Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 23, Issue 35;   August 30, 2023: Gaslighting Project Teams

Gaslighting Project Teams

by

To gaslight people is to convince them to reject their own observations and believe what you want them to believe. Gaslighting corrupts project management as surely as it destroys romantic relationships. Here are some early indicators of gaslighting.
Charles Boyer, Ingrid Bergman and Joseph Cotton in a promotional photo for the 1944 film "Gaslight," directed by George Cukor

Charles Boyer, Ingrid Bergman and Joseph Cotton in a promotional photo for the 1944 film "Gaslight," directed by George Cukor. Image courtesy wikipedia.

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 gaslighting
the 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.

Last words

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. Go to top Top  Next issue: The Risk Planning Fallacy  Next Issue

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info

Footnotes

Comprehensive list of all citations from all editions of Point Lookout
[APA 2023.3]
American Psychological Association. APA Dictionary of Psychology Available here. Retrieved 14 August 2023. Back

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More articles on Workplace Bullying:

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Some people achieve or maintain power by intimidating others in deniable ways. Too often, when intimidators succeed, their success rests in part on our unwillingness to resist, or on our lack of skill. By understanding their tactics, and by preparing responses, we can deter intimidators.
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When a bully targets you, you have three options: accept the abuse; avoid the bully or escape; and confront or fight back. Confrontation is a better choice than many believe — if you know what you're doing.
Senator Joseph R. McCarthy (Democrat of Wisconsin)Confronting the Workplace Bully: II
When bullied, one option is to fight back, but many don't, because they fear the consequences. Confrontation is a better choice than many believe — if you know what you're doing.
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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.
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Bullying by proxy occurs when A bullies B at the behest of C. Organizational control of bullying by proxy is difficult, in part, because C's contribution is covert. Policies that control overt bullying are less effective at controlling bullying by proxy.

See also Workplace Bullying and Devious Political Tactics for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

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When we alter existing systems to enhance them, we tend to favor adding components even when subtracting might be better. This effect has been attributed to a cognitive bias known as additive bias. But other forces more important might be afoot. Available here and by RSS on June 26.
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Additive bias is a cognitive bias that many believe contributes to bloat of commercial products. When we change products to make them more capable, additive bias might not play a role, because economic considerations sometimes favor additive approaches. Available here and by RSS on July 3.

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