“Some people try to be tall by cutting off the heads of others.”
— Paramahansa Yogananda
Wikipedia defines gaslighting as “a form of psychological manipulation in which a person or a group covertly sows seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or group, making them question their own memory, perception, or judgment.”
At the workplace, a gaslighter can be a negative manager, a scheming coworker, a prejudiced workgroup, a disgruntled customer/client, or a smearing business competitor. Workplace gaslighting can also be the result of systemic, institutional bias, or negative media and social media coverage. A gaslighter may target and victimize groups as well as individuals.
The following four attributes often distinguish workplace gaslighting from other types of challenges on the job:
- The difficult work situation is based on persistent individual, group, or institutional bias and negativity, rather than solid proof, strong facts, established cases, and/or proven data.
- The difficult work environment creates a negative/unfavorable narrative about the gaslightee (contrary to evidence), and damages the gaslightee’s personal or professional reputation.
- The mistreatment persists over a period of time, despite a clear track record of the gaslightee’s positive collaboration, contributions, and accomplishments.
- When approached on the matter, the gaslighter typically denies mistreatment, and can become defensive, contentious, dismissive, and/or evasive. Instead of using verification and facts to problem-solve, the gaslighter may escalate and become more aggressive, or stonewall and become more passive-aggressive.
What are some of the characteristics of a workplace gaslighter? Here are seven possible signs, with references from my books How to Successfully Handle Gaslighters & Stop Psychological Bullying and How to Communicate Effectively and Handle Difficult People. While normal workplace dynamics may occasionally include some of the following traits, a chronic gaslighter may persistently engage in one or more of the machinations below, while remaining largely unaware of (or unconcerned with) the negative impact gaslighting has on people.
1. Persistent Negative Narrative about the gaslightee’s performance, credibility, product or service. Typically, the negativity is based on personal judgment and biased accusations, rather than facts and validity.
2. Persistent Negative Gossip about the gaslightee’s professional and/or personal characteristics. On-going negative gossip is also a form of passive-aggressiveness.
“I’ve seen right in front of my eyes how this clique ignores and shuns those outside of their group, while constantly gossip behind their backs.” — Anonymous administrator
3. Persistent Negative Public Comment or Publicity in face-to-face, online, individual, group, meetings, memorandums, reports, performance evaluations, customer and client reviews, or other scenarios/settings. Again, the negative branding/smearing is largely based on falsehoods or exaggerations rather than concrete evidence and facts, which damages the gaslightee’s professional credibility and personal reputation.
“The work your department does is a waste of time and resources. How do you even justify your employment?” — Anonymous manager
4. Persistent Negative Humor and Sarcasm. Expressing hostility or condescension disguised as humor/sarcasm to tease, mock, belittle, and marginalize the gaslightee, often followed by “just kidding”.
“Your office is SO clean – they told me you have an easy job!” — Anonymous co-worker
5. Persistent Professional Exclusion (i.e. “Invisible Professional Segregation”, “The Good Ol’ Boys System”, “In-Group Bias”, “The Glass Ceiling”, “The Bamboo Ceiling”, “The Tortilla Ceiling”, etc.) from networking, professional development, promotion, advancement, leadership, and other opportunities when the gaslightee is clearly capable and qualified to participate, without reasonable justification.
“Someone who works at a grocery store wrote that she was assigned by her supervisor to clean the bathrooms and mop the floor, while her male coworkers rolled in shopping carts. This team member is actually the most experienced employee. She was told that the male associates brought in carts because the task is more physical. Is rolling in shopping carts really too ‘labor intensive’ for an able female associate? Aren’t bathroom cleaning and floor mopping ‘labor intensive’ as well?” — Anonymous
“I saw my father (a person of color) bypassed many times for promotions, while always being asked to train new (Caucasian) employees who became his bosses. If he’s good enough to mentor future managers, why couldn’t he also be a manager?” — Anonymous
6. Persistent and Verifiable Bullying and Intimidation at the workplace.
“You don’t like the way I talk? Well, who else is going to hire you?” — Foreman to temporary workers
7. Persistent and Verifiable Inequitable Treatment compared with other employees of similar or less experience and accomplishment, despite a strong record of positive collaboration and noteworthy contributions. Significantly, when questioned about the matter, the gaslighter may misdirect and blame the gaslightee for being the cause of their own victimization.
The result of chronic gaslighting is that it can make the gaslightee feel “lesser” as a team member, contributor, or provider of product or service. One may even begin to question one’s own professional credibility and personal self-worth, wondering if the gaslighter is justified in their judgments and accusations (despite evidence to the contrary). Gaslighting is a form of psychological brainwashing.
For tips on how to handle gaslighters, see references below.
© 2020 by Preston C. Ni. All rights reserved worldwide. Copyright violation may subject the violator to legal prosecution.
Disclaimer: This article is for general educational purposes only. It may or may not be relevant to an individual’s specific circumstance.
Ni, Preston. How to Successfully Handle Gaslighters & Stop Psychological Bullying. PNCC. (2017)
Ni, Preston. How to Communicate Effectively and Handle Difficult People — 2nd Edition. PNCC. (2006)
Ni, Preston. How to Successfully Handle Manipulative People. PNCC. (2015)
Ni, Preston. How to Successfully Handle Narcissists. PNCC. (2014)
Ni, Preston. How to Successfully Handle Aggressive, Intimidating, and Controlling People. PNCC. (2014)
Calef, Victor; Weinshel, Edward M. Some Clinical Consequences of Introjection: Gaslighting. Psychoanal Q. (1981)
Cawthra, R.; O'Brian, G.; Hassanyeh, F. 'Imposed Psychosis': A Case Variant of the Gaslight Phenomenon. British Journal of Psychiatry. (1987)
Dorpat, Theodore L. Gaslighting, the Double Whammy, Interrogation, and Other Methods of Covert Control in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis. Jason Aronson. (1996)
Gass, G.Z.; Nichols, W.C. Gaslighting: A Marital Syndrome. Journal of Contemporary Family Therapy. (1988)
Portnow, Kathryn. Dialogues of Doubt: The Psychology of Self-Doubt and Emotional Gaslighting in Adult Women and Men. Harvard Graduate School of Education. (1996)
Simson, George K. Gaslighting As A Manipulation Tactic: What It Is, Who Does It, And Why. Counselling Resource. (2011)