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2 Clear Signs of Workplace Gaslighting

Gaslighting can happen in places you'd least expect it—including the workplace.

Key points

  • In gaslighting, a person or group makes an individual question their memory, perception, sanity, or reality. 
  • In professional settings, the perpetrator may try to undermine the confidence and competence of their target.
  • Workplace gaslighting is a clear indicator that a workplace is not a psychologically safe environment. 
charlesdeluvio / Unsplash
Source: charlesdeluvio / Unsplash

Workplace gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation in the workplace where a person or group deliberately makes a targeted individual question their memory, perception, sanity, or reality itself.

Gaslighting can have serious consequences on the mental health and well-being of the victim, as it can lead to self-doubt, anxiety, and even depression. This behavior often occurs in professional settings, where the perpetrator may try to undermine the confidence and competence of their target for personal gain or to maintain control, leaving them feeling confused, uncertain, and ultimately powerless.

Workplace gaslighters, often in senior positions, may try to reinforce power dynamics in the workplace. For instance, a manager consistently denies promising an employee a promotion or raise, even though there are clear records or witnesses to the contrary. This can make the employee doubt their memory or even their capabilities at work.

Another heartbreakingly common experience is when an employee raises concerns about workplace harassment or discrimination but their concerns are dismissed as being “overly sensitive” or “imaginary.” This can lead them to question whether their experiences are valid and cause them to hesitate to speak up, in the future.

A 2023 study published in Frontiers In Psychology found that such workplace gaslighting comprises two types of psychologically abusive behaviors that strain employee mental health and job satisfaction: “trivialization” and “affliction.”

Here are the two signs of workplace gaslighting, according to the 2023 study:

1. Your Concerns Are Always Trivialized

Researchers describe trivialization as “a tendency to oversimplify phenomena, have a skeptical attitude toward the severity of a situation, and follow a casual approach. Trivialization refers to undermining subordinates’ perspectives, fears, and realities by the supervisor.”

Researchers found that instances of trivialization by a supervisor may include changing topics to place blame on you, minimizing your concerns, making promises that don’t match their actions, twisting or misrepresenting things you’ve said, and making degrading comments about you and pretending you have nothing to be offended about.

Victims of trivialization may start to doubt their perceptions and feelings, wondering if they are overreacting or being too sensitive. Further, constantly being told that their concerns are insignificant can erode their confidence and self-worth over time, making them feel isolated and unsupported, as their experiences are consistently invalidated.

2. You Feel Terrible About Yourself

Researchers describe the second workplace gaslighting behavior, affliction, as “a construct that elicits emotions of pain, suffering and torment.” They suggest that it encompasses the wide range of negative emotions that a gaslighter can direct onto their target, influencing how they start to feel about themselves.

The study highlights that instances of affliction can include times when a supervisor has exercised unnecessary control over you, made you self-critical, made you completely dependent on them and incapable of making your own decisions, made you feel emotionally drained, or has been very sweet to you and then flipped a switch, becoming hostile shortly after.

Affliction can lead employees to doubt their abilities, self-worth, and judgment, fostering a pervasive sense of inadequacy. The significant emotional distress they experience can leave them feeling anxious and overwhelmed and create cognitive dissonance, as they struggle to reconcile their own experiences and perceptions with the gaslighter’s manipulative tactics and lack of accountability for their actions.

Is Your Workplace Psychologically Safe?

Workplace gaslighting indicates that your workplace is not a psychologically safe environment. A psychologically safe workplace is where employees feel comfortable being themselves, expressing their opinions, making mistakes, and asking for help without fear of negative consequences or judgment from their colleagues or superiors.

Unlike in instances of trivialization, in safe workplaces, leaders actively listen to their employees and provide constructive and respectful feedback, focusing on growth and improvement rather than blame or criticism. Employees also feel confident that their concerns will be heard and given their due importance.

It’s important to differentiate between psychologically safe and unsafe work situations and learn to recognize the signs of gaslighting. Seek support from loved ones, trusted colleagues, human resources, and mental health professionals if you are on the receiving end—and remember that you deserve to feel safe, valued, and respected at work.

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