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How to recognize gaslighting in the workplace

Gina Schumacher

Are you unsure whether your perception is being manipulated in the workplace? Are you experiencing subtle remarks or actions that make you question whether you are interpreting reality correctly? Then it might be gaslighting in the workplace. But how do you know whether you are really affected by this form of emotional violence?

In this article, we'll go through a few questions together to help you identify the signs of gaslighting in your professional life and take action against this subtle form of manipulation to protect your self-confidence.

What is gaslighting behaviour?

Gaslighting is a term you hear over and over again — but what exactly is gaslighting? Gaslighting is a manipulative form of emotional and psychological violence that aims to undermine your self-esteem and perception. This usually happens slowly and over a long period of time, so that at some point the person concerned questions what actually happened — to the advantage of the gas lighter.

In the workplace, gaslighting is carried out through targeted actions and statements that are intended to make you doubt your own memory and/or competence. The perpetrators of gaslighting often try to portray their victims as hypersensitive, irrational or faulty, causing the person concerned to lose self-confidence and security in the long term.

Gaslighting in the workplace is particularly problematic when it causes those affected to doubt their professional identity, performance and mental health. It is therefore all the more important that you recognize such behaviours early on and take appropriate steps to promote a healthy working environment — regardless of whether you are part of a team or have a management position in your company.

Gaslighting in the workplace examples

A man burries his face in his hand while his co-workers are in the back talking bad about him.

Gaslighting in the workplace is more than just a term — it is a subtle but all the more damaging form of manipulation that has a lasting effect on your self-perception and self-esteem. But how do you know whether the behavior of your colleagues or superiors is actually gaslighting and whether you are not simply having “normal” confrontations or stress in everyday work?

Imagine being confronted with targeted actions and statements whose aim is to make you doubt your own truth — and that doesn't happen openly, but very subtly over a longer period of time so that you barely notice it. It downplays your achievements, denies decisions, or presents events differently than you have experienced them.

The goal of gas lighters is to make you doubt yourself and find yourself in an unhealthy power imbalance. Recognize such behaviors to protect your professional identity and mental health — because each of us deserves a supportive work environment.

To help you identify gaslighting in the workplace, we've put together a few scenarios:

  1. Constant denial and distortion: When someone persistently denies facts or agreements and tries to distort your perception.
  2. Disparaging remarks disguised as a joke: When derogatory statements are made under the guise of humor to make you feel insecure.
  3. Questioning your perception: When someone says that you're seeing things the wrong way or deceiving yourself to undermine your self-confidence.
  4. Recriminations and victim repentance: When the blame for negative events or problems is shifted onto you in order to destabilize you.
  5. Control through uncertainty: When uncertainty is deliberately created about decisions or agreements made in order to unbalance you.
  6. Isolation from support: When you are systematically isolated from support and support to make yourself more vulnerable and manipulable.
  7. Conflicting actions and statements: When there are discrepancies between actions and statements to create confusion.

What statements do you recognize gaslighting from?

Self-confidence and clear communication are crucial in the workplace. But sometimes subtle statements can cross the line of manipulation. If the following statements come from the same person over and over again, you should be careful:

  • “You're exaggerating, it was just a joke.”
  • “I don't remember you ever suggesting that.”
  • “I never said that like that.”
  • “You're too sensitive, it shouldn't affect you like that.”
  • “Others understood that much more quickly, why are you having such a hard time?”
  • “You're just imagining it, it didn't happen.”
  • “If you weren't so emotional, we could have a reasonable discussion.”
  • “You're misunderstanding, I just wanted to motivate you.”
  • “It was just a small mistake, why are you reacting so dramatically?”
  • “Maybe you're just not cut out for that kind of job.”
  • “You should really learn how to deal with criticism better.”

What are the impacts of workplace gaslighting on those who experience it?

A man seems sad because he is gaslighting in the workplace.

Gaslighting in the workplace has profound effects on those affected, which go far beyond the professional context. In addition to the consequences already described, emotional exhaustion is also a common result of gaslighting. Those affected experience a high level of stress, anxiety and often even feelings of guilt, as they are constantly confronted with the question of whether they are really as faulty or irrational as they are suggested to them. This often leads to sleep disorders, concentration problems and even physical complaints.

Gaslighting also has serious consequences when it comes to professional development. If you notice that you are increasingly avoiding risks and new challenges out of fear of being exposed to further attacks, it is time to act. Because gaslighting often impairs career prospects and puts those affected in a position of stagnation.

The social effects are just as significant: Many people affected by gaslighting are withdrawing to avoid further painful confrontations. Of course, this loss of trust in colleagues and supervisors also makes cooperation more difficult and thus reduces the sense of belonging.

Is gaslighting in the workplace punishable?

In Germany, gaslighting in the workplace is generally not directly defined as an independent criminal offense. Acts relevant to criminal law, such as coercion or bodily harm, must be clearly proven — if gaslighting takes extreme forms, it could fall into this category.

However, prosecuting gaslighting is often complex as it is difficult to provide the necessary evidence. You should therefore try to seek justice primarily through the works council or your superiors.

What to do with gaslighting in the workplace?

It's important to stress that gaslighting should never be tolerated. By actively fighting this form of manipulation, you are helping to create a healthy working environment and protect yourself and your colleagues from further negative effects. So if you notice gaslighting in the workplace, you should act proactively both as an observer and as a person affected, for example as follows:

  • Strengthen self-confidence: Recognize that the statements are not your fault and that you have the right to defend your perception. Strengthen your self-confidence and remember your skills.
  • documentation: Record all gaslighting incidents in writing. Write down the date, time, location, and the exact statements or actions. This serves as proof in case you need to take any further steps.
  • Engage supervisors or HR: Contact your supervisor or HR department, present your documentation and describe the situation so that appropriate action can be taken.
  • Professional assistance: In serious cases where gaslighting is having a serious impact on your health, consider consulting therapists or professional counselors for assistance in processing the situation.
  • Legal action: If all internal efforts are unsuccessful and gaslighting has serious consequences, legal advice could be an option. Clarify what legal steps you can take.
  • Self-protection and setting limits: Prioritize your own safety and actively distance yourself when necessary. Set clear limits on the gaslighter and make sure to protect your mental health.

Conclusion

Gaslighting undoubtedly leaves deep emotional scars. It requires not only immense mental effort to overcome the constant doubts, but also a conscious effort to restore trust in yourself and others. Identifying gaslighting in the workplace is the first step in preventing this harmful practice.

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