Workplace conflict can make it challenging for professionals to focus on producing high-quality work and meeting expectations. This is especially true when conflict occurs in the form of gaslighting, a type of targeted manipulation that results in victimized professionals doubting their reality or ability to perform their role effectively. It can be beneficial for any professional, regardless of their position, to understand what gaslighting at work is and how to recognize it.
In this article, we define gaslighting at work, list eight signs of this type of behavior and offer solutions for overcoming it.
What is gaslighting at work?
The term “gaslighting” refers to the act of psychological manipulation through which a particular individual or group—often referred to as gaslighters—purposefully targets a victim by making them doubt the accuracy of their memory or the validity of their judgment. While gaslighting is most common in interpersonal and romantic relationships, it can also occur in professional relationships. At work, gaslighting can take various forms but frequently begins with a manager or colleague discrediting a victimized coworker’s performance through persistent, multifaceted efforts. These long-term attempts often culminate in a victim questioning their skills and ability to meet expectations.
Gaslighting at work can be challenging to recognize, especially for victimized employees who put forth genuine effort in their roles and generally have trust in their coworkers. Even when victims advocate for themselves and express their confusion or discomfort with gaslighting, a gaslighter may act defensively, dispute factual information about their behavior and further invalidate the victim’s reality, deteriorating their sense of confidence. With this, gaslighting can be cyclical. Despite this, there are fundamental actions that victimized professionals can take to recognize this behavior at work and overcome its effects to safeguard their mental health.
8 signs of gaslighting at work
The first step in overcoming the effects of gaslighting in the workplace is recognizing how it occurs and in what forms. From here, professionals can reaffirm their confidence, memory and judgment to advocate for themselves. With this overarching goal in mind, here are eight signs of gaslighting at work to consider:
1. Omission of information
When a manager or coworker continually forgets to mention important information or purposefully omits it from the conversation, it may be a sign of gaslighting. Without knowledge of information about key items like meetings or deadlines, you may find it challenging to meet expectations and blame yourself for underperforming. When such behavior occurs, it may be useful to verbally recognize your coworker’s omissions and begin to rely on other sources for information.
2. Negative performance narrative
Gaslighting at work can occur through the cultivation of a negative performance narrative. Coworkers or managers may disparage a victim’s performance, skills, abilities or professionalism, even if they’re high-performing, productive team members. Typically, these narratives form through gaslighters’ judgments and biases, and victims can advocate themselves by disputing claims with concrete data.
3. Fluctuating expectations
In a professional setting, managers need to make their expectations clear so employees understand their roles and can achieve objectives accordingly. However, if your manager’s expectations continually fluctuate without disclosures about shifts, you may find it challenging to meet their expectations. You can overcome this type of gaslighting by modeling effective communication with your manager and continually checking in with them to ensure you understand what they expect from you.
Gaslighting at work regularly occurs through the act of invalidation. For example, if you communicate with your manager about your feelings of uncertainty about their expectations and they get defensive, challenge your perspective and make you feel uncomfortable about bringing up the issue, such an interaction may result in you distrusting or discrediting your emotions. With this, looping in another party to observe similar conversations may help you thwart a gaslighter’s attempts at invalidation.
5. Professional exclusion
In a professional setting, in-group bias can serve to exclude employees who are otherwise capable, qualified and high-performing from advancement opportunities, recognition and professional development. Managers or coworkers who act in professionally exclusionary ways may have no viable justification for their behavior and may instead offer reasoning regarding a victim’s falsified shortcomings. Understanding bias as the impetus for workplace exclusion can help victims combat this type of gaslighting.
6. Inconsistent application of rules
Gaslighting can occur when managers or coworkers inconsistently apply workplace rules to their advantage. For instance, your manager may act unpredictably if they permit you to take time off over a long weekend, but then call you on Friday to ask where you are and demand you come into the office since they need support meeting a deadline. Creating a written record of rules, exceptions to them and permissions from your manager can help you have a point of reference and avoid gaslighting through inconsistency.
7. Victim blaming
Victim blaming in the workplace often occurs when a professional expresses frustration with inequitable or unfair treatment. For example, if you raise an issue with a coworker excluding you from a project due to their own bias, and instead of reprimanding your coworker, your manager accuses you of causing your victimization, this misplaces blame in the situation and may cause internal doubt. Being clear about your expectations for resolving a situation in which you feel victimized can help you direct such conversations purposefully and avoid gaslighting opportunities.
8. Selective listening
Gaslighting can occur when coworkers or managers selectively listen to you and ignore information you provide in regular conversations with them. This behavior may lead to second-guessing your ability to communicate or remember a conversation accurately. Creating meeting notes or communicating with your coworkers through writing can allow you to forge a record of your interactions that you can reference when they insist you didn’t originally communicate important information.
I hope you find this article helpful.