Gaslighting at Work: What it is and how it plays out

Imagine being reprimanded at work for not attending a meeting you didn’t have on your calendar. Or, your manager insists that they emailed you regarding a critical deadline, but you have no record of receiving the email. These scenarios are examples of what could occur when one is in a professional relationship with a psychologically abusive “gaslighter.”

What is gaslighting?

Gaslighting is a psychological and social phenomenon that plays out in relationships with unequal power dynamics. It’s a type of manipulation where one person, typically a male, makes a victim feel irrational, crazy, and uncertain about their very grasp on reality. Gaslighting is rooted in gender-based stereotypes and structural and institutional inequalities.

Victims of gaslighting are most often women for a few reasons. First, there is a long-standing cultural tradition of labeling women as irrational, crazy, and emotionally unstable. Secondly, women have not historically had enough political, financial, and cultural resources to gaslight men. Power inequity is a fundamental condition for gaslighting.

While men commonly perpetrate gaslighting against women, men can also be victims of gaslighting. Still, gendered stereotypes–masculine as rational and feminine as irrational–play a significant role. In male-to-male or female-to-male gaslighting, the gaslighter uses gender-based strategies to feminize the victim, portraying them as irrational or crazy.

Like in intimate personal relationships, victims of gaslighting in institutional relationships–like at work–cannot easily dismiss gaslighting transgressions. In particular, the power dynamic between boss and employee makes it extremely difficult for the victim to extricate themselves from the abusive situation.

How it plays out at work

Just like in other relationships, gaslighting at work occurs when one person manipulates another into questioning their sanity. The perpetrator could be a manager, a colleague, or even a client or customer. When someone is “gaslit” at work, they are made to feel like they are crazy and could even start believing it. For example, a manager could insist that an employee didn’t complete an assignment that the employee knows they did. In such a scenario, the gaslighter is so unwaveringly adamant that the victim starts to question their memory of events.

The fundamental difference between a manager who holds high expectations, or even a micro-manager, is that they have malicious intent. A gaslighting manager does not ultimately want to see an employee succeed. In direct contrast, they aim to sabotage their victim. Gaslighters will go so far as to manipulate the environment and circumstances–delete files, cancel meetings, or file false claims–to make their victim question their sense of reality. As such, no matter how hard an employee works or to what lengths they go to please the gaslighter, their efforts will always be in vain.

The only way to escape a gaslighting relationship at work is to identify it and then remove oneself from the situation, either by leaving the position or exposing the gaslighter. To learn more about recognizing and addressing gaslighting, check out our next post.


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