Gas-lighting is a term which is used to describe a form of psychological manipulation in which a person seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or team, making them question their own memory, perception or sanity. Using persistent denial, contradiction, misdirection and lying, gas-lighting involves attempts at destabilising the victim and delegitimizing the individual’s belief.
The term originated in the systematic psychological manipulation of a victim by her husband in the 1938 stage play Gaslight, also known as Angel Street in the USA, and the subsequent film adaptations released in 1940 and 1944. In the story, a husband attempts to convince his wife and others that she is insane by manipulating small elements of their environment and insisting that she is mistaken, remembering things incorrectly or delusional when she points out these changes. The play’s title alludes to how the abusive husband slowly dims the gas lights in their home, while pretending nothing has changed, in an effort to make his wife doubt her own perceptions. He also uses the lights in the sealed-off attic to search for jewels belonging to a woman he has murdered. The wife repeatedly asks her husband to confirm her perceptions about the dimming lights but, in defiance of reality, he keeps insisting that the lights are the same and instead it is she who is going insane.
Gas-lighting at work, usually by a colleague or even by a manager, is when things are done or said that cause people to question themselves or their actions in a way that is detrimental to their careers. The victim/s may be excluded, made the subject of gossip, persistently discredited or questioned to destroy their confidence. The perpetrator may divert conversations to perceived faults or wrongs, usually to put him in a position of power. Gas-lighting is particularly detrimental when this perpetrator is a manager, as the psychological abuse affects the mental health of the victim/s, viz.: causing depression, anxiety and even suicidal ideation.
Victimisation in the workplace is a serious offence – if a victim, consider doing the following:
- Don’t ignore the unseen – pay attention to what you don’t always see or hear. You can’t always perceive it, prove it or stop it, but if you ignore even a hint of discriminatory or manipulative behaviour, both you and the company could potentially suffer. Low morale, conflict amongst employees and even lawsuits are possible results.
- Take great care of what you say and to whom you speak – never talk behind someone’s back (especially a manager) and never incite bad feelings or “ganging up” against someone amongst colleagues.
- Never let the issue linger – take it up with the person involved or, if not successful, take up the issue with the head of the human resources function. Explain that the practice is not only damaging to your personhood, but that it is also impeding your performance. Document all discussions.
- Consider educating yourself further – find out as much as you can about manipulative behaviour and how to detect it.
- Get psychological and emotional help – make an appointment with a professional to learn how to protect yourself from psychological harm. Experiencing prejudice can be very hurtful – prevent lasting damage by seeking healing.
Gas-lighting in the workplace, deliberate and persistent attempts to undermine, discredit and manipulate the psychological wholeness of a victim or team, has serious consequences for both the victims and the company. Not only does it induce low morale, anxiety, depression and fear, but it could also lead to a steady flow of employees leaving the company and bring about damage to the brand.