Is Corporate Gaslighting Real?
When we hear gaslighting, we might not associate it with corporate workplaces. Yet even though organizations spend millions of dollars annually on leadership development and culture programs, it plagues workplaces. In an article written by Stacey Colin she quotes some incredible statistics. “a recent poll of more than 3,000 people between the ages of 18 and 54 found that 58% of the respondents said they have experienced gaslighting at work.”
Is gaslighting the same as being bullied? The difference is as simple as optics because bully behaviour is far easier to recognise as it happens openly. On the other hand, gaslighting is covert; it is done under the radar and in a way that reduces someone’s self-esteem and self-confidence and challenges their sense of reality. The most difficult aspect of Corporate Gaslighting is to prove it is happening and what to do about it. In our research and work at Ignite Purpose, we have seen how gaslighting eats away at healthy organisational cultures and directly impacts psychological safety needed to build engaged employees and outstanding results.
Why do people Gaslight?
Gaslighting is a form of power and control. People who gaslight need to put others down so they can feel better. They bolster their self-confidence and self-esteem by actively controlling the situation and how they allow someone to fail or succeed.
Connecting to my story, is it your story too?
Twelve years ago, I was a senior leader in an International Sales Performance Organisation. I joined the team with a remit to develop a segment of the market and create a new, effective revenue stream for the organisation. When I joined the organisation, little did I know that it would be the most emotionally draining and mentally straining role of my career. My gaslighter was not my leader; they were a peer in the executive team.
This person was dismissive from the beginning, and they used covert ways to break down my confidence, self-esteem, and sanity. This peer needed to support my team with internal finance and operational support, which no leader can be successful without. I experienced extreme gaslighting and eventually needed to resign as my ability to bring my best was destroyed, and I was angry, frustrated, and negative. A year later, while still struggling with this experience in my mind, my adrenal glands stopped working; I was booked off from work for three months! I had no idea what I had experienced was gaslighting; I thought I was losing my mind, and no one believed me.
What Gaslighting looks like
- You are given feedback by a peer or leader about your growth, and then you find out that they have been gossiping about you behind your back
- You might be in a staff forum, and you are shamed by this peer or leader; when you speak to them face to face to work through the situation, they do not remember doing this at all
- You require support to deliver on a task or goal; your peer who needs to support you avoids providing you what you need and when confronted, they have no idea what you are talking about
- You are asked to do a specific task, and when completed, your leader gets frustrated and is not sure why you did it; they make you feel uncertain about your reality
- You are excluded from meetings or discussions where you would usually be required to join
- You are ignored, and when you try and create discussion or connection, there seems to be confusion about why you are “trying” to connect
- You might be working with a peer who has agreed to support you with a piece of work; when the deadline arrives, they seem to have no memory of agreeing and blame and shame you for not doing your work
What Gaslighting feels like
When I first experienced Gaslighting, I thought I was doing something wrong; I started questioning my skills and competency. Then as it progressed, I started questioning my self-worth and “good enough” measure. Finally, I felt I was going crazy, to put it simply. As I started reaching out and asking for help when my ideas on changing things ran out, I was in for a rude awakening. Some of the Peers I reached out to verify my experience could not see how this had happened to me. There seemed to be very little evidence. I started thinking I was being too sensitive yet persisted in understanding which could help me.
I spoke to HR, and before I knew it, HR supported this leader in highlighting my “skill gaps” and emotional behaviour. My final straw was talking to my CEO, who was confused about what seemed to be happening to me. We sat down, and they called this peer to confront them with me in the room. My peer said they were happy to support me and provide information and support I might need. These were empty promises, and at my next executive meeting, I paid the price for the confrontation by shaming and belittling me.
What Gaslighting does to you
Let’s not sugar coat gaslighting. It is a form of abuse where one person is deliberately being targeted to gain power over them. We doubt our sanity, feel confused and are left with anxiety and stress. When we go through this, we are experiencing Trauma. What this does to our mental health is:
- Separation and Isolation
This impacts our physical health as there is a connection between mind and body health. “We no longer sense what is happening in our bodies and cannot, therefore, act in self-preserving ways. The physiology of stress eats away at our bodies not because it has outlived its usefulness but because we may no longer have the competence to recognize its signals.” ― Gabor Maté, When the Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress
How to navigate Gaslighting
• Confirm you are going through gaslighting
Start a journal where you write down what is happening to you. Consider the behaviour of the person and how it all unfolds. Maybe you are working with someone who needs different communication or might be difficult. If this is the case, you can learn how to communicate differently or provide non-judgmental feedback on how you are experiencing their behaviours and set boundaries.
• Document your interactions
Suppose you are Gaslighted document tasks, situations, and interactions. Make sure you keep backups of your records in a safe place. If you are going to speak to your peer or leader about their behaviour, be careful. Please make sure you are specific and clear on what you need from them or will provide; always follow up with an email or confirmation. Be realistic that this will likely not get the outcome you would like, yet you are taking back control of your actions to improve things.
• Seek support
As the situation is difficult to prove, seeking support from your peers or team will be challenging. There will seem to be no real reason, or they might be secretly relieved it is not happening to them! Speak to a counsellor or workplace therapist if you have availability to one. If you don’t find help inside the organisation, ensure you can find the support you need outside.
• Self-love and Self-care
What a great time to really work on your self-love and self-care. You can ensure you are working on your thoughts, your response to them and your ability to stay present and in the moment. Firstly, remember you always have a choice. When going through this experience, you will feel that your choice to find a way out is limited, which can create tremendous anxiety and a lack of clarity or positive action. The only thing that can help you is to get support, work on you and choose you! I have recovered, I have seen others recover. And I know that it is possible to heal, grow and find your success. I also recognise that Organisations can stop this from happening by helping each person work on who they are and encouraging a place where voices are heard. After all we are better together.
This guest post was authored by Christina E. Foxwell
Christina E. Foxwell is the founder of Ignite Purpose. Over the past decade, she has supported leaders and their teams and helped people find their purpose and flow. This has led to her supporting them in their own life-changing journeys to follow their passions, transform their lives, and grow into the people they were always meant to be. The modalities she uses in her work are: CBT, ACT, Mental Fitness, Performance Science, Behavioral Profiling, and Positive Intelligence.
Foxwell is the author of four books. Her latest book, The Glass Angel, is a powerful look into transformation change and perseverance. Connect with Christina at www.ignitepurpose.com.au, LinkedIn, Facebook, and Goodreads. Her books are available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble
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