To gaslight other people is to manipulate them so effectively that they doubt not only their own perceptions of their circumstances but also their recollections of past events. [APA 2023.3] The term comes from the title of a 1938 play and two films of the 1940s, in which an unfaithful husband convinces his wife of his fidelity by causing her to reject her own observations. In its original usage, the term gaslight implies that perpetrator and target are in an intimate romantic relationship.
In recent years, however, the term's usage has broadened. I use the term in this post to apply in any relationship, including workplace relationships unrelated to romance. At work, the tactic is usually employed with a single individual as target, but gaslighting can also serve to manipulate any workgroup, from teams to entire enterprises.
In contexts in which perpetrators have formal power over their targets, such as the supervisor/subordinate relationship at work, perpetrators can abuse their power in order to carry out the gaslighting. Perpetrators can suppress targets' objections, compel statements of support, and even redirect organizational resources to advance their objectives. And targets have few options to defend themselves.
Independent thought and faith in the evidence of one's own observations are among the best protections against gaslighting. These abilities are therefore early targets of perpetrators. One consequence of being "gaslighted" is gradual loss of the ability to notice the gaslighting. The target of an effective gaslighting campaign actually abandons previously held beliefs about reality, and adopts the views the perpetrator repeatedly asserts.
Indicators of gaslighting campaigns at work
Defense against a gaslighting campaign begins with noticing the indicators of gaslighting. Perhaps In contexts in which perpetrators have formal
power over their targets, such as the supervisor-
subordinate relationship at work, perpetrators
can abuse their power to effect the gaslightingthe most direct indicators of a gaslighting campaign are the perpetrator's own words. Below is a collection of statements and phrases perpetrators might use in their efforts to coerce their targets to reject their own observations and judgments in favor of the perpetrator's views of reality. The elements of this collection are meant to represent what we might hear in the context of a project sponsor or senior manager giving direction to a project team.
- That risk you're concerned about just will never happen. We don't need to plan for it.
- That deadline isn't tight. Meeting it will be no problem if you're clever about how you do things.
- Changing that requirement will have little to no impact. I'm sure you can find a way to accommodate the change without causing any delays.
- If you can't easily accommodate this change, you probably should have anticipated the possibility a bit better, wouldn't you agree?
- I need to borrow Jan for a special assignment for just three days. That won't kill you.
- I never said that the customer wanted X. I said they inquired about it, that's all.
- This confusion is embarrassing for us all. From now on, I'll be the one to talk to the customer. If you need any info from them, let me know and I'll take care of it.
- I know they said they wanted X, but Y does almost exactly the same thing. Try adapting Y.
- I'm not asking you to work harder. I'm asking you to work smarter.
- If the customer wants that too, then that's what we have to do.
- These problems are all traceable to Alpha's bad decisions, but now that Alpha is finally gone, you can straighten everything out, OK?
- You're being a perfectionist. Just make it work.
- I know it's not the way you'd like it, but we can easily fix it in version 2.0.
- I got you a one-week extension, which is more than enough if you put your mind to it.
- We don't need to make it do X, because the customer doesn't really need it. Just tell her.
- I'm sure you can finish on time because I have faith in you.
- You're being panicky, that's really no problem at all.
- Don't make a big deal out of this. Just get it done.
Certainly there are other indicators of gaslighting beyond the perpetrator's own words. Policy is a realm worth monitoring carefully. For example, policies that limit access to information or contact with organizational elements beyond the team are among perpetrator favorites. Awareness is the first level of defense. Top Next Issue
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More articles on Workplace Bullying:
- When the Chair Is a Bully: II
- Assertiveness by chairs of meetings isn't a problem in itself, but it becomes problematic when the chair's
dominance deprives the meeting of contributions from some of its members. Here's Part II of our exploration
of the problem of bully chairs.
- Social Isolation and Workplace Bullying
- Social isolation is a tactic widely used by workplace bullies. What is it? How do bullies use it? Why
do bullies use it? What can targets do about it?
- Judging Others
- Being "judgmental" is a stance most people recognize as transgressing beyond widely accepted
social norms. But what's the harm in judging others? And why do so many people do it so often?
- On Gratuitous Harshness
- Rejecting with gratuitous harshness the contributions of others can be an expensive pattern to tolerate
— or to indulge. Understanding how the costs arise and what factors exacerbate them is the first
step to controlling the pattern.
- Online Ethics
- The array of media for exchanging our thoughts in text has created new opportunities for acting unethically.
Cyberbullying is one well-known example. But sending text is just one way to cross the line ethically.
Here are some examples of alternatives.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming March 6: Six More Insights About Workplace Bullying
- Some of the lore about dealing with bullies at work isn't just wrong — it's harmful. It's harmful in the sense that applying it intensifies the bullying. Here are six insights that might help when devising strategies for dealing with bullies at work. Example: Letting yourself be bullied is not a thing. Available here and by RSS on March 6.
- And on March 13: On Anticipating Consequences
- Much of what goes wrong when we change systems to improve them falls into a category we call unanticipated consequences. Even when we lack models that can project these results accurately, morphological analysis that can help us avoid much misery. Available here and by RSS on March 13.
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