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How To Tell If Your Organization Uses Gaslighting

When employees come to us and say they're experiencing gaslighting, it usually looks like this:

The employee is doing their job, gettin' shit done, serving the people. Someone else (usually a boss) comes in and says, "I got an email from a client, you ruined everything, and it's all your fault." (I'm paraphrasing, but you get the idea.)

Employee says, "I've never met that client, there must be some mistake."

Boss says, "Stop being so defensive and trying to deflect responsibility."

Employee says, "I want to take responsibility for anything I do wrong, but I just didn't do that."

The employee does some research and discovers that it was the boss who actually interacted with the client. The employee struggles over whether to point this out to the boss, but decides to let it go.

Time passes. The boss comes back to the employee and says, "I just got another email from another client, and you keep ruining things with clients." The employee realizes it's the same issue all over again.

The employee again tries to clarify, "I don't think what this client is talking about is work I even do."

The boss says, "Every time I try to teach you something, you won't take responsibility. How am I supposed to work with you if you get defensive every time something like this happens?"

The employee apologizes and wonders if they really are just wrong about everything and have lost all sense of reality. The employee wonders, "Am I crazy?" "Is it just me?" The employee values other people's input and doesn't want to be defensive, but this just seems like Boss trying to blame the employee.

The more this happens over and over, the employee starts to lose sense of themself and can't figure out what the touchstone to reality is. They want to do good work and advance in the organization, but they can't figure out how to navigate the landmines of getting blamed for things they don't think they did. Eventually, the employee starts having panic attacks, chronic anxiety, and even PTSD from constantly trying to find a version of reality that makes sense.

This boss is engaging in gaslighting.

What is Gaslighting?

Gaslighting is behavior that tends to deny a common reality and pressure someone else to question their own version of reality.

Notice in the example above, it was not just that the boss had a different experience of reality than the employee. We all have different experiences of reality, and there is nothing wrong or inherently abusive about that.

This scenario became gaslighting because the boss refused to hear the employee's version of reality and instead accused the employee of something negative when they tried to create common ground.

Any time we label someone for describing their version of reality, we run the risk of engaging in gaslighting. (Usually, but not always, an exception to this is if you're being paid to medically diagnose someone.)

Talking about our versions of reality is how we find common ground. It is easy to misuse this definition because often people engaging in gaslighting, actually accuse others of manipulation or gaslighting.

This can be a tool oof control in an abusive situation.

What you look to, then, is who has the social power in the situation? In this scenario, the boss is socially higher on the hierarchy, which makes it more likely the boss has the power to engage in gaslighting.

In other situations, an employee may have more social power than a boss, and so it is not impossible for the reverse scenario to happen.

When anyone uses power or privilege to pressure another person to give up their own version of reality, they are likely engaging in gaslighting.

The good news is that just because someone else is engaging in gaslighting, it doesn't mean you have to be gaslit.

How Do You Stop Getting Gaslit?

No one has to be gaslit just because someone else is gaslighting. A lot of employees tell me that they need to value their boss's version of reality - otherwise they'll get fired.

Sometimes this is true.

Other times employees tell me they want to be open to criticisms - this can also be a great characteristic.

The trick is that we can value other people's versions of reality and be open to criticism, while we still value ourselves.

This may sound like it is easier said than done, and fear of getting fired is a real problem.

When employees come to us with gaslighting problems, the biggest thing we have seen that helps them overcome them is mental hygiene. Mental hygiene brings us back to ourselves, to reference our own version of reality as important, while letting us still value others and accept criticism.

When we practice mental hygiene, it is like practicing physical hygiene. The germs (or gaslighting) still exists, but it doesn't have to infect our system.

If you know someone who is experiencing gaslighting at work, encourage them to get support. They don't need to do this on their own.


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