How To Extinguish Gaslighting In The Workplace  

It infiltrates the workplace like a firestorm, fanning the flames of manipulation intended to make team members question their own reality, and forces segregation by political and social values. Deadly to any company's productivity, this fire must be put out before it spreads.

We are in the age of intolerance for others’ opinions, which has led to an increase in confrontational denunciations and blatant bigotry. Gaslighting behavior in American culture has moved us away from productive discussion to that of abusive tactics aimed at changing others’ minds, and it has invaded both community and workplace settings.

Everywhere we turn we’re challenged by uncivil discourse. It’s rare to find a space now where opposition can exist alongside civility, or where there’s an understanding that opposing opinions are a natural component of a free and open society.

While gaslighting is typically seen in close, intimate relationships, we also see it in the workplace. In this context, people who are trapped in their echo chamber believe that their opinion is the only one that exists, and they deny and try to make others question their realities should they hold a differing opinion. This behavior challenges organizations to build a positive culture.

Because we spend nearly one-third of our lives with co-workers, a respectful and positive workplace culture is important. The best workplaces allow a commingling of thoughts and ideas. While diverse ideas have the potential to create divisiveness, cohesive workplace teams have traditionally precluded any need to expose or attack any social and political issues upon which they disagree.

Gaslighting infiltrates the workplace like a firestorm, fanning the flames of manipulation intended to make team members question their own reality. It forces segregation by political and social values. Those who gaslight belittle and deny the existence of opposing thoughts, question perception, and bully others into accepting their own version of reality. Gaslighters create hostility in the workplace and must be extinguished to sustain a positive culture.

For example, we worked with one client in which team members experienced a lot of animosity. Two members in particular were intent on gaslighting each other, escalating the tone and rhetoric, and having a negative influence that infected the client’s entire leadership team. Our solution to this situation was, as soon as it began, to challenge the instigator to coherently explain their frustration with the other person. When the other party began to react, we asked them to first just listen. As the instigator continued and became more emotional, we helped facilitate the expression of their emotion and the issue itself in a manner that the receiving party and the rest of the leadership team could understand.

As we mediated this discussion, we provided a safe space, inviting them to speak openly without interruption, and then allowing each additional team member to openly offer their perspective. This allowed the individuals to open up about the perceived issues each faced. This de-escalated the tension and the group session extinguished the gaslighting. As a result, team members could overcome previous stresses that had little to do with the workplace and more to do with political and socially driven issues.

Use these principles to uphold a respectful workplace culture.

1. Value multiple types of diversity. The diversity movement has both fueled this societal intolerance while also offering us an opportunity to resolve it. Diversity relates to not only race, gender, or sexual orientation, but also reaches into the psychology of all team members. One way to extinguish gaslighting in the workplace is to create a culture that values all types of diversity, recognizing that each individual adds value to the team. We must challenge ourselves and others to listen to learn, and to extend respect and understanding to the diversity within our entire society.

2. Develop a culture of transparent communication and respect. In our organization, we enable our team to communicate freely and listen open-mindedly. We accept the ideas, comments, and perspectives of all team members. We understand that we may root ourselves in our own opinions, but that the opposite opinion also exists. This baseline of respect allows us to foster collaboration in a space where individuals feel comfortable being themselves.

3. Create a safe space with trustworthy leaders. Leaders are the creators and promoters of workplace culture. Therefore, they must be the ones to create safe spaces where trust is established among all team members. Doing so develops a culture of positive and transparent communication. As it is difficult to trust those who gaslight or make divisive comments, leaders must immediately confront any gaslighting and make it clear that such behavior is unacceptable.

4. Hold gaslighters accountable.Holding gaslighters accountable for their abusive speech doesn’t mean making them feel as if their opinions don’t matter. Instead, leaders and team members need to challenge their propensity to attack others’ political and social beliefs. By calling them out, they and other team members recognize that engaging in this manipulative behavior will likely end in their removal from the organization.

By valuing all forms of diversity, building trust, fostering transparent communication and respect, and holding gaslighters accountable for their behavior, organizations can extinguish incivility and ensure a positive work culture. As people learn to respect one another, even those who hold opposing beliefs, they will build a more cohesive team.

Brian Smith, PhD, is founder and senior managing partner of IA Business Advisors, a management consulting firm that has worked with more than 18,000 CEOs, entrepreneurs, managers, and employees worldwide. Together with his daughter, Mary Griffin, he has authored his latest book, Individual Influence: Find the “I” in Team (July 19, 2022), which shares how to become our best self with everyone we influence. Learn more at IABusinessAdvisors.com.