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Are you gaslighting your colleagues? Find out why you might be and how to change the narrative

Gaslighting might sound like one of those trendy overused words like badass, sic or fleek, but it’s a useful word to describe a behaviour that is toxic not just in personal relationships but also in the working environment. So what is ‘gaslighting’? Gaslighting is a form of psychological warfare or power play that undermines the other person or group such that they question the validity of their own reality. That’s a lot of words so let me share some examples.

Imagine a new acquaintance has just moved to your city, you are out for drinks with them and they share their experience of moving there. They mention to you that they have found it hard to settle in and make new friends. There are many things that you can say in response, you can agree with them and share similar experiences or you can disagree. In this case, it’s how you disagree that determines if you are gaslighting by invalidating their concerns and making them question if they are the problem. For example, you could say ‘I’m so sorry to hear that, I am happy to connect you with some like-minded friends/colleagues’ or you might fall into the trap of saying something along the lines of ‘Oh I never felt that when I moved here’. Imagine you are the acquaintance – how would such a response make you feel? I know that I would feel like there was something wrong with me perhaps that’s why I haven’t made any friends or that I am doing something wrong. That's gaslighting in a nutshell.

The term ‘gaslighting’ actually comes from a 1938 play, "Gas Light" (later turned into a 1944 movie "Gaslight"), where a husband manipulates his wife into making her think she's losing her mind (by turning down the gas lights in their house) so that he can commit her to a mental institution and steal her inheritance.

There are some notable examples of gaslighting entire groups of people not just individuals. For example, when the Black Lives Matter sociopolitical movement rose to prominence in 2020, swathes of people were retorting ‘All lives matter’. Of course all lives matter, but when one group of people are deemed to have a lesser value by another group or society, that point is irrelevant and dismissive. I also see well-meaning white people respond to racism with ‘we are all the same’ or ‘I don’t see colour’ – this not only shuts the conversation down but it actually suggests implicitly that being black is bad. The appropriate response is to acknowledge that sadly, despite it being 2021, racism exists and what can we all do as individuals to change that.

But what could gaslighting in the workplace look like? Here are some examples:

One important part to highlight: this isn’t a finger pointy, good vs bad person thing, good people can gaslight others without even realizing it. I am positive that in the past I have done this myself and the thought of it makes me inwardly cringe, but growth comes with recognition and an openness to learn. We can shift the narrative from gaslighting to acknowledgement (I hear you), validation (your concern is real) and support (what can I do to help?).

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