Gaslighting exists, and it’s horrible, so we should invoke the term carefully

(Drawing copyright Aaron Maeda)

In her excellent book, The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life, (2018 pb ed. with rev. intro), Dr. Robin Stern defines gaslighting as:

a type of emotional manipulation in which a gaslighter tries to convince you that you’re misremembering, misunderstanding, or misinterpreting your own behavior or motivations, thus creating doubt in your mind that leaves you vulnerable and confused. Gaslighters might be men or women, spouses or lovers, bosses or colleagues, parents or siblings, but what they all have in common is their ability to make you question your own perceptions of reality.

From this apt definition, we can tease out two major elements of gaslighting:

First, it is intentional and targeted toward a specific individual or group. It is not accidental or inadvertent. (After all, I cannot imagine a sincere apology along the lines of oh, I’m sorry, I really didn’t mean to gaslight you.)

Second, it is emotionally manipulative, designed to disorient and even frighten those on the receiving end. It’s about messing with someone’s perceptions of reality.

In short, gaslighting is a tool for taking, preserving, or abusing power. At work, it may be a component of workplace bullying and mobbing, sexual harassment, anti-union campaigns, or seemingly bizarre management pronouncements. I am glad that we have a term that captures such targeted, disorienting behaviors.

That said, there’s always the risk that the term can be overused.

In earlier posts, I predicted that now that gaslighting is becoming a more mainstream entry in our vocabulary of interpersonal abuse, it is inevitable that it will be misused or confused with other behaviors at times. I believe this is now coming true. Over the past couple of years, I’ve noticed gaslighting being invoked in situations where the apparent factual circumstances did not justify its use.

Borrowing from an earlier post, gaslighting is sometimes confused with:

  • an honest disagreement, even an intense or heated one;
  • an argument that includes misunderstandings, sometimes on both ends;
  • someone being obstinate or stubborn;
  • erroneous, even confusing, directives 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.

Indeed, I recently found myself characterizing a description of someone’s behavior as gaslighting, until I had to acknowledge that their actions didn’t reach that level. I believe that using the term gaslighting has become a, well, cool way of demonstrating that we’re in the know about the lingo of emotional manipulation. It then can be used as a sharp, negative, blanket label to characterize someone else’s objectionable statements or actions, even when they don’t quite fit the definition.

Especially in situations where negative emotions escalate, it can be tempting to slap a tag of gaslighting on communications (in person, on paper, or online) that become heated. However, if we are to save the use of this term for the specific, nasty tool of mistreatment that it is, then we should not hurl it across the room, so to speak, whenever angry disagreements occur. Unfortunately, there is enough real gaslighting going on to ensure many opportunities for its continued proper use.

Let’s make 2020 a year of working on solutions and responses

 

For those of us who are committed to making human dignity a framing characteristic of modern society, let’s make 2020 a year of working on solutions and responses.

Over the years, I’ve witnessed an unsurprising but nonetheless troubling trend about traffic to this blog. On balance, pieces that discuss the hurt, pain, and injustice of workplace bullying, mobbing, and harassment get higher readership stats than those that discuss systemic solutions, law reform, and possible paths toward individual healing & recovery.

This appears to be a twist on internet clickbait patterns generally, whereby online readers are drawn to negative topics that validate and fuel outrage. Let’s face it: Sometimes we’re more likely to curse the darkness than to light a candle. Especially if you’ve been a target of workplace abuse, it’s perfectly natural to react in such a manner.

But lighting that candle towards effective solutions and responses must be our primary objective. And therein lies the hard work before us. In terms of what that means, I can speak only for myself.

Of course, I remain steadfastly committed to enacting the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill. As I wrote earlier this year (link here), we’re on a gradual but inevitable march toward enacting workplace anti-bullying laws in the U.S. It’s taking a long time to do this, particularly in the face of corporate opposition, but we are making genuine progress.

Overall, I’ll be continuing work on several fronts that encourages our legal systems, places of employment, and other political and civic institutions to embrace human dignity as a primary framing value. I will be emphasizing this theme as part of my service on three non-profit boards, in particular: The International Society for Therapeutic Jurisprudence, Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies, and Americans for Democratic Education Fund.

I’m also excited about a new course I’m offering at my law school during the coming semester. It’s called the Law and Psychology Lab, and it will incorporate heavy doses of therapeutic jurisprudence, encouraging law students to examine how laws can support psychologically healthy outcomes in legal disputes and transactions. In addition to developing projects on topics of individual interest, the students will work on a larger, co-created group project with a specific theme, which for this initial offering will be bullying, abuse, and trauma along the lifespan. We will be making some of the results of our work publicly available.

Here’s to a 2020 full of positive change. Let’s all be a part of it.

When a workplace bully gets his comeuppance, should we be gleeful?

A month ago, New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg took particular satisfaction over president Donald Trump humiliating his national security advisor, John Bolton, in the midst of diplomatic negotiations over nuclear arms (link here). She didn’t pull any punches:

Say this for Donald Trump. He may be transforming American politics into a kleptocratic fascist reality show and turning our once-great country into a global laughingstock, but at least he’s humiliating John Bolton in the process.

Why the glee over Bolton being savagely undermined by his boss? It may be the spectacle of witnessing one bully being outdone by another. You see, John Bolton is a longtime presence on the American diplomatic scene — with apologies for using the terms “Bolton” and “diplomatic” in the same sentence. I first heard about Bolton during George W. Bush’s administration, when he was appointed the U.N. Ambassador. His Senate confirmation hearings for the position were replete with stories about his raging temper and bullying tactics.

In fact, I referenced Bolton’s record of workplace bullying in an online piece published in 2005:

Allegations of intimidating and angry treatment of co-workers lodged against John Bolton, the Bush Administration’s newly-appointed Ambassador to the United Nations, have put a spotlight on the problem of workplace bullying. While Bolton has not quite done for bullying what Clarence Thomas and his 1991 Supreme Court confirmation hearings did for raising awareness of sexual harassment, it is clear that this story struck a responsive chord with many workers who have experienced abusive treatment at the hands of bosses and co-workers.

…In recent months, many of these behaviors have been attributed to Bolton by current and former State Department co-workers and contractors. Ex-State Department intelligence chief Carl Ford, a Republican appointee, called Bolton a “serial abuser” of subordinates, adding that he showed a talent for stroking superiors while kicking down underlings.

The most publicized allegations came from Melody Townsel, a woman who worked with Bolton in Moscow under a government contract in 1994. Townsel told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that Bolton chased her down the halls of a Moscow hotel, threw a tape dispenser at her, made disparaging remarks about her appearance, left threatening letters under her hotel door, and pounded on her door and yelled at her.

Bolton is said to have pursued the removal of two intelligence analysts simply for disagreeing with him. He sought to have them fired, claiming that their work had deteriorated. Internal agency reviews of the analysts’ work found no merit to the claims. Other reports indicate that Bolton has a talent for shouting down diplomats from other nations and throwing last-minute monkey wrenches into delicate treaty negotiations.

Should we celebrate a bully’s comeuppance?

I’m not about to wag a finger at someone who takes delight in a bully’s downfall, especially if said bully was a personal tormenter. In fact, in writing this piece, I recalled once sounding a war whoop of delight upon hearing that karma had come around to bite someone who was responsible for bad things happening to people at work. I’m neither proud of, nor apologetic for, that emotional response.

I have no hard and fast rules for when the celebration becomes excessive. That said, I hope we can all summon our better natures in not letting such responses go too far. Public humiliation, in particular, has a way of becoming cyclical, leading to more of the same. This may include, among other things, unintended and negative consequences of bullying bullies.

Lessons learned early: School responses to bullying and abuse accusations

For better and for worse, we often learn about organizational responses to bullying and abuse accusations early in life, by witnessing how school systems deal with them. As Kerry Justich reports for Yahoo (link here), a high school senior in Vancouver, Washington, is learning what that response may entail:

A high school senior in Vancouver, Wash. will no longer be walking in his graduation on Saturday, after accusing the administration of ignoring bullying and sexual assault allegedly taking place at school.

Charles Chandler was giving a speech in front of students and families of Heritage High School during a ceremony on Wednesday when he went off script and made some controversial comments against the administration.

“And to you, underclassmen,” Chandler is heard saying toward the end of his speech, “who have to endure all the things the school throw at you for two to three more years. A school where the administration closes their eyes to everything that happens in the school. Their school. The sexual assault, the bullying, the depression, the outcasts. And they do nothing to fix it.”

Through surprised reactions heard throughout the crowd, Chandler continued to say that if the school does take notice of these incidents, “they take the side of the accused and not the victim,” before the audience ultimately erupted in cheers.

Although Chandler’s peers appeared to agree with him, principal Derek Garrison did not, claiming his comments were not truthful:

“His comments were full of inaccuracies, inflammatory statements and hurtful accusations,” the principal’s letter, obtained by Yahoo Lifestyle, reads. “Administrators called the student in to explain why spreading rumors and inaccurate information was extremely problematic.”

The story has attracted a lot of local attention, and several dozen Heritage students protested the school’s treatment of Chandler by staging a walkout.

One of many

Of course, this is only one of many accounts of how school systems have pushed back against accusations of bullying, sexual assault, and other forms of abuse and misconduct. Typically this takes place in one or more of these forms:

  • Outright denial that any wrongful behavior occurred;
  • Dismissal of the seriousness of the allegations, suggesting an overreaction;
  • Active coverups of abuse; and/or,
  • Retaliation against the accusers.

Hmm, this sounds like what happens in way too many bullying, harassment, and whistleblower situations at work, yes?

Indeed, school responses to student allegations of wrongdoing sometimes resemble responses of bad employers to employee allegations of mistreatment or misconduct. When both student complainants and bystanders witness how such allegations are swept under the rug or otherwise mishandled by their schools, they learn an unfortunate lesson about getting along, going along, and keeping their mouths shut in the face of wrongful behavior.

Back to Heritage High

We don’t know the full story behind Charles Chandler’s accusations about student life at Heritage High School. According to the Yahoo news article, the “principal’s letter offered Chandler the opportunity to participate in a ‘restorative solution,’ or face disciplinary action that included not walking at graduation,” and that Chandler opted for the latter. Reading between the lines, it appears that he didn’t trust the process offered to him, and that many of his fellow students — as evidenced by their support for him — share his concerns. 

In fact, Katie Gillespie reports for The Columbian that other students have reported mistreatment at the school (link here):

Some students at the school praised Chandler for standing up for what they see as continued tolerance of bullying and harassment at the Evergreen Public Schools campus.

Frost Honrath, 17, said she twice reported being physically assaulted by another student, but felt the district’s response was insufficient.

“I really want to see action in our school,” Honrath said. “They’re pushing it aside.”

Ethan Wheeler, 17, said a student once wrapped a noose, a prop from a play, around his neck and told him to kill himself. When he tried to get help, “it seemed like nothing was really done.”

This may turn out to be one of those more unusual situations of a story going viral, and thus prompting a public defense of the individual issuing the accusations. It could lead to a more comprehensive examination of student life at this high school. Maybe the students will learn a different lesson about the value of raising their voices.

Speaking truth to power at work: Incivility & abrasiveness vs. bullying & mobbing

Image courtesy of Clipart Panda

As I’ve shared with you before, dear readers, I sometimes use this blog to develop ideas-in-progress. This means engaging in some thinking out loud, so to speak. Back in 2015, I wrote about distinguishing workplace incivility and abrasiveness from bullying and mobbing (link here):

Readers from outside of academe may be amused to learn that research on bad workplace behaviors has broken down into several camps. Two of these are the incivility researchers and the bullying researchers. At organizational psychology conferences, it’s not unusual to hear remarks such as “oh, she’s an incivility person” or “no, he’s more into bullying.”

When I started this work over 15 years ago, I treated these behaviors as parts of a spectrum, with many overlaps present, but it’s clear that sharper lines are being drawn, at least for the purposes of putting together panel discussions and writing dissertations.

For me, the most significant line is where behaviors become abusive, motivated in significant part by a desire to cause distress or harm. When that line is crossed, it’s not about incivility or bad manners; we’re now into the territory of bullying or mobbing.

I went on to add that although incivility and bullying have both been receiving greater attention, the former has still gained greater acceptance among employee relations stakeholders and the mainstream media:

Over the years, both incivility and bullying have attracted greater attention from employee relations stakeholders and the popular media. However, we’re still at a point where workplace incivility, rudeness, and abrasiveness are more readily acknowledged than bullying and mobbing. I have many ideas as to why this is the case, and they tend to circle around the nature of power. Those in charge are much more threatened by allegations of bullying than by claims of incivility.

I greatly value the growing body of research and commentary on workplace incivility. After all, the more we understand incivility at work and how to prevent and respond to it, the better. However, I think that for some organizations, it’s safer to use the incivility label than to acknowledge the more abusive realities of bullying.

Along these lines, I’d like to gather my thoughts about why many organizations and other employee relations stakeholders are reluctant to recognize workplace bullying and mobbing:

  1. Bullying and mobbing involve abuses of power, not bad manners. Especially because these abuses are often top-down in nature (i.e., managers and supervisors directing abuse toward subordinates), acknowledging bullying and mobbing points a steady finger at the values, ethics, and practices of senior management.
  2. On an individual level, it’s one thing to say that a boss “doesn’t play well in the sandbox with others,” “is a little rough around the edges,” or “can be a jerk at times.” Such characterizations can be tagged as merely uncivil, not abusive, and thus don’t carry a heavy stigma. However, to recognize that a boss (or any other individual, for that matter) is abusive is very different thing.
  3. The abusive nature of bullying and mobbing also implicates the psychological makeup of leaders and organizational cultures. This means opening the door to characterizing individuals and organizations as possibly having qualities consistent with narcissism, sociopathy, and/or psychopathy.
  4. In the U.S. especially, where the rule of at-will employment (which includes the right to terminate a worker without cause) and its underlying theoretical legal framework of master-servant relationships still hold sway, accusations of work abuse directed at bosses and managers are extremely threatening to the power structure.
  5. Practically speaking, under at-will employment, a subordinate who bullies a boss can be fired without cause, while a boss who bullies a subordinate usually doesn’t have to worry about job security — unless the bullying is discriminatory in nature (race, sex, etc.) or in retaliation for legally-protected whistleblowing.
  6. Preserving this top-down power relationship is, no doubt, among the reasons why some employers and their trade associations oppose the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill. Even if they have no intentions of treating workers abusively, they want to retain the right to do so, without fear of being held legally accountable.

Related posts

“Master and servant”: The roots of American employment law (2013)

At-will employment and the legality of workplace bullying: A brutal combo punch (2011)

On following evil orders at work

In a piece for Medium (link here), Sarah Griffiths interviews psychological researcher Julia Shaw (University College London) on her new book Evil: The Science Behind Humanity’s Dark Side (2019). Here’s what Dr. Shaw says about the negative implications of our tendency to follow orders:

Following orders is the default human tendency, so if there’s someone in authority, or someone who has authority over you, then you are likely to follow their orders, unless you are in danger. That’s for a host of social reasons, not the least of which is that we are generally trusting of our fellow humans and if we’ve placed them in a position of responsibility — a political office, for example — then we trust the decisions they are making are not going to break social norms or moral values.

It’s also a lot of work to stand up against authority and think for ourselves in a situation when we feel we don’t have to, so we quite readily outsource immorality as our brains are effectively a bit lazy and are constantly trying to conserve resources.

Among other things, these dynamics can lead us to take part in cruel and abusive behaviors. History is riddled with examples of this, including participation in torture and genocides.

In response, Shaw suggests three things that we can do to avoid engaging in mistreatment of others, at the behest of someone in authority:

There are three things you can do. The first is to learn about things and prepare yourself when times are good for when times are bad.

…The second thing you can do is “foster heroic imagination,” … (s)o you can picture yourself swimming against the tide of “evil” and going out of your way to do good things for other people — playing the hero.

…The third thing is to make sure that when you are in a situation requiring morally challenging decisions, that you deliberately fight the urge to give in and go with the flow.

At work

Naturally I’m translating this into workplace settings: What if an employee is directed or enlisted to take part in the bullying, mobbing, or harassment of a co-worker? How should that individual respond? What are the costs and consequences of resisting versus going along?

Certainly we can all grow as individuals and develop stronger moral and ethical groundings in terms of how we respond to directives to do wrongful things to others. In that sense, it seems that the three things suggested by Dr. Shaw require a lot of foundational work on ourselves, well before the precipitating events arise. Those events will test us, and decisions on how to respond will emanate from our core foundations.

That said, I am only mildly optimistic about our collective ability to respond to work abuse in the individualized manner suggested by Shaw. Typically these forms of interpersonal mistreatment are enabled or endorsed by organizational leaders. Our tendency to take our cues from the top — the very tendency centrally acknowledged by Shaw — creates shared presumptions that succeeding on the job means accepting, or at least not resisting, the accompanying values and behaviors. By contrast, someone “playing the hero” in the face of wrongful behaviors is often left to do so on their own, with all the accompanying risks.

Rather, the solutions are more systemic. We need a stronger, more inclusive labor movement to provide a countervailing voice for everyday workers. We need laws against workplace bullying. We need stronger enforcement of existing workplace protections. Ultimately, we need to embrace dignity as the primary framing value for our society, joined with a commitment that dignity should not be sacrificed for the right to earn a living and pursue a vocation.

True, advocating for these changes often requires speaking truth to power, but at least if we do so more collectively, our chances of success are much greater than going it alone.

Published: “On anger, shock, fear, and trauma: therapeutic jurisprudence as a response to dignity denials in public policy”

The International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, has just published my article, “On anger, shock, fear, and trauma: therapeutic jurisprudence as a response to dignity denials in public policy.” Through May 18, you may click here to obtain free access to the article.

This piece is not about employment law and policy, but it embraces a relevant theme, namely, how the making and content of public policy can either advance or deny our dignity. Here’s the article abstract:

This article asserts that when policymaking processes, outcomes, and implementations stoke fear, anxiety, and trauma, they often lead to denials of human dignity. It cites as prime examples the recent actions of America’s current federal government concerning immigration and health care. As a response, I urge that therapeutic jurisprudence should inform both the processes of policymaking and the design of public policy, trained on whether human dignity, psychological health, and well-being are advanced or diminished. I also discuss three methodologies that will help to guide those who want to engage legislation in a TJ-informed manner. Although achieving this fundamental shift will not be easy, we have the raw analytical and intellectual tools to move wisely in this direction.

Although it’s a scholarly journal piece, it’s relatively short (10 pp.) and accessible to non-legal folks.

The article appears as part of a special issue honoring Prof. David Wexler (U. Puerto Rico/U. Arizona), a co-founder of the therapeutic jurisprudence movement. It was co-edited by Profs. Amy Campbell (U. Memphis) and Kathy Cerminara (Nova Southeastern U.). The journal is hosted by the International Academy of Law and Mental Health.

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