We’ve all heard of gaslighting in romantic relationships, but we hear less about its ugly stepsister: gaslighting in the workplace. Gaslighting in the workplace is a tactic used to disempower and confuse, ultimately hindering career advancement.
Unlike outright bullying, gaslighting is a set of subtle behaviors that can sneak up on anyone in the workplace; knowing how to recognize and address them in a tactful, informed manner is a superpower.
The first time I experienced gaslighting at work, I was at a loss for what to do. I felt isolated and powerless. After spending months identifying, addressing, and recovering from my gaslighting experience, I decided I did not want anyone to go through what I did. In this post, I address how to identify, overcome, and prevent gaslighting, along with real-life examples.
1 – How to identify gaslighting
Uneasiness: You get feedback that makes you question your perception of reality.
Example: My supervisor gave me feedback on things I did and did not do. The feedback was inaccurate and not reflective of what we had previously agreed upon.
Confusion: You get feedback that is broad and un-specific. While it may include both positive and negative commentary, you leave feeling confused about the overall takeaway message. Well-formulated feedback should never leave you feeling confused about where you stand.
Example: My supervisor kept waffling back and forth between a positive and negative overall takeaway message. They also gave me a different message when HR was present (more positive) vs. when HR was not present (more negative and unrefined). After having a terrible conversation, the supervisor proceeded to send me a “kind” email, though it was ultimately a form of manipulation and control. If I hadn’t pinpointed the gaslighting, I might have been even more confused.
Powerlessness: When you (attempt to) speak out, you feel powerless.
Example: My supervisor took advantage of their position of power to influence HR and their superiors with their flawed narrative vs. the truth of what I had experienced and remembered. It made me feel like I could not influence the process and my voice was silenced.
2 – How to overcome gaslighting
Allyship: Find an ally, such as another superior who may be able to vouch for you, by providing them with specific examples of how the gaslighter has treated you and confused you. Be sure to highlight your contributions and impact.
Example: I sought advice from my skip-level supervisor – they helped me craft and edit my upward feedback utilizing facts & feelings. I made the feedback specific down to days and times so that it was not possible to refute it.
Support: Never be alone with the gaslighter once you know they’re gaslighting you.
Example: Due to the nature of my work, I was able to cut off all direct contact with my gaslighter and only submit feedback about them through HR. During my review conversation, HR was present, because there had been conflicting feedback all around, so they served as a neutral party (I understand this may not work for everyone, especially if you do not have a trust-based relationship with HR).
Finally, if it’s possible, don’t work with them again. If you have no choice, see if you can find another role or even job. In my experience, given the nature of my work, I was able to request not to work with the person again.
3 – How to prevent gaslighting
Consistency: Ask for consistent feedback (e.g., at least once a week) so that you are not caught off guard later on. If you find you are not getting the feedback you need, bring up your concerns to the person. If they are not responsive, get HR involved.
Documentation: Get everything in writing, don’t talk about important things on the phone. When you agree on next steps, always ask to get things re-iterated in writing, so that you are never unarmed.
Though gaslighting is subtle, it can take a huge toll on your well-being (and ultimately, your career prospects) over time. It is also an isolating and disempowering experience. Re-building your confidence and self-perception after being gaslit is crucial, and opens a whole can of worms for a future blog post.
I hope you feel equipped with new tools and resources to identify, overcome, and prevent gaslighting if, and when, it happens to you (and to be an ally for others in your network who go through the same).
I would also love for you to comment with your own experiences with gaslighting and actions you took to identify, overcome, and prevent it in the future.