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Editorial Team
07 Dec 2018

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Gaslighting, Brainwashing and Other Workplace Demons

Dealing with gaslighting at workplaces

Gaslighting is increasingly becoming a predominant weapon of choice for manipulative managers and leaders in the workplace. But in most cases, the victims aren’t even aware of what’s happening until it’s too late.

It’s a tale straight out of Hollywood dramas and has all the ingredients perfectly in place. The gaslighting phenomenon is rearing its ugly head in the corporate world like never before. In a world where corporations put their entire online reputation on the line of a single social media management employee who can post on twitter, gaslighting is taking on precarious proportions and its insidious nature ensures that it passes under the HR radar until it is usually too late.

GASLIGHTING

The term “gaslight” originates from the 1944 film with the same name and has become a moniker that symbolizes almost every form of subtle discriminatory behavior, mind manipulation, and exploitation. It is not restricted to the superior-subordinate relationship alone. Gaslighting also takes on forms of bipartisan mind-games between groups of employees or a group of ‘friends’ alienating a coworker.

According to Wikipedia, “Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse that seeks to sow seeds of doubt in targeted individuals or members in a targeted group, making them question their own memory, perception, and sanity. Using persistent denial, misdirection, contradiction, and lying, it attempts to destabilize the victim and delegitimize the victim’s belief”

As mentioned before, the insidious nature of the act makes it an incredibly effective form of psychological exploitation and abuse and the subtle nuances of it ultimately shatter the victim’s self-worth and in some cases, sanity. Some are more susceptible to it than others, as is the case with all workplace-related group dynamics.

THE SUBLIMINAL COUSIN

From a third-party perspective, the phenomenon is akin to workplace bullying, but with far darker undertones. Its subtle nature makes it very difficult to identify, let alone report. Which is probably the reason most victims end up questioning their own sanity, perception, and logic, justifying ‘gas lighter’s perspective to themselves, ultimately falling prey.

A personal experience by Canadian blogger Andrea Holmes serves to exemplify how subliminal and just how dangerous gaslighting can be. In this case, her boss was the gas-lighter.  According to Holmes, her boss created an atmosphere of continuous stress and anxiety wherein she was given specific instructions that were changed almost instantaneously and finally told that she wasn’t following the instructions. She was constantly being waived off for being ‘overly sensitive’, as a result of which her confidence in her own presentation and conversational skills were shaken. Most importantly, when she needed to learn something new or while she sought clarification, she was cajoled and coaxed with a “you should know this by now”.

What’s interesting here is that Andrea did not face any open hostility or bullying, discriminatory or otherwise. However, the end result was no less malicious.

EVER FELT IT?

Grasping the extent of gaslighting is difficult, and that’s why we’ve outlined some key identifiers here.  These will help employees as well as HR managers to quickly and effectively point out any instances of gaslighting taking place, and also empower victims with the first and most vital step – identifying it.

  • A feeling of Deception is by far the most common element of the gaslighting phenomenon in an organization. For example, if one has the nagging feeling of being deceived after every interaction with a single individual, superior or otherwise, one is most probably facing gaslighting.
  • Second-Guessing of oneself is another major element and is usually the first-step-on-the-way for the victim to completely lose faith in herself and her own capabilities. If this is happening due to constant manipulation of a particular individual in the workplace then they are most likely gaslighting.
  • Condescension without aggression is the most prominent sign of gaslighting and the easiest to spot. Like any other psychological exploitation or manipulation phenomenon, gaslighting is aimed at harming the victim and creating difficult situations for them, including power-play victimization.

The consequences of gaslighting are as serious for the organization as they are for the victim. Besides the employee’s obvious breakdown of confidence and the detachment from reality, organizational growth is often stifled, productivity is affected (gradually but severely in this case, if not checked) and a surge in employee turnover is inevitable, mostly due to victims leaving.

NIPPING IT IN THE BUD – WHAT HR MANAGERS CAN DO

The most effective antidote to gaslighting, similar to any other form of workplace bullying, is an open communication policy. Most often victims are confused, scared and question their own reality (which is the textbook objective of gaslighting anyway) and naturally, are afraid to reach out. Regular, confidential communication through a helpline, intranet bulletin board, or other such mechanisms can be easily and immediately deployed. Remember, gaslighting victims are tougher to identify than most others, and the better the outreach, the sooner they’re likely to respond.

Gaslighting is a common and often unreported phenomenon at the workplace, constituting psychological manipulation at its probable worst. Making an example of non-tolerance to such behavior is as important as empathizing with the victim, and the responsibility for its rectification oftentimes falls on the HR leader. Has your workplace experienced such a phenomenon? Reach out to us and let us know!

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