By Dr. Karyn Trader-Leigh
This is the first in a series of three essays exploring the issue of gaslighting, a form of emotional abuse that is common in the workplace as well as in relationships. While this behavior may be a character flaw in both leaders and lovers, we don’t want to be victimized by it. This article explores the rising tide of gaslighting and strategies to protect us when we encounter these difficult people.
Humans are social beings; we need to be in relationships. We must cooperate in pursuit of shared goals, and our collective intelligence advances our societies. We have the capacity to consider others’ minds, empathize with their needs, and transform empathy into care and generosity, yet we often fail to employ these abilities. In today’s workplace, there seems to be no time to be nice. Civility, the longstanding hallmark of a developed society, is under siege in this country. Incivility hijacks our relationships and the workplace. A newfound freedom tolerates and even sanctions rudeness and aggression. We parse our loyalty to people we like and become parochial and demeaning toward others or communities outside of our own. Social media platforms designed to foster connection (forums, blogs, Twitter, and Facebook) allow for a heightened climate of public insults and personal intimidation, which belittles and humiliates.
Gaslighting is a term applied to this phenomenon. Gaslighting has traditionally been more commonly applied to abusive relationships affecting women. The term emerges from the 1944 movie Gaslight with Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer, where he plays the manipulative husband who dims the lights. His wife notices it and he tells her that it is her imagination, deliberately tampering with her perception of reality. He undermines her hopes, plays on her fears, and sews doubt until she is unable to believe in her own perception of reality. Gaslighting can happen in any set of relationships: between men and women, parent and child, boss and subordinates, and between majority and minority cultures. Gaslighting is often driven by power and privilege to convey status, dominance, and marginalization.
Gaslighting is manipulation. We think of violence as physical abuse, but often it is psychological. Why are some people compelled to find the weakness in others and exploit and inflict harm through manipulation and narcissism? Those who are aggressors seek to assert superiority and inflict harm through exploiting vulnerabilities. Our social systems have become too tolerant of such behaviors. With the #MeToo movement, we’re seeing the extent to which sexual harassment is a commonplace experience for women. Bullying behavior has become more intense, enabled by social media platforms where psychological abuse occurs in online communities. People troll others or attack on personal levels in blogs and forums designed for discourse. Tools like Facebook created to foster community and connections become weaponized with organized infiltration of Russian hackers and bots designed to increase division and distrust in our society.
Some senior leaders and managers make life untenable for those working under their leadership. Manfred Kets de Vries, Dutch psychologist and clinical professor at Insead, coined the term the darker side of leadership, noting that many organizations have a “gulag” culture driven by narcissist leaders. The #MeToo movement has exposed exploitive and malignant behaviors, particularly in the entertainment and media industries. CBS Chief Leslie Moonves is the latest example of an individual sustained by a culture that shields toxic masculine behaviors. HR staff can get compromised by these leaders and injured by them. Consider the example of an organization where employees in visible positions were expected to be hired and promoted based on physical traits. The senior HR leader was pejoratively referred to as Vanna (referencing Vanna White of Wheel of Fortune fame) by the division president. This objectification was mimicked by peers and superiors, as they also referred to her as Vanna. In this climate, leaders made demands designed to undermine her authority, performance, and reputation, which limited her ability to manage her staff. Terminations of troublesome women or people of color were based on false performance allegations. Pushing back resulted in threats. People who did not go along were made uncomfortable or terminated, while frat-house conduct was viewed as amusing and harmless. Gaslighting can “infect” an organization’s culture and inhibit organizations from getting the best out of people.
Gaslighting happens in many forms at many levels. It can be peers or advisers who constantly critique and demean your actions and undermine your thinking and way of being. It may be the parent who is cruel and punitive, or a parent with standards the child can never meet. Some parents constantly criticize their children but never acknowledge their achievements. Consider the parent who both smothers and rejects (double bind), or the household where the emotional needs of children are ignored, and the language of emotion is never used. Gaslighting is emotional and verbal abuse. It erodes self-esteem and changes the development of a child’s brain (Peggy Streep, Psychology Today). Children of narcissistic parents who are traumatized can lose their confidence and self-worth and lose their ability to feel and express their emotions appropriately. Conversely, children who are treated respectfully and who are encouraged to feel and believe that they are worthy and therefore powerful can learn to thwart manipulation instituted by gaslighting.
Top photo, Bigstock: PHILADELPHIA, PA – JAN 21 2017: Women’s March on Philadelphia. A sister march of Women’s March on Washington. Women and men gathering in peaceful protest on Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Stop gaslighting us sign.
Dr. Karyn Trader-Leigh, an author, a Diversity and Organization Development Consultant, and an Executive Coach, is a Sr. Consultant with NewPoint Consulting. A Global Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity Leader, she has a passion for cultivating integral leadership that builds and empowers people and organizations at every level. Karyn served as the lead NewPoint consultant to the US State Department’s Employee Relations training for US and Overseas Foreign Service professionals. She has had a 25-year consulting practice as CEO of KTA Global Partners, LLC, working with a range of federal agencies, private sector businesses, and international and US nonprofit organizations. Her article Identifying Resistance in Managing Change, a global study, has been downloaded over 5,000 times.
Karyn’s broad international experience includes capacity building in war-torn economies in Africa, living in China, lecturing in the Middle East, and cross-cultural consulting in Eastern Europe. Karyn is an executive coach and runs an International Coaching Certification (ICC) program in the Washington, D.C. area, CoachCraft (www.coachcraft.us). She has a master’s in International Transactions from George Mason University and a doctorate from Pepperdine in Organization Change.
Karetta Hubbard and Lynne Revo-Cohen, co-founders of NewPoint Strategies provide Next Generation consulting, classroom and on-line digital learning solutions in High Risk EEO issues including diversity/inclusion/unconscious bias, harassment and assault prevention. TRAINING. EMPOWING. EDUCATING. Creating SAFE SPACES at Work