Connecting Gaslighting at Work and Belonging Uncertainty

The other day, I spoke with a former coworker of mine; let’s call her Maya. Maya was telling me about how her boss was “at it again.” To most peripheral to their relationship, Maya is the apple of her bosses’ eye. In public, he does nothing but praise her. Yet what happens in private was very different. 

Maya said that her 1:1s with her boss are brutal. He tells her one thing in a meeting on Monday and denies it in their 1:1 on Tuesday as if she got her facts wrong. He gives her rushed deadlines, then denies rushing her and wanting something in the first place. Another time, Maya’s boss polled her direct reports asking them, “would you want to work for Maya?” He told her that 3/10 of her team said they don’t want to work for her, and as you can imagine, this gutted her. Maya asked her boss for the reasons why, for specific examples, and how she could be better. He snapped at her, saying he would share as appropriate. She asked him a week later and told her that she makes things up, that he never said that.

Maya’s boss is gaslighting her.  He is changing the rules on Maya, and no matter what, she feels like she is failing herself, him, and her team. She feels unsafe at work and in trusting her judgment. After three months of this happening, Maya broke down in one of their meetings. She could not stop the tears, and his response was, “glad to see you can put emotion into something,” as if she was a drone with no feelings. In reality, she said she was mentally and physically beat up by him, trying her best not to get emotional, and when she did, he later used it against her–but not in an obvious way. At first, he acted like he was on her side and gave her positive reinforcement. When she thanked him a week later for his sensitivity, he lashed out at her, saying she was too emotional. This made Maya question her sanity and pushed her to the breaking point. 

Maya left meetings with her boss confused about his direction and conflicted about her perception vs. reality. In her words, she felt like she was losing her mind. Maya told me that preparing for her 1:1s with her boss made her very anxious. It was starting to take a significant toll on her, and as a result, she wasn’t sleeping, her hair started to fall out, and she gained weight from stress eating. That’s all pretty serious stuff, and by now, I’m sure you are asking, why does Maya put up with this?

So, before you judge Maya, let’s discuss. Maya’s boss is celebrated at the company, known for his people skills (yikes), and she is afraid that no one will believe her. She is known for her expertise and leadership. She is worried that bringing this up will tarnish her reputation. She loves her job, her team, her peers–pretty much everything except her boss. Also, Maya needs to work; it’s tied to her livelihood. But, toxic is toxic and what Maya is going through is abusive. 

Kate Abramson’s 2014 study, Turning Up the Heat on Gaslighting, proved that “Anything short of agreeing to this (what the boss says) will amount to disagreement with her boss’s basic framework, a boss who has shown himself more than willing to act without justification against her professional interests.” Maya is afraid to speak up and doesn’t have the words to describe what’s happening to her. She is experiencing belonging uncertainty, expending a lot of mental and physical energy trying to figure out whether or not she belongs at work. Maya’s belonging uncertainty stems from something called gaslighting. Gaslighting is a psychological term used to explain a toxic communication technique in which someone (in this case, Maya’s boss) causes you to question your own reality or version of events. She tried talking to her boss about her anxiety, but you can guess what happened–a mix of selective hearing, false positivity, and some yelling. This was all followed by his public praise of her in the staff all-hands that followed their conversation.

While gaslighting behaviors may be easy to spot in some leaders (particularly the loud ones without filters), the crafty ones make it much harder. They undermine an employee’s self-esteem in ways that make it hard to prove with tangibles, often making it an “us vs. them” scenario with the boss (and sometimes with HR), intimidating the gaslightee to take action. What do you need to do to assess if your situation is gaslighting vs. just a diminishing boss (or co-worker) with horrible communication skills? According to Psychology Today, here are 7 Signs of Gaslighting at the Workplace

Gaslighting in the workplace creates a toxic, unsafe, and tense working atmosphere for those directly and indirectly involved. If you recognize the signs in this article and/or in Psychology today, your next question is most likely, what can I do about this? The Harvard Business Review put out many great solutions in: Ask an Expert: What Should I Do If My Boss Is Gaslighting Me?

Have you faced gaslighting in the workplace and/or belonging uncertainty? If so, how did you resolve it?

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