• Clare Burlingham

Turning off gaslighting at work

In a previous article, we talked about the importance of being your true self at work. Being ourselves can help to reduce the stresses caused by trying to be someone else. It allows us to feel free to think creatively; to feel confident to speak our minds; to feel positive and engaged with our working life.


But what if the real you lacks confidence about your abilities? Perhaps you feel intimidated by other louder, more experienced people in your team. Could there be a downside to showing these vulnerabilities to others at work?


Research into workplace bullying has shown that one particular aspect known as “gaslighting” tends to occur more frequently when a person is already experiencing low self-confidence.


Gaslighting at work is when someone manipulates someone else by psychological means into doubting their own perception of reality. It is a pattern of behaviour that is repeated over time, creating a vicious circle whereby the self-esteem of the victim is subtly and gradually eroded.

Often it occurs when the power between two people working together is unequal. Perhaps someone has just returned to work after a career break, or are young and new to employment, or maybe they have recently moved into a new role or industry. This power imbalance can be emphasised if the two individuals also have differing personalities. A sensitive, quieter person can find themselves influenced by a dominant, strident personality, particularly if they are also more senior.


Its insidious nature means it can be difficult to see that it’s happening to you. Examples could include the problem of a too heavy workload being repositioned as a failure of prioritisation. Or being talked over or shut down in discussions, only to be called out for failing to contribute. When this is combined with positive sound positioning such as “I’m just trying to help you improve”, it can be overwhelmingly confusing.


Can organisational culture help?


Most organisations would like to think they have a culture and values that support the eradication of workplace bullying including gaslighting. But the intention itself is rarely enough. However, there are some practical steps that can be taken to put those values into practice.


The identification of “at risk” scenarios can be a first step. For example, if a new graduate, or someone returning from a career break is about to begin work in a department, then assigning them a mentor either from HR or somewhere outside their direct line can be helpful. They are then not just relying on support from their line manager. In addition, the mentor could be included in one-to-ones and performance review meetings to ensure a more balanced view.


Consideration of diversity of personality types as well as ethnicity and gender can also be insightful. Sometimes, personalities that thrive in highly competitive environments such as sales require more support at line management competencies. Particularly if their teams include different personalities to themselves. And pressured environments per se are more likely to engender unacceptable behaviours.


Perhaps here is an opportunity for a proactive role from HR business partners. In some industries, people can reach senior positions with relatively little line management experience. Identifying the breadth or otherwise of this experience can be a valuable tool in supporting the development of management expertise and understanding. If we are to create a culture where employees are able and comfortable to be their true selves at work, the organisational framework around them needs to be seen to be carrying out those values.


Could this approach of living an organisation’s culture and values help to extinguish the risk of problems such as gaslighting, before they even have the chance to flicker into life?