Mariam Huss, founder of Axxum Consulting offers advice on what to do when facing gaslighting in the workplace.
The other day, a very good friend of mine called me saying she broke down at work. Let’s call her Amy. For the first time in more than ten years, Amy cried in front of a colleague. I was surprised, knowing how strong and vocal she is at work. But she was subject to gaslighting and ended up breaking down to tears.
Dr Robin Stern, Associate Director at Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and author of ‘The Gaslight Effect’, defines the term “gaslighting” as when someone manipulates you into questioning and second-guessing your reality.
That’s exactly what was happening to Amy. She was doing a great job, was recognized as a great team member from her colleagues except her manager, Patrick, who was undermining her constantly. He questioned her work during team meetings when the rest of the room was happy with her deliverables.
When she finally confronted him about his attitude, saying she felt that he was not supportive and questioned every single thing she did, he denied that the events happened. “It’s your perception, I don’t think so,” he said. She began doubting herself and her work, even though she knew deep down that she was doing a great job and her colleagues agreed.
Since the situation was unbearable, she went to Patrick’s boss, Katie, who knew about his behavior but didn’t act on it. Apparently, he bullied other colleagues but then would deny it ever happened, to the point that through the years, one person insulted Patrick and another one hit him. Katie told Amy that she would report directly to her. Amy was happy not to report to him, but the situation was handled badly, since Patrick continued acting like this with other employees.
What should you do when facing gaslighting in the workplace?
As a gaslightee, if you are constantly second guessing yourself after talking to your gaslighter, if you often feel confused and unsure of what happened during an interaction, you need to trust your gut. You know you did nothing wrong and did not deserve being treated badly by your gaslighter. Ask a colleague for a checkup. Did our manager overreact or was it me? What did you think happened? Do not respond to bad behavior with more bad behavior. Write down what happened and follow-up with emails to make sure you are on the same page. If the bad behavior continues, try to avoid the manager if at all possible, and report him/her.
As a manager, you should confront the gaslighter and make him/her realize how his/her behavior is not acceptable. Make sure he/she understands that consequences (i.e. no more people to manage, blame, termination, etc.) will be as the result of continued behavior. These type of behaviors are not part of the culture of the company. More importantly, offer soft skills training on how to communicate with subordinates, emotional intelligence and/or unconscious bias.
As an employee, speak up! It’s not easy, but the first step is to speakto the gaslightee and tell him/her that you disagree with what the gaslighter is saying or doing, and that it does not reflect reality. If you have a good relationship with the manager, go talk to him/her to point out the bad behavior. He/she may not even realize what they’re doing.
Do you face gaslighting at work? Have you witnessed it? How did you react?