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Gaslighting at work is when a fellow employee or boss (the gaslighter) manipulates you to the point that you question your own sanity, memory, or perceptions. The gaslighter can do this by denying past events, downplaying your emotions, or retelling events so that you take the blame.
Examples of gaslighting may include a boss who calls you hypersensitive for reporting a coworker that made inappropriate remarks. They may also question your recollection of the events, leading you to feel like an imposter or question yourself.
The personality traits of gaslighters cross barriers into all kinds of social relationships. Workplace gaslighting is just as dangerous as it is in a friendship or intimate relationship.
That said, how do you know if someone at work is gaslighting you? And if they are, what should you do about it? In this article, we’ll help you find the answers and take back control from the gaslighter in your life.
What exactly is gaslighting?
To stand up to gaslighting in the workplace, we need to clearly define what it is.
Gaslighting is one of those terms that seems to be thrown around a lot. Many people mistake gaslighting for other forms of psychological aggression and abuse, such as bullying and exclusion.
So what is gaslighting? At its core, gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation. The gaslighter (the person doing the gaslighting) manipulates the gaslightee (the person being gaslighted) in a way that forces them to question their own version of events and even their own sanity.
An example of gaslighting in a relationship might be a husband who frequently requests specific dinner items, then pretends to be confused when his partner makes those meals and claims never to have requested it or even be familiar with it. Such behavior carried on over time can keep the partner off-balance and even make them question themselves.
Gaslighting also happens in the workplace. For example, a boss who says they don’t remember you submitting a deliverable, even though you handed it to them a few hours ago. By making other people question their own memories, gaslighters use your insecurities to try and control you.
Where did the term "gaslight" come from?
The idea of gaslighting doesn’t seem to have any obvious tie to the flickering lights used before electricity. So, where does the term gaslighting come from?
The word comes from a 1938 play called “Gaslight,” in which the protagonist’s husband gradually convinces her that she’s going crazy. Since this is the definition of gaslighting in a nutshell, the term is fitting.
What is a gaslighter personality?
Gaslighting seems to come more naturally to some people than others. In fact, not all gaslighters are aware of what they are doing. However, the term is used primarily when someone is consciously manipulating a friend, family member, or coworker.
For many, it’s bad behavior that has developed over time and across various interpersonal relationships.
Gaslighters tend to share some common characteristics. Below are the most common traits of a gaslighter:
- A highly-manipulative personality
- Low sense of self-worth or self-esteem
- Insecurities, covered up by constantly pointing out other peoples’ flaws
- Controlling to a point where they don’t respond well when they don’t have power
- Narcissistic tendencies (sometimes seen at work as toxic leadership)
It can sometimes be tough to spot a gaslighter. Some are charismatic and charming, which can cause people to be unaware that they are being gaslit in the first place. Other gaslighters are reserved, making their manipulative tactics less obvious. Either way, they all possess the traits listed above.
6 signs of gaslighting in the workplace
Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse that can be more subtle than other types of emotional abuse, like bullying. It’s the opposite of feeling psychologically safe.
A gaslighting situation at work can cause you to dread each week. This can prevent you from enjoying your personal life and even push you to look for a new job. The worst part is, gaslighting by definition causes you to question your own experience, making it tough to seek help.
So how do you know for sure that you’re a victim of gaslighting in the workplace? Watch out for these 6 signs of gaslighting:
- You hear persistent negative accounts of your performance
- You hear the suspected gaslighter publicly say negative things about you
- You hear negative, untrue gossip about yourself
- You find yourself questioning your perception of reality at work
- The suspected gaslighter belittles your emotions, efforts, or perceptions
- You’re excluded from meetings or events relevant or required for your job
Let’s dive deeper into the six signs of gaslighting at work.
1. You hear persistent negative accounts of your performance
If you hear a persistent, unjustified negative narrative about your performance at work, you likely have a psychological abuser on your hands. A big sign of gaslighting in the workplace is a lack of healthy feedback.
Negative feedback can be difficult to analyze, especially true if it’s coming from your manager or someone in a position of power. You need to figure out whether their feedback is valid or not.
To determine whether the feedback you’re hearing is a sign of gaslighting, check-in with a team member. Tell them exactly what your manager or leader said, and ask if they agree. If they also believe the constant negativity is unwarranted, you may be able to get your coworkers to help you stand up to the gaslighter.
2. The person you think is gaslighting you keeps making negative public comments
Do you feel like your coworker belittles you in public regularly? Have you noticed that others feel uncomfortable when this happens?
It may simply be bullying. This is still not good for your mental health (or mental fitness) and is unacceptable in the workplace. However, if the comments made by your coworker make you question your own reality, then they may be gaslighting you.
An example of a gaslighting comment would be something like, “you’re remembering that wrong” or “you’re just being too sensitive.” If a coworker or boss continues to belittle you, it may be time to talk to someone in human resources.
3. You keep hearing negative gossip about yourself
One of the ways that gaslighters attack your sense of reality is by gossiping about you behind your back. By turning your fellow team members against you, the gaslighter can stay in control and make you feel like the bad guy.
If you’re hearing rumors that are untrue, you should look to determine the root of the gossip. It may be your gaslighter. Regardless, you have a right to stand up for yourself and shut down harmful rumors.
4. You find yourself continually doubting your perception of reality
This is the biggest sign of gaslighting.
If you feel filled with self-doubt after an encounter with your coworker, you’re probably experiencing gaslighting.
5. The person who is exhibiting gaslighting behavior belittles your efforts, emotions, or perceptions
A common way that gaslighters make you doubt yourself is by belittling the effort you put into your work. Other examples of gaslighting could be a coworker belittling your emotions and perceptions.
You might be feeling proud of a project you’ve just completed. A gaslighter will find a way to make you feel like you should have completed it better or faster. They'll leave you questioning whether you should be proud of your efforts at all.
In addition, if you feel excited about something new or upset about an initiative gone wrong, a gaslighter will almost always belittle your feelings. They will use manipulative tactics to make you feel like you can’t trust your own emotions.
6. You’re being excluded from professional activities relevant or required for your job
Gaslighters will make you feel inferior by excluding you from professional activities such as regular meetings.
Of course, it is possible that they genuinely did not think you were necessary for the meeting. It’s wise to consider events like this in light of their other actions. One moment of self-doubt or exclusion isn't usually a problem. Look for patterns of behavior.
If you’re being excluded regularly by the same person, and you know that you definitely should have been included, then it could be gaslighting.
The number one sign of gaslighting
The number one sign of gaslighting at work is persistent behavior that causes you to question your own reality. The key to identifying and confronting this kind of workplace harassment is by taking note of repeated patterns over time.
Singular events such as workplace bullying could still be contributing to a toxic environment, but they may not be gaslighting.
The more of the above signs you see, the more likely it is that you are being gaslighted. Again, it’s all about recognizing a pattern.
7 gaslighting examples at work
Gaslighting makes you feel like you’re crazy. To take back your power and stand up to toxic behavior, take note of these 7 examples of gaslighting behavior:
- Becoming defensive
- Giving encouragement at strange times
- Lying about small things
- Pretending to be helpful
- Saying one thing and doing another
Gaslighting takes many forms. Let’s take a closer look at each of these common scenarios of gaslighting at work:
Gaslighting Example 1: Misremembering
Looking for examples of gaslighting? Most gaslighters have a tendency for misremembering past events.
Your boss tells you they never got the report you delivered last Friday. Yet you’re sure you left that report on their desk.
In fact, you know you did because you stayed late to get it done. But the gaslighter is adamant they never got it. Despite your certainty, you start to wonder if you somehow misplaced it or someone else took it off your manager's desk.
You come up with possible scenarios, even highly unlikely ones, that would confirm the gaslighter's version of the story. In this example, you’ve unfortunately become a victim of gaslighting in the workplace.
Gaslighting Example 2: Getting Defensive
When you bring up an important issue or try to stand up for yourself, a gaslighter will almost always get defensive.
Gaslighters don’t like being challenged or being proved wrong. To maintain control over their victims, a gaslighter will get defensive and find a way to manipulate you into believing you’re at fault.
For example, if you confront them about their inappropriate workplace behavior or jokes, they might turn it around on you by asking you why you’re not resilient enough to take it. However, jokes that target your culture, gender, or any other protected trait are absolutely inappropriate.
When dealing with a gaslighter, look out for phrases like “you’re too sensitive” or “you know I don’t mean it that way!”.
Gaslighting Example 3: Giving Encouragement at Strange Times
Gaslighters may give you some positive reinforcement just when you’re reaching the breaking point. The encouraging behavior makes you feel better despite your confusion.
The goal of the gaslighter is generally to keep you under their control, not to destroy you altogether.
As such, they’ll notice when you’re getting close to a breaking point or to identifying their role as a gaslighter and switch up their approach with some positive feedback.
Maybe they’ll take you out to lunch to celebrate some form of success that you don’t feel is all that justified. It may feel extra odd considering how they’ve acted to your previous successes. However, this behavior will never last, which makes it a clear example of gaslighting.
Gaslighting Example 4: Lying About Small Things
A gaslighter may take your stuff without asking and then deny it. Coworkers borrow stuff from each other's desks from time to time, and sometimes you aren’t around for them to ask you.
However, a gaslighter will outright deny this (and lie about other things), making you question whether you’ve simply misplaced the item yourself. This is an undeniable example of gaslighting in the workplace.
Gaslighting Example 5: Pretending to Be Helpful
The gaslighter tells you they are working on something for you even though, in reality, they haven’t even started.
You’ve asked them several times, and they continually tell you that they’ve been working on it for you and are nearly done.
They’ll probably convince you that the work isn’t all that important or urgent or that you’re putting too much pressure on them. You may start to believe you’re actually in the wrong. Unfortunately, you’ve just become a victim of gaslighting.
Gaslighting Example 6: Downplaying
Gaslighters will tell you it’s fine to miss the morning meeting tomorrow, downplaying the importance. But when you do, they may grill you for not attending and use aggressive language. A gaslighter will deny altogether that they afforded you this benefit.
This isn’t just a case of a difficult coworker. This is a clear example of gaslighting in the workplace. By using manipulative tactics such as this, gaslighters maintain control over their victims.
Example 7: Saying One Thing and Doing Another
The gaslighter says one thing and does another.
For example, your gaslighter might advocate for lunch breaks that are strictly 30 minutes long, but then you catch them taking a 45-minute break the very next day.
If you try to confront them over this behavior, the gaslighter will always have an excuse for why they are the exception.
“Can’t you see how hard I work?” they might ask, even though you know for a fact they take frequent breaks and rarely deliver on projects. This is once again a way that gaslighters will lead you to question your own perceptions.
Is gaslighting a form of harassment in the workplace?
If gaslighting at work happens on the basis of a protected class like your race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation, you should file a harassment complaint. Discrimination in the workplace is a serious issue.
So while gaslighting specifically is not covered in harassment policies, state and federal laws protect against a hostile work environment based on a number of protected traits. Your company should have an internal policy available for your review that details how harassment complaints are handled.
How to deal with gaslighting at work
If you suspect that someone at work is gaslighting you, here’s what to do about it.
(Note: if you believe any of the behavior you are experiencing is sexual harassment or discrimination on the basis of race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or other protected category, please consult your company policies and report to human resources.)
Here are 5 steps to dealing with gaslighting in the workplace:
- Confirm that it truly is gaslighting
- Document the gaslighter’s behavior
- Get support and focus on self-care
- Meet with your gaslighter
- If all else fails, escalate the issue
1. Confirm that it really is gaslighting
As we’ve mentioned, it can be tough to tell if you really are being gaslighted.
Sometimes, you’re just dealing with a rude or narcissistic colleague or manager. Use the steps we’ve discussed above to confirm that you’re dealing with a gaslighter.
Be kind to yourself, and remember that the goal of a gaslighter is to make you doubt yourself. Don’t hesitate to ask for the perspective of your coworkers, friends, and family.
2. Start documenting gaslighter behavior
Now is the time to start documenting all the gaslighter’s behavior.
Take screenshots of messages where you can. Also, take dated notes of interactions you’ve had with them. Make sure to include those interactions that leave you doubting your own sense of reality.
Try not to leave opportunities open for your gaslighter to challenge you. For example, rather than leaving a report on their desk, email it to them so that you have a chain of proof. If you have online meetings with the gaslighter, don’t hesitate to ask if you can record your calls. You can always say you need to record the meeting for later reference or for a coworker who couldn’t attend.
Dealing with the potential fallout from this person's behavior is difficult enough. Remind yourself that the gaslighting is the problem, not your competence or self-worth.
3. Get support and focus on self-care
As you address your gaslighting situation, take some time to focus on self-care. Recognize that the situation is not your fault and that you’ve done nothing wrong. Talk to an objective third party, not in your company. It can help you maintain perspective on the problematic behavior without internalizing it.
Focus on alleviating negative self-talk to bring yourself into a more positive frame of mind. Remind yourself over and over that you are not crazy, but that you are experiencing a form of abuse that you do not deserve.
4. Meet with your gaslighter
This might be tough, but you’re going to have to confront your gaslighter on their behavior.
Be direct about specific instances that have had an effect on your work. However, try to avoid making accusations or using a confrontational tone and body language.
At the same time, be firm about where the other person seems to be having issues with performance, consistency or remembering details. Remember, your own performance is not the issue.
If you need to, consider bringing a coworker with you who can back up your examples. If your gaslighter is a manager, confide in a leader or human resources team member that you can trust. They may need to be the ones to confront the gaslighter.
5. If all else fails, escalate the issue to upper management and HR
If you don’t have any success after meeting with your gaslighter, then schedule a meeting with a human resources rep or a senior manager to discuss the issue. Be sure to share all the supporting evidence you’ve collected.
These leaders should be equipped with the necessary tools and skillsets to help you deal with this issue. You shouldn’t have to suffer constant psychological abuse at work, so don’t be afraid to get the help you need.
Stand up against gaslighting at work
Dealing with gaslighting at work can be tough. It can be a major drain on your mental health and mental fitness, and in some cases, it’s challenging simply to identify whether the behavior even is gaslighting. However, with this information, we hope you feel empowered to take back control and stand up to the gaslighter in your life.
Once you’ve dealt with the gaslighter, it might be wise to find some other ways to improve your work environment and employee well-being. Check out how BetterUp can help today.
Vice President of Alliance Solutions