The Hill Life: Gaslighting in the Workplace
Dec 14, 2011
Several years ago, I was having a debate with a co-worker about the merits of one of his many unachievable, time consuming, ultimately wasteful ideas for how we could move our business forward. This time it was the insane notion that buying a tent at Gold Cup and flying in a bunch of Texas cowboys to fill it and party with the local jetset would draw attention to our firm by landing us in the gossip columns. At one point during the debate, he looked at me with a smirk on his face and said, “You’re flipping out over nothing, and it’s not professional. Calm down.”
The thing is, I wasn’t overreacting. I was angry that he had, without consulting me, written a check for a non-refundable deposit on a tent that we could not afford. I was upset that he continued to think that these half-baked schemes would move our business forward when he continued to come to the office at noon and leave at 3:00PM. And so while I was definitely angry, I was well within my rights to be angry.
Yesterday, a friend forwarded me a HuffPost article by Yashar Ali about gaslighting. What is gaslighting?
Gaslighting is a term often used by mental health professionals (I am not one) to describe manipulative behavior used to confuse people into thinking their reactions are so far off base that they’re crazy.
So if your opposition in an argument can’t win the debate he tells you that you’re “overreacting,” “crazy,” “off base,” or that you need to calm down in order to convince you that you’re the problem. It’s a brilliant way of deflecting the discussion away from the merits of the argument by shifting your perception until you believe that your behavior is the problem. Need another example?
My friend Abbie works for a man who finds a way, almost daily, to unnecessarily shoot down her performance and her work product. Comments like, “Can’t you do something right?” or “Why did I hire you?” are regular occurrences for her. Her boss has no problem firing people (he does it regularly), so you wouldn’t know from these comments that Abbie has worked for him for six years. But every time she stands up for herself and says, “It doesn’t help me when you say these things,” she gets the same reaction: “Relax; you’re overreacting.”
Abbie thinks her boss is just being a jerk in these moments, but the truth is, he is making those comments to manipulate her into thinking her reactions are out of whack. And it’s exactly that kind manipulation that has left her feeling guilty about being sensitive, and as a result, she has not left her job.
But gaslighting can be as simple as someone smiling and saying something like, “You’re so sensitive,” to somebody else. Such a comment may seem innocuous enough, but in that moment, the speaker is making a judgment about how someone else should feel.
While I have certainly had this tactic used against me in the past, the question for me becomes: How to discern when a person is gaslighting you vs. when you’re genuinely overreacting–something I’ve also been known to do?
I think determining the difference between gaslighting and overreaction is the toughest thing to do. It requires you to take a breath and ask yourself, am I reacting appropriately? How would I feel if I were in his (her) shoes? But I will say, that if you think a co-worker is gaslighting you the correct thing to do is to defend yourself. If I had it to do over again, I would have looked at my former co-worker and said:
“Taking $1,500 from the office account without checking with me is not nothing. Booking a venue for an event without checking with me first is not nothing. Not consulting your business partner before you make serious decisions about to spend the business’s money is not professional.”
I wouldn’t have even addressed the “calm down” remark because then, I would have given it creedence.
So have you ever been “gaslighted” in the workplace and how did you respond? And how can we tell the difference between when we’re being emotionally manipulated and when we’re genuinely in the wrong?