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Recognizing the Telltale Signs of Gaslighting at Work

S.J. Steinhardt
Published Date:
Dec 7, 2022

It’s the "Word of the Year 2022," declared Merriam-Webster. And when put to practice in the workplace, it could derail a career if the employee isn't careful.

The word is (drumroll, please) gaslighting. The term is based on a 1938 play, Gas Light, and the 1944 movie version, Gaslight, in which a husband tries to drive his wife insane by raising and lowering the gas lights in the house, all the while denying it.

Merriam-Webster defines it as “psychological manipulation of a person usually over an extended period of time that causes the victim to question the validity of their own thoughts, perception of reality, or memories and typically leads to confusion, loss of confidence and self-esteem, uncertainty of one’s emotional or mental stability, and a dependency on the perpetrator.”

This takes many forms in the workplace, according to Tessa West, a New York University social psychology professor. Writing in Marketwatch, she advised how to recognize the signs.

The author of Jerks at Work: Toxic Coworkers and What to Do About Them, in which she devoted a chapter to gaslighters, West delineated the differences between them and “an annoying coworker or micromanaging boss.”

“Gaslighters have two signature moves,” she wrote. “They lie with the intent of creating a false reality, and they cut off their victims socially.” They spread gossip, they take credit for other people’s work, and they undercut others in furtherance of their own position.

“You may also be an unwitting pawn in the gaslighting of another colleague,” she wrote, by using the same techniques as above, but only targeting another person through you.

The gaslighter “lies and conspires to undermine your position,” she wrote. “They will accuse you of being confused or mistaken, or that you took something they said the wrong way because you are insecure.”

“Don’t try to confront gaslighters,” she warned. “Trying to beat these folks at their own game is a losing strategy.”

Instead, she advised victims of gaslighting to send emails summarizing meetings so that they can document the origin of ideas and prevent the gaslighter from stealing credit. She also advised speaking up at meetings. Further, she suggested seeking out their own social networks for help in building their reality back up.

To prevent oneself from becoming a target, West advised not falling for flattery and watching out for signs of social isolation.