In the end, what saved “Ella” was a friend’s love of old movies. Worried about what she heard in their last call, her friend sent her a link to an Alfred Hitchcock’s movie “Gaslight” and texted, “I think this is what’s happening to you.”
Ella had joined a large company headquartered in Chicago, with branch offices in Anchorage, Seattle, San Francisco and other cities. Soon after she started, two employees quit. Ella learned they’d been vying for her job. No one told her that her immediate assistant had also sought the promotion and had said, “I deserve the job. I’ve been doing my supervisor’s work for more than a year.” Later, the branch manager told Ella, “We told your assistant we didn’t think she was ready for the promotion. She took it well and was afraid you’d hold it against her that she’d wanted your job.”
Her assistant greeted her cheerfully on her first day of work, saying, “I have so much to learn from you. Your background and experience are amazing.”
A few weeks later, odd things began to happen. “I explained each of them away,” Ella said. “Documents disappeared from my desk, but I work with a cluttered desk and thought I’d simply misplaced them. When I asked her the status of a task given her several days earlier, she’d say, ‘I’ll get right on that.’ I’d remind her, ‘I gave you this assignment two days ago.’ She’d look at me with a confused expression on her face and said, ‘No, if you had, I’d have done it already.’”
“Things spiraled downward until one day, when I didn’t receive an important phone message which she said she’d given me and then asked her if she’d seen an important document associated with the call, she reacted defensively. She asked, ‘Are you accusing me of something? My job is helping you. What are you saying?’ I then brought up some of the awkward conversations the two of us have had. She said, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about’ and then added in a sympathetic tone, ‘You seem really stressed. Was your last job this complex?’”
“There wasn’t anyone I could talk to. My assistant was close friends with many of my peers. I was the new kid on the block, without allies.”
When Ella called me, she asked me if about gaslighting occurred in the workplace. Here’s what I told her.
Gaslighting is manipulation and psychological abuse in which one individual misleads another by creating a false narrative for what’s occurring with the intent of breaking down their target’s trust in themselves. The gaslighter peppers discussions with statements such as “Are you sure about that? That isn’t what you said yesterday.” “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” “You stood right there and said (what you don’t believe you said).” Over time, the target questions her own memories, thoughts, perceptions and judgments.
Gaslighters blame-shift, twisting every discussion until the target feels to blame for anything that goes wrong. Gaslighters divert conversations when you call them on their behavior. They change the subject or show sympathy, which makes their targets back off and second-guess themselves. They trivialize their target’s feelings with statements such as “You’re overreacting” or “Why are you so sensitive?” Their targets grow increasingly confused and uneasy, losing confidence and self-esteem.
Meanwhile, the gaslighter drives a wedge between the target and others. They tell the target negative things others have said about the target. The gaslighter creates a fiction for others as well, with subtle stories that lead others to wonder if the target is emotionally unstable. The gaslighter does all of this while offering their target false support, with statements such as, “You know how much I respect you.”
I suggested Ella document the situation by keeping a journal and saving text conversations and emails, so that her assistant couldn’t twist problematic events to shift blame. I let her know she needed to reach out to her corporate HR officer, the branch manager or a senior corporate manager, and would need proof stronger than personal anecdotes if she wanted support.
I advised Ella to trust herself when she a conversation felt off. I counseled her to remain calm and keep discussions professional. When her assistant said something that didn’t seem right, I suggested she ask her assistant to explain her reasoning. I let her know gaslighting could turn previously confident individuals into shadows of their former selves.
Does gaslighting occur in the workplace? Yes.