Are you less happy at work since you befriended that new recruit? Have they told you stories about how colleagues have constantly undermined them? Maybe you have a boss who excludes you from key meetings and then asks why you did not attend a meeting even though you are pretty sure you were not invited to begin with. If any of this rings true, you may be working with a gaslighter.
Gaslighters, as the name suggests, cast themselves in a positive light — friend or confidante who is here to help — but actually are manipulating or undermining others, usually from the shadows, which adds to their potential power.
Merriam-Webster named “gaslighting” the word of the year. Searches for the word on Merriam-Webster.com surged 1,740% in 2022 over the prior year, despite there not being an event that the publisher — known for its dictionaries — could point to as a cause of the spike.
It defines gaslighting as “psychological manipulation of a person usually over an extended period of time that causes the victim to question the validity of their own thoughts, perception of reality, or memories and typically leads to confusion, loss of confidence and self-esteem, uncertainty of one’s emotional or mental stability, and a dependency on the perpetrator.”
The term was coined in a 1938 play, “Gas Light,” a psychological thriller set in Victorian London and written by Patrick Hamilton.
George Cukor’s 1944 film, “Gaslight,” based on the play, further popularized the term. In that film, Gregory (Charles Boyer) tries to convince his wife Paula (Ingrid Bergman) that she has lost her reason. When he turns on the lights in the attic in his search for a treasure trove of hidden jewels, the gaslight flickers in the rest of the house. He tells Paula that she is merely imagining the dimming of the lights.
‘Jerks at work’ or actual gaslighters?
The workplace is fertile ground for such behavior, given what’s at stake: money, power, status, promotion, rivalry and the intrigue that often comes with office politics.
I’m in the business of helping people work out their conflicts at work. In fact, I dedicated a whole chapter in my book, “Jerks at Work,” to gaslighters.
“‘For gaslighters, slow and steady wins the race, and the best ones make friends with their victims first.’”
What has surprised me is how wide-ranging the definition of “gaslighting” has become. Everything from “not respecting personal boundaries” to “talking so much shit about me I couldn’t get hired for two years” seems to fall under the “gaslighting” umbrella.
What I’ve learned from my doom scrolling on social media is that the word “gaslighter” — probably the worst name to bestow on a colleague or boss — seems to refer to anyone who’s done a whole bunch of bad things to us at work, especially things that involve humiliation.
So what really is a gaslighter, and why is it important to distinguish one from, say, a demeaning boss with a chip on their shoulder and a penchant for public shaming?
If we stick to the clinical definition, gaslighters have two signature moves: They lie with the intent of creating a false reality, and they cut off their victims socially.
They position themselves as both savior and underminer, creating a negative and fearful atmosphere, spreading gossip and taking credit for other people’s work. They are often jealous and resentful, and aim to undercut others in order to further their own position.
“ In the workplace, you may also be an unwitting pawn in the gaslighting of another colleague. ”
You may also be an unwitting pawn in the gaslighting of another colleague. The gaslighter might try to convince you that Johnny is trying to steal your leadership role on a project, and encourage you to freeze him out in the cafeteria at lunch time, or simply be extra wary about sharing important information.
For gaslighters, slow and steady wins the race, and the best ones make friends with their victims first. For this reason, it could also be considered a form of workplace harassment.
They often flatter them, make them feel special. Others create a fear of speaking up in their victims by making their position at work seem more precarious than it is. And the lies are complex, coming at you in layers. It takes a long time to realize your status as a victim of gaslighting, and social isolation is a necessary part of this process.
“‘It takes a long time to realize your status as a victim of gaslighting, and social isolation is a necessary part of this process.’”
Take smart action — no direct confrontration
There’s a difference between an annoying coworker or micromanaging boss, and a gaslighter, who lies and conspires to undermine your position. “The gaslighter doesn’t want you to improve or succeed — they’re out to sabotage you,” according to the careers website Monster.com. “They will accuse you of being confused or mistaken, or that you took something they said the wrong way because you are insecure. They might even manipulate paper trails to “prove” they are right.”
Examples cited by Monster.com: “You know you turned in a project, but the gaslighter insists you never gave it to them. You can tell someone has been in your space, moving things around, or even on your computer, but you don’t have proof. You are the only one not included in a team email or meeting invite, or intentionally kept out of the loop. Then when you don’t respond or show up, you are reprimanded.”
Knowing this, what can you do to prevent yourself from becoming a target? First, recognize that gaslighters don’t wear their strategy on their sleeve. Flattery, making you feel like you’re a part of a special club, or questioning your expertise are not things that raise gaslighting alarm bells.
Rather than looking out for mean behavior by a boss or coworker, look out for signs of social isolation. A boss who wants to cut you off from coworkers and other leaders should raise red flags, even if the reason is that “you’re better than them.”
Second, recognize that lie detection is a precarious — and from a scientific perspective, almost impossible — business. Don’t try to become a lie detector, instead take notes, so you can put your “gaslighter” on notice that you are wise to their tactics. You can also use the notes as evidence if you decide to later raise the situation with your human resources department.
Here are some ways to beat the gaslighter: Send emails with “a summary of today’s meeting” so you can document the origin of ideas and make sure they don’t steal credit from you. Furthermore, document things that happened in person, and share it with your would-be gaslighter. And speak up at meetings. Don’t allow yourself to be browbeaten into submission.
The more you document, the more difficult it will be to be victimized. But a word of warning: Don’t try to confront gaslighters — instead, go to your social network to build your reality back up. Trying to beat these folks at their own game is a losing strategy.
Any of these actions, and especially a combination done early in a professional relationship, can work wonders protecting yourself and your career.
Tessa West is a New York University social psychology professor with a particular interest in workplace behavior, and author of “Jerks at Work: Toxic Coworkers and What to Do About Them.“
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