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Gaslighting

Are You Being Gaslighted at Work?

Pathological lying, gossip and other warning signs.

Key points

  • People who engage in gaslighting at work often exploit social networks in order to spread lies about a target employee.
  • Gaslighting colleagues may gossip and create a narrative that problematizes a person, deny reality and get others to support their lies.
  • Believing in oneself and building external professional networks can help a victim protect themselves from the harms of workplace gaslighting.

Abusive people often engage in gaslighting. It is a well-known phenomenon in toxic social relationships, but did you know that abusive work colleagues and managers can engage in gaslighting, too? Learn about the warning signs of gaslighting in workplaces, and know how to protect yourself.

Gossip and cliques

Workplace gossip can be one symptom of gaslighting. People who are bullies can be quite good at fabricating rumours about someone they are bullying in a way that makes them and other people question their competence, credibility, or integrity. Watch out for colleagues or managers who gossip to you about other people because they sure are going to be doing the same about you. Gossip is a toxic workplace behaviour because it reinforces cliques that leave others excluded and promotes rumours that might be untrue.

People who engage in gaslighting at work tend to exploit social networks in order to spread lies about a target employee in a way that the employee will never find out about. People start treating them differently and no one ever asks them whether the rumours are true. Watch out for managers and colleagues who establish cliques within the workplace and those who ingratiate themselves to certain people. They most likely have a power motive for establishing the cliques and they can serve as useful mechanisms through which to gaslight employees that they dislike or by whom they feel threatened.

If you are worried about a gaslighting manager or work colleague, do not participate in a gossip culture and always give an employee that you have heard gossip about a heads-up so that they have the opportunity to respond. If possible, talk to as many people as possible within your workplace, and build your own social networks to avoid getting isolated.

Harm to professional self-esteem

Gaslighting is not harmless within the workplace – it can seriously damage the way that other people, clients or senior managers perceive employees, affecting their promotion, treatment and experiences at work. It can create a false reality that is never proven wrong, therefore an employee can find themselves trapped in a context where they never have a chance to be themselves. It can harm a person’s professional and personal self-esteem.

Hierarchical organizations with a nepotistic culture are particularly at risk because managers have the privileged position of being information gatekeepers, which means that they are responsible for relaying information between their team and more senior managers. In turn, people favoured by managers can develop social capital that they exploit for their own ends, such as through gaslighting. For victims, it can have a severely detrimental effect on personal and professional self-esteem.

Symptoms of workplace gaslighting

Gaslighting in workplaces can include:

  • Accusing you of being deluded: People gaslighting at work tend to deny the reality you know to be true, such as denying that your achievements, work or positive experiences actually exist. They can make you feel like what you have done is not that important or, in fact, probably is a lie or an exaggeration.
  • Pathological lying: Even in the face of concrete evidence about your good performance, a gaslighting manager or colleague can persist with the lie that you are a problematic employee, have done something wrong or that you are not that competent. They might persist with the lie to the point of “forgetting” or misremembering the truth even when faced with a mountain of evidence contradicting them.
  • False performance narrative: Gaslighting managers or colleagues can focus on creating a narrative that problematises you, such as questioning your mental health, making you feel like you need help, or that the problem is your mental capacity. Be very careful about any manager who starts questioning your mental capacity and seek advice immediately. Many organisations stigmatise employees with mental health problems, including those suspected of having them.
  • Repetition and repetition: A gaslighting manager or colleague tends to orchestrate a set of lies about you through persistent and unrelenting gossip that repeats the same lies (even if you have challenged them and proven them wrong). They can aim to be believed by simply repeating the same lie over and over again to the same people. They might also repeat a variation of the same lie, over and over again, thinking that people probably believe their version over yours.
  • Ganging up: A gaslighting manager or colleague tends to get others to join in or support their attitudes towards you by undermining your achievements and trying to rally support for their lies. They may approach your seniors, colleagues or clients without your knowledge to try and find fault in your work or orchestrate a false narrative about you. If they can’t find any support, they might invent a narrative of “people are saying xyz about you” that they never prove.

Empowering yourself

If you are being gaslighted at work, do everything you can to protect your self-esteem and mental health because they are at risk of harm. Reflect on your achievements and give yourself a pep talk about your successes. Believe in yourself, and your abilities, and don’t let anyone make you feel like you are less competent, accomplished or successful than you are. Seek empowering workplace experiences, such as work with people outside your team or organization, where possible, to reaffirm your professional self-esteem. Speak up against bullying and gaslighting, if you can. The reality is that workplace misdemeanours will not go unnoticed forever and, one day, you will be vindicated.

Everyone has the right to a positive, happy workplace. Don’t participate in gossip, gaslighting or other toxic behaviours, and – if you are a victim – do what you can to protect your professional self-esteem

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