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The mind games leaders play: Decoding gaslighting tactics and protecting yourself

The mind games leaders play: Decoding gaslighting tactics and protecting yourself

“Bosses wield authority, making it easier for them to manipulate narratives and dismiss your concerns.”

Have you ever questioned your own memory or sanity after a conversation with your boss?

You work tirelessly on a project, only to have your boss claim they gave you specific instructions you never received. When you try to clarify, they insist you are misremembering or that you are under too much pressure.

Do you find yourself constantly apologising or feeling like you are “walking on eggshells” around them? These could be signs of a subtle but insidious form of gaslighting, a manipulative tactic that can wreak havoc on your mental well-being, chip away at your confidence, and affect your work performance.

Gaslighting, as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, is to “manipulate (someone) by psychological means into questioning their own sanity.”

In the context of the workplace, this can manifest in a boss who denies giving you clear instructions, then accuses you of procrastination when the project falls behind, belittles your accomplishments, or takes credit for your work.

They may constantly shift blame, making you feel responsible for their mistakes. This constant erosion of your confidence and reality creates a power imbalance that benefits the gaslighting boss and leaves you feeling isolated and powerless.

Why does gaslighting thrive in the workplace?

The hierarchical nature of workplaces fosters an environment where gaslighting can flourish.

Bosses wield authority, making it easier for them to manipulate narratives and dismiss your concerns. This power imbalance can be incredibly damaging, eroding your confidence and chipping away at your mental well-being. This can leave employees feeling trapped and unsure of how to react.

So, what are the red flags you must watch out for when unmasking a gaslighting boss?

Not every disagreement with your boss signifies gaslighting. The manipulative tactics of a gaslighting boss can be subtle; however, if you find yourself questioning your sanity or feeling perpetually on edge, be wary of these red flags:

Denial and distortion: Did you receive clear instructions on a task? Does your boss now claim they never gave them or that you misunderstood? This is a classic attempt to rewrite history and make you doubt your memory.

Minimising your feelings: Do you express concerns about workload or a project? Does your boss dismiss your anxieties as insignificant or overblown? This tactic aims to isolate you and make you feel like you are overreacting.

Planting seeds of doubt: Do you constantly question your competence or judgement? A gaslighting leader may subtly criticise your work or plant doubts about your abilities, eroding your confidence.

Twisting the narrative: Do you find yourself wondering if you are the crazy one? Gaslighters excel at manipulating situations, making you feel responsible for their actions or bad moods.

Emotional manipulation: Gaslighting bosses may use a variety of tactics to control you, including guilt trips, intimidation, or even emotional outbursts.

Isolation: They might try to isolate you from colleagues or undermine your relationships with them.

How do you strategically deal with a gaslighting boss and deliver yourself from the mental stress?

If you recognise these signs, here are some practical steps to help you navigate a situation with a gaslighting boss:

Document everything: Keep detailed notes of conversations, emails, and any instances where your boss contradicts reality. This record becomes invaluable evidence if you need to escalate the situation.

Trust your gut: If something feels off, it probably is. Don’t let them convince you otherwise. Your intuition is a powerful tool; learn to trust it.

Seek support: Confide in a trusted colleague, friend, or therapist about what’s happening. Having an objective perspective and a listening ear can be incredibly empowering.

Don’t engage in emotional battles: Gaslighters thrive on emotional responses. Don’t engage in emotional arguments. Maintain a professional demeanour and stick to the facts. Stay calm and stick to the facts when addressing any discrepancies. Avoid accusations and focus on solutions.

Consider reporting: If the behaviour is severe or creates a hostile work environment, consider reporting it to HR. Documenting the gaslighting behaviour strengthens your case.

Prioritise self-Care: Gaslighting can be incredibly stressful. Engage in activities that help you manage stress and maintain your emotional health. Exercise, meditation, and spending time with loved ones can all be beneficial.

How can you prioritise your mental well-being?

Gaslighting can be incredibly stressful. It’s important to prioritise activities that help you manage stress and maintain your emotional health. Here are some tips for self-care:

Maintain a healthy work-life balance: Detach from work when you leave the office. Set boundaries and stick to them.

Connect with supportive people: Spend time with loved ones who value and respect you.

Practice relaxation techniques: Activities like meditation, swimming, or spending time in nature can help reduce stress and improve emotional well-being.

Seek professional help: If you are struggling to cope with the effects of gaslighting, consider talking to see a therapist.

Please remember, you are not crazy. Gaslighting is a real tactic used to manipulate and control others.

By recognising the signs and following these steps, you can take back your power and protect your mental well-being. The fight against gaslighting requires a multi-pronged approach.

While this article equips you with tools to identify and deal with a gaslighting boss, organisations also have a role to play.

Promoting open communication, fostering a culture of respect, and providing clear guidelines for acceptable workplace behaviour can all help prevent gaslighting and create a healthier work environment for everyone.

About the Author

Dr. Toye Sobande is a strategic leadership expert, lawyer, public speaker, and trainer. He is the CEO of Stephens Leadership Consultancy LLC, a strategy and management consulting firm offering creative insight and solutions to businesses and leaders. Email: [email protected]