The business owner who called me in to consult with him about succession planning had run a small but profitable business for years. When I asked him about his time frame, he told me that while he had thought he’d retire in a decade, giving him 10 more years to put aside a solid retirement package, he now wondered if he’d have to retire within one to two years.
I asked him what had led him to move his time frame forward. He said eight months ago he’d started to worry about burning out and realized he needed to plan for the future. He decided to hire an assistant who could lighten his load. He told me he’d advertised for someone entrepreneurial, who’d be interested in working for him, learning the ropes, and ultimately buy the business for a reasonable sum.
He’d hired an assistant and the assistant had impressed him with how quickly he’d picked up on things. As a result, the owner had turned over more and more work to his assistant. His assistant soon oversaw an increasing number of key projects and clients. Recently, the assistant had asked for increased compensation, and had suggested a sweat equity approach in which he got shares in the business instead of a higher salary.
While the owner trusted and relied on his assistant, he personally no longer felt at the top of his game. He was mislaying records and unable to find them in the computer system. He was forgetting to put critical dates on his Outlook and thus had made a number of mistakes, some of them costly. His assistant had let him know several of the company’s clients were voicing negative feedback about the owner’s lack of follow-through. Although only 58 years old, the owner worried that he was showing early signs of dementia. Both his parents had succumbed to Alzheimer’s in their 70s.
When I continued interviewing the owner about what had led to his plans to speed up the sale, something about the situation felt wrong, particularly when I considered how the assistant stood to gain from an accelerated buyout. The owner also told me several stories in which he thought he’d told his assistant to handle tasks, but later when the assignments weren’t completed or even started, his assistant denied he’d ever been told about them. The owner so trusted his assistant he assumed the problems were his own. What the owner didn’t realize until our interview was that many of the small problems that worried him hadn’t surfaced until after he’d hired his assistant. “Could it be,” I asked, “that your employee is gaslighting you?”
If you’ve never watched the classic psychological thriller “Gaslight,” you might not know what gaslighting is. In the 1944 film, Charles Boyer plays a husband who slowly manipulates his wife into believing she’s growing insane so he can distract her from noticing his criminal activities. Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation in which the gaslighter uses misdirection, contradiction and deceit to make his target question his memory, perceptions and even sanity. Even the smartest individuals can be sucked in by a gaslighter, as gaslighters take over gradually with small, crazy-making incidents.
While gaslighting seemed a remote possibility to both the owner and I, he decided to meet with his doctor and CPA. The doctor ran some tests and convinced the owner his mental faculties weren’t declining. The CPA noticed financial irregularities that neither the owner nor his assistant could explain.
If this owner’s story makes you wonder about a situation in your own workplace, you might find the Psychology Today article “11 Warning Signs of Gaslighting” or the article “4 Signs Your Co-worker is Really Gaslighting You at Work" useful. Here are several key indicators. Gaslighters know confusion leads to self-doubt, and thus they destabilize things so that you begin to question yourself. They keep you off-kilter by alternately praising you and telling you about your flaws, such as the negative client feedback the assistant “helpfully” passed along to the business owner. They align others against you. They convince you others no longer have faith in you, leading you to feel you can’t trust those others in return. They undermine your faith in your memory by insisting that incidents you know happened didn’t. They lead you to question your self-worth. They wear you down by manipulating your work arena until tasks you used to perform well turn out wrong.
The solution? Do what this owner did. He accessed other resources, the doctor and the CPA, and asked them to look at the situation with fresh, untainted eyes. After their counsel, he tabled his plans to consider succession planning and instituted controls in his business to protect the integrity of systems such as his Outlook. He decided to call the clients who had allegedly voiced critical comments about him. Most importantly, he stopped doubting himself.