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Student Experience

Combating Gaslighting in the Workplace

How to spot and extinguish this form of harassment

By Paul Smirl

January 30, 2020

Illustration of person struggling with mixed signals

Wisconsin School of Business Assistant Dean of Diversity and Inclusion Binnu Palta Hill is an expert on issues of inclusion, bias, and workplace culture. She uses neuroscience research in her programming for WSB students, faculty, and staff and relays personal experiences to help connect concepts to real life.

Palta Hill recently presented on the topic of gaslighting as a part of the TEMPO Madison Leadership Speaker Series at the Madison Club. The Wisconsin Evening and Executive MBA programs partner with TEMPO Madison on the series, which supports TEMPO Madison’s mission of supporting, advising, and fostering relationship-building among women leaders.

Palta Hill wove research and lived experience together, painting a relatable portrait of struggle and realization that had audience members audibly agreeing and relaying their experiences.

According to Palta Hill, fifty percent of workers 18-54 have experienced gaslighting, so it’s no surprise attendees related.

Binnu Palta Hill
WSB Assistant Dean of Diversity and Inclusion Binnu Palta Hill

Gaslighting as defined by Merriam-Webster Dictionary as attempting “to make someone believe that he or she is going insane by subjecting that person to a series of experiences that have no rational explanation.”

The term comes from the 1944 movie Gaslight where a man tries to manipulate his wife into thinking she is crazy when she truly is not.

In line with narcissism and sociopathic tendencies, gaslighting is used to control and collect power. A simple example is if you hit someone and they say it hurts and you tell them it doesn’t. You’re rejecting their lived experience and making them question their reality.

We all do little bits of gaslighting, says Palta Hill. You may tell your children that a flu shot will not sting so they don’t fear the doctor, or tell someone it’s not going to rain in order to save a trip back home to get an umbrella.

Yet, gaslighting when repeated can be an insidious activity with long-lasting consequences for victims.

Gaslighting happens frequently in the workplace

Hierarchies often rule the work world. In many ways, your experience at work and your future in your organization is tied to your superior.

If that person is constantly shutting you down and questioning your reality, your mental health will likely suffer and your ability to advance in your company will be stunted.

As Palta Hill notes, gaslighting in the workplace often happens in a mentor-mentee relationship. The mentor holds organizational power over the mentee, builds trust, ingratiates his/her self through gifts and personal attention, and then uses their power to control and question you.

Gaslighting in this case might be as simple as a boss saying, “Didn’t you get that email about the important topic?” when they purposefully left you off the email chain, or more seriously, assigning you work and then berating you for not doing other unassigned work.

This systematic process of creating self-doubt keeps you stalled, unable to impact your company to the fullest of your ability. You question your self-worth and relationship to your superior who has been the primary source of affirmation at work, only to shut you down.

Unlike the parent on the way to the pediatrician to get their kids’ shots, workplace gaslighters intentionally try to deteriorate their victims’ senses of worth, thus gaining more power for themselves. Gaslighters build up your trust just to keep you at bay and reliant on them.

The three steps of gaslighting

1. Ideation

Gaslighters create a relationship where you think they’re wonderful. They create experiences of joy and camaraderie.

2. Devaluation

Gaslighters learn your strengths and weaknesses, hit you where it hurts, confuse you, and become unpredictable and uncertain. In this stage, they often try to give you advice, which reinforces your insecurities. An example would be saying, “You may want to think about how you come across when you speak.”

3. Discarding

Gaslighters play on your dependence of them, then discard you, aiming to lower your self-esteem.

Behaviors to watch

“If someone says you’re ‘too’ something, that’s your cue,” says Palta Hill. If you’re told you’re too sensitive or you’re thinking too much about a situation you perceive to be unfair, gaslighting may be around the corner.

Behaviors to look out for:

  • People who take credit for your work
  • Micromanagers
  • People who spread lies
  • People who blame others
  • People who deny things you know to be true
  • People who question your recollection of events—especially in important meetings at work
  • People who accuse people of doing the very things they do

How to extinguish gaslighting

Gaslighting is difficult to defeat on your own. Palta Hill recommends surrounding yourself with trusted colleagues, having witnesses when you meet with your gaslighter, and building a support system at work. If your boss is gaslighting you, look for ways to connect with other people in power and see if they can sponsor you.

Here are some other quick steps to employ:

  • Recognize behavior and call it out: “Are you questioning my sense of reality?”
  • Document your interactions with a gaslighter in writing.
  • Confirm plans and CC others on emails with the gaslighter.
  • Distance yourself.
  • Develop a support system: have people who affirm your perceptions, “am I imagining this situation or do you see this?”
  • Do self-affirmation: what you are feeling and thinking is reality.

Palta Hill describes combating gaslighting as a tangible skill, that when employed effectively, can break the mold of abuse and pull back the curtain on someone’s repeated lies, denials, and rewritings of events.

“The really positive part of this whole thing is once you recognize it, you feel almost invincible. You feel empowered, you carry yourself differently.”

Assistant Dean of Diversity and Inclusion Binnu Palta Hill works with the Wisconsin Evening and Executive MBA programs to train working professionals in inclusive leadership, embedding inclusive thinking in all aspects of the curricula.