Per the dictionary, the definition of gaslighting is “a form of psychological manipulation in which a person or a group covertly sows seeds of doubt in a targeted individual, making them question their own memory, perception, or judgment, often evoking in them cognitive dissonance and other changes such as low self-esteem.”
Often, when people talk about gaslighting they aren’t discussing it in a professional context but rather a personal one, such as something a malicious significant other or friend might do. However, professional gaslighting is a very real thing and something to be aware of in the professional world.
In talking with professionals about their experience, especially black women, I was surprised at how many were describing professional gaslighting in their dealings with managers and co-workers without even realizing it!
Why do professional gaslighting happen so often?
The answer questions vary, in some cases, black women are perceived as a threat to incompetent managers and co-workers and the only way to combat this “threat” is to engage in professional gaslighting. In other cases, undermining, a professional to usurp control by performing an Inception-like mental mind trick to have a person questioning their abilities and skills.
In my last role, my manager did this by questioning my work by accusing me of not knowing how to do my job, attempting to sow seeds of doubt in me, despite never providing any sufficient evidence of this accusation. Was she trying to intentionally gaslight me (assuming she’d even know what this is)? Maybe, maybe not. Luckily, however, I could see through her BS a mile away and shored up my proof and receipts as a means of protection. So in the end, I could bargain for a better severance.
How to recognize the signs of professional gaslighting:
Listen to Your Instincts: If you know yourself and your value, no amount of gaslighting can threaten you. This means you must have a strong degree of self-confidence (not arrogance) and sense of self, which will filter constructive criticisms from low-key gaslighting attempts.
Recognize: There is a world of difference between your manager or coworker trying to help you and trying to undermine you. A lot of this difference depends on your relationship with these people and their personalities. I always say when starting a new job, don’t be in such a rush to be super good friends with everyone. Stand back and observe. Trust me, the problematic ones will rise to the surface soon enough. Recognize them and make a game plan for how to interact with them.
Reaffirm: Things can get tough at work. When they do, have a friend or circle of friends who can lift your spirits and reaffirm your value. Sometimes we need someone other than ourselves to see how great we are, and this connection is powerful.
Document: If you read this blog you know I am dye in the wool believer of documenting EVERYTHING. I am not playing. Document everything! Make documentation your friend. Your best friend. Your God. Your...you get the picture.
Again, I am not advocating for rampant and unchecked arrogance at work and yes, I do know people who can’t be told anything negative about themselves. People like that are exhausting and suck to work with. Not every criticism from your manager or co-worker is an attack or a covert attempt to undermine you (I discuss that here). Believe me when I say, as a professional and person, you need to step back and be honest with yourself regarding your contributions at work.
If you feel like you are struggling and need help, lower your guard, be vulnerable, and ask for help, but don’t let anyone question your own skills and abilities simply because they want to advance their own agenda.