort liability for individual aggressors for claims such as intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Relational aggression, which sometimes delivers the hardest punches to emotional well being and reputation, unfortunately presents the least in terms of potential legal protections, due largely to its often complicated and insidious nature. Unpacking behaviors such as sabotage, defamation, and deliberate undermining is not easy.

Two other points:

First, if an employee handbook covers generic bullying and harassment, workers may have a contractual right to raise complaints about such mistreatment and to seek relief.

Second, an employee covered by a union-secured collective bargaining agreement may find in it provisions that relate to bullying in the form of unfair or abusive management practices.

Obviously the legal situation in America is far from ideal. Enactment of the proposed Healthy Workplace Bill will fill in many of these gaps, but until that day comes, many forms of severe bullying at work will continue to be beyond the reach of the legal system.

After Auschwitz, Viktor Frankl saw only two races

When Viktor Frankl reflected upon his experiences as a Nazi concentration camp prisoner, including time spent at Auschwitz, he concluded that humanity basically divided into two races:

From all this we may learn that there are two races of men in this world, but only these two — the “race” of the decent man and the “race” of the indecent man. Both are found everywhere; they penetrate into all groups of society. No group consists entirely of decent or indecent people.

This passage comes from Frankl’s classic work, Man’s Search for Meaning (p. 86, Beacon Press 2006 ed.), which I have praised in previous posts. It’s an extraordinarily gripping and perhaps odd book. Part 1, covering the first 90+ pages, is a compelling account of daily life in the concentration camps, punctuated by Frankl’s observations about human nature in such horrifying settings. Part 2, covering the remaining 60+ pages, is a more detached description of logotherapy, the school of psychotherapy founded by Frankl, a clinical psychologist. Logotherapy, as Frankl describes it, focuses the patient “on the future, that is to say, on the meanings to be fulfilled by the patient in his future,” while defocussing the patient on “all the vicious cycle formations and [negative] feedback mechanisms” (p. 98).

Some may quarrel with Frankl’s binary separation of humanity into categories of “decent” or “indecent” people. In fact, I reacted this way when I first read the quoted passage, thinking that human beings are way too complex to be placed into one of two big groups. Furthermore, Frankl’s own narrative of concentration camp life describes how people who have lived good, moral lives can be driven to self-preserving behaviors that may, directly or indirectly, hurt others. But then I tried to put myself in Frankl’s shoes, imagining what he saw and experienced in the camps. It makes sense to me that he ultimately drew this dividing line, however subjective.

Frankl’s description of concentration camp life and explanation of logotherapy may resonate with those who are experiencing psychological trauma due to nightmarish work situations. As I have written before, the eliminationist instinct is not limited to large-scale horrors. It can manifest itself in seemingly everyday settings such as our workplaces, too.

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A sidebar: In sharing Frankl’s words about the “races” of decent and indecent people, in no way do I want to diminish important, challenging discussions taking place over race and ethnicity in contemporary society. We can and should face the tough questions raised by our various diversities and strive to find ways to build acceptance of those differences in our workplaces, communities, and social groups. Rather, I wanted to share how someone who faced good and evil every day at the most fundamental levels came to look at groupings of human beings in a simpler way than we might today.

“The rules don’t apply to me”

Image courtesy of Clipart Kid

Image courtesy of Clipart Kid

How much misconduct, corruption, and abuse in our society can be attributed to powerful people who believe the rules that apply to everyone else don’t apply to them?

I find myself coming back to this question over and again whenever I learn about significant legal or ethical violations committed by those in positions of considerable power. I’m hardly alone in thinking this way. Google the phrase “does power corrupt” and you’ll get tons of hits to studies and commentaries that basically say, yes, it often does. For example, in a 2016 piece for PBS NewsHour, Dr. Dacher Keltner of the Greater Good Science Center at UC-Berkeley details results of lab experiments where subjects are assigned higher power status:

Just the random assignment of power, and all kinds of mischief ensues, and people will become impulsive. They eat more resources than is their fair share. They take more money. People become more unethical. They think unethical behavior is okay if they engage in it. People are more likely to stereotype. They’re more likely to stop attending to other people carefully. It’s just this paradoxical quality of power, which is the good in human nature gets us power, and then power leads to the bad in human nature.

The effect is a chemical one, as Dr. Keltner explains:

When we feel powerful, we have these surges of dopamine going through our brain. We feel like we could accomplish just about anything. That’s where the power paradox begins, which is that very sense of ourselves when feeling powerful leads to our demise, leads to the abuse of power.

Now, I am not a high-and-mighty moralist when it comes to following rules for their own sake. Yes, there are rules of law and of everyday behavior that we should do our best to follow. However, I believe that some rules are unjust and/or unwise, and that discretion, mercy, and understanding should enter the picture too. But I’m not talking about the gray areas here, rather, I’m referring to abuses of power by those who have a lot of it.

What are the solutions? Citing a growing body of research, Dr. Keltner suggests that accountability and genuine transparency are key among them:

This really interesting new literature shows that when I’m aware of what other people think of me, when I’m aware of my reputation, I cooperate more in economic gains. I am more likely to sign up for environmentally efficient services. I am more likely to pay taxes. Just this sense that my actions are being scrutinized and my reputation is at stake produces better behavior for the public good or the greater good.

In addition, I’ll weigh in wearing my legal and public policy hat: The vital concept of checks and balances on power fundamentally shapes the United States Constitution and roles of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. I think it’s a good idea for us to implement or reinforce such mechanisms in our public, private, and non-profit institutions. Also, when one individual, cohort, or institution becomes too dominant, we need what economist and author John Kenneth Galbraith called “countervailing power” to challenge these exercises of control.

We live in an age where abuses of power are common. The fixes are fairly easy to identify but hard to implement. We’ve got a lot of work to do.

To get through this time, we’ll need resilience and resolve…and “the better angels of our nature”

Keeping a stiff upper lip (Newspaper facsimile photo: DY)

As this fast unfolding, ugly era of America’s existence becomes more of a dire reality, I find myself searching history for inspiration. For example, in terms of grit and strength, I look at the people of England during the darkest days of the Second World War. This newspaper photo of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London standing tall amidst devastating Nazi bombing raids during the Battle of Britain in 1940 is such an iconic symbol of that national character.

I’m not being hyperbolic when I join with many others in saying that the Trump Administration is shredding the fabric of American democracy and ethical governance. And yes, I am alarmed at what is transpiring before us.

Given my liberal leanings, you might expect me to be saying this. But plenty of traditional conservatives are deeply concerned as well at the conduct of this President and his inner circle. Each new day includes some jaw-dropping development(s). Sometimes it’s about policy. Sometimes it’s about vulgar and raw displays of power and arrogance. Washington D.C. is no stranger to preening narcissism and overreaching power grabs, but we have never seen the likes of this during the past half century…and longer.

For those who are paying close attention with a growing sense of distress, it already feels exhausting. A lot of people are wondering when they’ll burn out.

I’ve used recent posts to suggest that during this time, nurturing our most important communities, pursuing meaningful hobbies and pastimes, and not forgetting other causes and concerns that are dear to us should be part of our bigger picture. I’ve also urged that we strive to understand the age we are living in  and the political, social, and economic dynamics driving it.

In addition, we Americans must continually grow and draw upon our resilience and resolve, at least for the next four years. These assaults will keep coming. Not only must we repel them, but also we need to develop our own visions and messages for what we want our nation to be. On that latter note, we should be heartened by stories like this one, reported by CNN’s Doug Criss:

The congregation of the Victoria Islamic Center in Texas was devastated. Its mosque was destroyed over the weekend in a fire, the cause of which is unknown.

Then an act of kindness revived their spirits — the leaders of the local Jewish congregation gave them the keys to their synagogue so they could continue to worship.

The leader of the mosque said he wasn’t surprised by the gesture.

“I never doubted the support that we were going to get” after the fire, Dr. Shahid Hashmi, a surgeon and president of Victoria Islamic Center, told CNN. “We’ve always had a good relationship with the community here.”

Hashmi said Dr. Gary Branfman — a member of Temple B’nai Israel in Victoria, as well as a fellow surgeon and friend — just came by his house and gave him the keys.

In his first Inaugural Address in 1861, on the eve of what would become the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln urged us to embrace “the better angels of our nature.” What happened in Texas earlier this week in the aftermath of tragedy captures that sentiment beautifully.

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Inauguration Week special: “Gaslighting” goes mainstream

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Thanks largely to Donald Trump, the term “gaslighting” is now going mainstream. The American Dialect Society has declared it one of the “Words of the Year,” defining it as “psychologically manipulat[ing] a person into questioning their own sanity.” Wikipedia may not be as academically authoritative a source, but its current explanation of gaslighting is right on point:

Gaslighting . . . is a form of manipulation through persistent denial, misdirection, contradiction, and lying in an attempt to destabilize and delegitimize a target. Its intent is to sow seeds of doubt in the targets, hoping to make them question their own memory, perception, and sanity. . . . Instances may range from the denial by an abuser that previous abusive incidents ever occurred up to the staging of bizarre events by the abuser with the intention of disorienting the victim.

I’ll get to the Trump connection in a minute, but for now, a bit of background.

Origins of the term

It starts with an old movie.

I first became familiar with gaslighting several years ago when folks in the workplace anti-bullying movement used it to describe crazy-making behaviors at work. In my December 2012 piece about gaslighting as a form of workplace bullying (which has become one of this blog’s most popular posts), I shared Dr. Martha Stout’s explanation of the origins of the term in her excellent book, The Sociopath Next Door (2005):

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.

In the movie, Bergman’s psychological deterioration accelerates when she cannot get anyone to believe her claims.

America’s Gaslighter-In-Chief?

Gaslighting started to appear in the mainstream media last year, largely associated with Donald Trump’s conduct on the campaign trail. Last spring, for example, U.S. News contributing editor Nicole Hemmer wrote an insightful piece about Trump’s gaslighting behaviors via his campaign tactics and rhetoric:

Trump is a toxic blend of Barnum and bully. If you’re a good mark, he’s your best friend. But if you catch on to the con, then he starts to gaslight. Ask him a question and he’ll lie without batting an eye. Call him a liar and he’ll declare himself “truthful to a fault.” Confront him with contradictory evidence and he’ll shrug and repeat the fib. Maybe he’ll change the subject. But he’ll never change the lie.

The gaslighting tag continues. Here’s a snippet of Frida Ghitis’s commentary for CNN about Trump’s behavior, published earlier this week:

Is Donald Trump really a “big fan” of the intelligence community, as he claimed on Twitter, or did he disparage intelligence professionals when he repeatedly referred to them and their work in sneer quotes about “Intelligence” briefings and the “so-called ‘Russian hacking'”?

Did Trump mock a disabled reporter, or did your eyes, and the Hollywood elite make you think he did?

Did he convince Ford not to move a car plant to Mexico, saving American jobs, or was it all a fabrication for publicity?

Did he win the election with a historically narrow victory, or did he score a “landslide”?

. . . Reality is becoming hazy in the era of Trump. And that’s no accident.

The fact is Trump has become America’s gaslighter in chief.

Trump’s behavior has pushed buttons on a very personal level as well. After the election, Suzannah Weiss, writing for Everyday Feminism, invoked gaslighting in describing how Trump’s candidacy was a triggering event for abuse survivors and now relates to our political future:

As a survivor of emotional abuse, one tactic of Trump’s in particular reminded me of my manipulative ex partner: gaslighting. This is when someone tells you that your thoughts aren’t based in reality, to the point that you start to distrust your perceptions.

. . . Since I’ve learned about gaslighting, I’ve understood that all the things my partner blamed on me weren’t actually my fault. Looking at Trump’s words can also help us understand our own relationships, as well as the ways gaslighting can shape our political climate.

Lately even the academicians are getting into the act. For example, English and journalism professor Ben Yagoda (U. Delaware) delves into the history and use of the term, leading to Trump, in a Chronicle of Higher Education piece:

The new prominence [of the term] came from Donald Trump’s habitual tendency to say “X,” and then, at some later date, indignantly declare, “I did not say ‘X.’ In fact, I would never dream of saying ‘X.’” As Ben Zimmer, chair of the ADS’s New Words Committee and language columnist for The Wall Street Journal, pointed out, The New Republic, Salon, CNN, The Texas Observer, and Teen Vogue (“Donald Trump Is Gaslighting America”) all used the metaphor as the basis for articles about Trump.

Significance for workplace anti-bullying movement

It appears that Donald Trump’s gaslighting behavior was not simply for the campaign trail. As Frida Ghitis writes in her CNN piece, “If you’ve never heard the term, prepare to learn it and live with it every day.”

How will this modeled behavior impact the workplace anti-bullying movement? Will Trump actually validate gaslighting and bullying behaviors, in essence sending a message that if it’s appropriate behavior for the President, then it’s right for everyone? Or will the nation recoil at this recurring manipulative, deceitful conduct and realize that we need a lot less of it everywhere, including our workplaces?

These questions of personal conduct have quickly transcended political lines. As conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin writes for the Washington Post:

Rather than a generic label for Trump, Americans require blunt, uncompromising language to describe what he does. He lies. He violates (as of noon Friday) the Constitution. He enables an adversary of America. His crude insults disgrace the office to which he has been elected. He defiles the presidency when he tells us that a black lawmaker’s district is “falling apart” and “crime infested,” as if African Americans represent only dystopian wastelands.

Trump will be president. Telling Americans why he doesn’t deserve to be president should be the goal of political opponents. Stopping him from accomplishing aims that damage our constitutional order, international standing, economy and social fabric should be the goal of all patriotic Americans.

Workplace bullying, social connection, and social support

(Image courtesy of clipartsign.com)

(Image courtesy of clipartsign.com)

Last week I mentioned an excellent 2015 Vanity Fair article by Sebastian Junger, detailing the history of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a diagnosis, primarily as it has applied to soldiers in the military. As the piece moves toward its conclusion, Junger thoughtfully and provocatively looks at PTSD in a social context to explain why so many returning veterans struggle with psychological trauma upon their return:

In a 2000 study in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, “lack of social support” was found to be around two times more reliable at predicting who got PTSD and who didn’t than the severity of the trauma itself. You could be mildly traumatized, in other words—on a par with, say, an ordinary rear-base deployment to Afghanistan—and experience long-term PTSD simply because of a lack of social support back home.

He even appeals to anthropology for a deeper understanding of trauma:

This individualizing of mental health is not just an American problem, or a veteran problem; it affects everybody. A British anthropologist named Bill West told me that the extreme poverty of the 1930s and the collective trauma of the Blitz served to unify an entire generation of English people. “I link the experience of the Blitz to voting in the Labour Party in 1945, and the establishing of the National Health Service and a strong welfare state,” he said. “Those policies were supported well into the 60s by all political parties. That kind of cultural cohesiveness, along with Christianity, was very helpful after the war. It’s an open question whether people’s problems are located in the individual. If enough people in society are sick, you have to wonder whether it isn’t actually society that’s sick.”

This long-form piece is well worth your attention if you want to learn more about PTSD in a deeper historical and societal context.

Relevance to workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse

All of this, of course, carries great significance for workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse. We know that PTSD is one of the major impairments associated with this mistreatment. An underlying reminder of the Junger article is that strong social support, both in and out of the workplace, can make a positive difference to targets of work abuse, perhaps even to the point of preventing long-term PTSD.

Unfortunately, we also know that for too many targets, social isolation rather than a human safety net is the norm. Some may not have had a strong social base before the abuse began, which left them instantly bereft of support once things turned bad. Others experienced the disintegration of their social base during the bullying, with co-workers abandoning them or diving for cover, while close friends and family couldn’t get their heads around the dynamics of the abuse.

This is among the many reasons why greater public education about workplace bullying is an absolute necessity. We need to make the public more aware of the prevalence of bullying and mobbing at work and its pernicious effects on individuals and organizations. Moreover, we need to be part of that broader movement to educate the public about PTSD and similar mental injuries and conditions.

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