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.

Time wasters from top management

(image courtesy of clipart-library.com)

Consultant Eric Garton, writing for the Harvard Business Review, posits that various time killing practices imposed from on high undermine employee morale and productivity:

Unproductive routines, corporate bureaucracy, and “administrivia” kill ambition and sap energy for far too many employees. That’s demoralizing for employees, and a waste for companies, which badly need the full energy and commitment of all their workers.

These “practices, procedures, and structures” include “too much process, too many meetings, meaningless goals, and time wasted on work that no one will ever care about.”

Garton may be writing with mostly the corporate sector in mind, but I can readily attest that these same energy-sapping practices are rife in certain academic institutions as well. They appear in the forms of excessive committees, task forces, working groups, and — worst of all — strategic planning initiatives, replete with seemingly endless meetings and online surveys about this and that. Colleges and universities that lard up on administrators and consultants are the worst of all when it comes to this.

In looking for solutions, Garton offers what he calls his “3 R’s”:

  • refocus on strategic priorities
  • reset the budgets
  • redesign the operating model

Hmm, I have to say that the “3 R’s” sound a lot like consultant jargon replacing corporate jargon. Instead, I’d suggest creating workplace cultures in which people are valued, empowered, and treated with fairness and dignity. If you start with that and go from there, then you’re on your way toward building an organization with high morale and productivity. Plug that agenda into your “strategic priorities,” budgets, and “operating model” if you must (and I hope you don’t), but keep your focus on what truly fosters healthy and productive workplaces.

Workplace bullying and mobbing: Individual vs. organizational accountability

image courtesy of clipartfest.com

image courtesy of clipartfest.com

So here’s my question for today: When you think about accountability for workplace bullying and mobbing, do you think more about individual aggressors or about the organizations that hire and keep them on the payroll?

Of course, the pat response — in fact, the right one, I’d argue — is both. But I’d submit that the calculus is not uniform, and that the perch from where we sit may determine our personal answers. Here are a few of my observations on this question:

  • Bullying and mobbing behaviors are typically targeted and personalized. Sometimes the motivations for the abuse are transparent. But often they are not. Furthermore, they may not be rational, in that the underlying reason(s) for the abuse can be explained in a way that easily makes sense. Figuring out motivations sometimes can be a challenge for a targeted worker, adding to the confusion and bewilderment of the experience and sharpening the focus on specific aggressor(s).
  • Nevertheless, as intensely interpersonal as these behaviors may become, they usually cannot flourish without organizational sponsorship, enabling, or, at the very least, indifference. This applies specially to mobbing, which requires multiple players, often aided by institutional mechanisms.
  • For an individual targeted by bullying or mobbing, the natural focus is on the closest abusers and tormenters. However, the target often recognizes the organizational dynamic when reaching out for help and finding that little or no genuine assistance is available.
  • If we want to prevent and stop bullying and mobbing at work, the first view should be organizational and systems-based, looking especially at top leadership and workplace culture. Bullying and mobbing rarely thrive at organizations committed to treating their employees with a baseline of dignity and to hiring workers who share that commitment.

For those interested in the legal side, the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill that I’ve authored recognizes both organizational and individual responsibility for creating abusive work environments. Under my template version of the legislation, those who have been subjected to severe workplace bullying may pursue claims against both their employer and the individual tormenters. Furthermore, in recognition of the overall role played by employers, the legislation includes liability-reducing incentives for employers that act preventively and responsively toward bullying behaviors.

Organizational authenticity and workplace bullying

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I’d like to offer a proposition: Workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse are much less likely to occur in organizations that embrace and practice authenticity.

This statement requires some unpacking, but I think the inquiry itself is worthy of our consideration.

First, let’s adopt a definition. Management consultant and scholar C.V. Harquail defines an “authentic organization” this way on her Authentic Organizations website:

An organization is authentic when its actions, its character, and its sense of purpose are aligned with and support each other.

Dr. Harquail further elaborates that an authentic organization “actively supports its members, customers, and constituencies in their own authenticity as they work with the organization to achieve its purpose.”

More informally, I read this definition as saying that an organization is authentic when it is comfortable in its own skin. This quality, of course, must come from and extend to key organizational leaders. 

When organizations and people are not comfortable in their own skins, then they are out of alignment. This can fuel insecurities and conflicts (internal and external) that, in turn, lead to bullying and similar behaviors.

Think about it: If you’ve experienced or observed workplace bullying, mobbing, or abuse, did it occur in an organization that had its act together, or did it occur in one that was dysfunctional and felt, well, kind of shaky? When assessing individual instances of bullying, understandably we often focus on specific tormenters. However, it’s highly unlikely that they could get away with it while working in an authentic organization. In fact, at such an organization, they might not even be on the payroll to begin with, right?

From the archives: Some overlooked nuggets

(image courtesy of 1001freedownloads.com)

(image courtesy of 1001freedownloads.com)

Minding the Workplace now covers some eight years of blogging, including nearly 1,500 articles posted. Many of these pieces have staying power thanks to Internet search engines; articles from years ago continue to attract page views as a result. But some pieces don’t get many search “hits,” even if they’re still relevant. I’ve gathered ten of these articles from the middle years of this blog (2011-2014). None rank among the 250 most-read posts, but I believe they’re worth reading. I hope you’ll agree!

Selective praise as a form of workplace marginalization (2014) — “Have you ever worked in an organization where some people receive lavish praise from higher ups for the most modest of achievements, while others do remarkable things but receive, at best, an obligatory nod from the folks in charge?”

Understanding the Holocaust (and why I’m writing about it in a blog about workplaces) (2014) — “Allusions to the Holocaust, Nazis, Hitler, and the like must be offered carefully. This includes discussions involving employee relations. Even terrible workplaces are not concentration camps. But I respectfully suggest that these comparisons are important and useful when severe workplace bullying and abuse are under examination.”

Workplace gossip: From intelligence gathering to targeted bullying (2014) — “Spreading malicious gossip is among the most frequent bullying tactics used, especially by those who demonstrate psychopathic qualities. Calculatedly and without conscience, they plant the seeds in casual conversations and e-mails: Oh, you know what I heard? Guess what so-and-so told me. You can’t share this with anyone, but….”

Words rarely heard: “Boss, I think you need to get some help” (2013) — “The hierarchical nature of our workplaces often means that managers, supervisors, and executives who engage in bullying and other aggressive behaviors will not be referred to counseling or mental health services, and their suffering co-workers will continue to pay the price. Let’s take a look at why this is so.”

On creating organizational culture: What if your boss simply doesn’t care? (2013) — “We talk about good leaders who strive to create healthy organizational cultures, the places where people want to work. We talk about bad leaders who crack the whip, bully, and treat others as expendable parts. But what about bosses who don’t think much at all about the quality of work life within their organizations?”

Professional schools as incubators for workplace bullying (2012) — “It has long been my belief that the seeds of workplace bullying are planted in professional schools that prepare people to enter occupations such as law and medicine.”

Are some workplaces “bullying clusters”? (2012) — “Are bullying and related behaviors concentrated within a smaller number of toxic workplaces? . . . The concept of a cancer cluster has led me think about whether we can designate specific workplaces as “bullying clusters.” If we can, is there value in doing so?”

Can workplace incivility ever be healthy? (2011) — “Those of us who study workplaces generally assume that incivility is a bad thing. After all, an interaction involving incivility can ruin a work day, especially if it comes from your boss. At times, incivility can elevate into active disrespect and even bullying. . . . However, there are times when incivility may be an understandable consequence of a disagreement or difference of opinion. Such exchanges — often marked by the use of otherwise rude, harsh, or offensive words — can clear the air, hopefully paving the way toward a healthy resolution.”

How lousy organizations treat institutional history (2011) — “How do lousy organizations treat their own institutional history? In other words, how do they treat their past, recent or otherwise?”

Loyalty, “betrayal,” and workplace bullying: Does insider status matter? (2011) — “Suppose an employee openly disagrees with a position taken by her boss. Does her status as an insider or outsider impact the likelihood of being bullied by the boss? In other words, is a boss more likely to bully a “disloyal” subordinate who is part of his inner circle or favored group versus one who is not?”

“Post-truths” at work and management messaging

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Alison Flood reports for The Guardian newspaper that “Oxford Dictionaries has declared ‘post-truth’ to be its international word of the year.” She continues:

Defined by the dictionary as an adjective “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”, editors said that use of the term “post-truth” had increased by around 2,000% in 2016 compared to last year. The spike in usage, it said, is “in the context of the EU referendum in the United Kingdom and the presidential election in the United States”.

I couldn’t help but think of popular “post-truths” circulated by some employers to their rank-and-file workers:

  • “We’re all in this together.”
  • “Each and every employee matters to us.”
  • “We’d hate for a union to come in and interfere with the direct communications we enjoy with our valued employees.”
  • “We’re absolutely committed to equal opportunity.”
  • “Don’t worry, you can trust the HR office with all of your concerns.”
  • “Think of us as one big family here.”

I’m sure that readers can add their own post-truths to this list.

Of course, at some workplaces, many of these statements actually apply. But in too many places of employment, the more you hear them, the less truth they happen to carry. 

Searching for great bosses

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For better or worse, it may be easy to find a bad boss, but how do we engage the search for that seemingly more elusive good boss?

Isvari Mohan, in a piece for the Boston Globe, reports on a 10-year study by management professor Sydney Finkelstein (Dartmouth) that included over 200 interviews — all in a quest to identify the qualities of great bosses and how to find them. A few highlights from the Globe piece:

  • “Great bosses roll up their sleeves and work closely with their employees. They are ambitious, drivers of change, interested in the message of the company, and willing to delegate authority.”
  • “Superbosses are geniuses at helping other people accomplish more than they thought possible, and they focus on generating talent on a continuous basis, says Finkelstein. They want to see you leave and do well; they optimize talent flow, not talent retention. They find unlikely winners to hire. They don’t care about traditional resumes.”
  • “Finkelstein says there are three groups [of great bosses]: iconoclasts like Jon Stewart who are so obsessed with their jobs that their dedication motivates others; glorious bastards like Larry Ellison of Oracle Corp. who are driven by a desire to win and know they need talent to do so; and nurturers like cosmetics queen Mary Kay Ash who simply like helping others get ahead.”

Finkelstein’s findings appear in his new book, Superbosses: How Exceptional Leaders Master the Flow of Talent (2016). I look forward to checking it out.

Faithful readers of this blog know that I spend a lot of time talking about bad bosses, especially those whose behaviors cross into the realm of bullying and abuse. It’s also vitally important, of course, that we talk about the qualities that make for good bosses, so we can have something to aspire to for ourselves and our co-workers.

Here are some previous posts that offer more commentary on this topic:

What makes for good bosses, leaders, and workplaces? (2015)

Positive qualities of my best bosses (2012)

You want good leaders? (2010)

 

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