It’s not you, it’s them: How to survive a gaslighting boss

Whether it’s the boss that overshares, the boss without work/life balance, or the one who micromanages, bad bosses are the subject of happy hour grievances and the top cause of employee turnover at companies across the country.

Everyone has worked with an underwhelming or disappointing boss during the course of their career. Whether it’s the boss that overshares, the boss without work/life balance, or the one who micromanages, bad bosses are the subject of happy hour grievances and the top cause of employee turnover at companies across the country.

In fact, a report from Gallup presents that out of 7,200 adults surveyed, roughly half left a job “to get away from their manager.” For every incompetent or overbearing manager, there’s a more nefarious kind that may cause harm not only to your career but also to your psyche.

Those are more commonly known as gaslighters.

Gaslighting was brought into the modern-day lexicon and sparked a national debate after writer Lauren Duca outlined what gaslighting at a societal level looks like for her 2016 article following the presidential election of Donald Trump. Inspired by the 1944 film “Gaslight”, the term refers to an emotional manipulation strategy in which an abuser makes their victim repeatedly question their perception of reality. Although tactics may vary in distinction, gaslighting always offsets accountability and shortcomings to the subject of the abuse. If your confidence has taken a hit in your current role and you feel like you’re going crazy when you consider your work, a gaslighting boss might be to blame.

However, gaslighting is not as easily identified in day-to-day relationships as it is on paper.

In many cases, gaslighting creates a toxic power dynamic between the abuser and the victim which is usually compacted when the offender is your boss. It also feels particularly intense in the workplace because of the emotional response this manipulation solicits. Rather than connecting over fact-based experiences and problem-solving opportunities, a gaslighting boss might use undue judgment, an unnecessary level of scrutiny, or microaggressions to manage. Here are some classic gaslighting examples to be aware of:

Strategic codependency

Your boss pretends not to see you, acknowledge your work, or refuses to listen to your feedback. Meanwhile, they might offer isolated compliments and praise that seems out of place or uncharacteristically generous. By creating an environment where direct reports compete with peers for praise or opportunities to build their trust, they cement an unequal power dynamic, as well as mistrust among the team.

Countering and diverting

When they feel challenged, gaslighting bosses double-down with circular conversations, counterattacks, or arguments that deviate from the points at hand. The author of Power: Surviving and Thriving After Narcissistic Abuse, Shahida Arabi, captures the outcome of this tactic perfectly: “They do this in order to discredit, confuse and frustrate you, distract you from the main problem and make you feel guilty for being a human being with actual thoughts and feelings that might differ from their own. In their eyes, you are the problem if you happen to exist.”

Trivializing

If your boss makes your needs or your experiences seem insignificant to theirs or the organization’s at large, if you bring up concerns and your boss suggests you’re too emotional, making a big deal out of nothing, or that you should just get with the program, your boss is actively trivializing your agency in the organization. They’re also calling your perception of reality into question by making you doubt whether your inherent response to these behaviors is appropriate while taking no time to reflect on theirs.

Punitive punishments

If you try to disrupt the power balance by presenting any concerns within your workplace under a gaslighting boss, you may also experience judgment or punitive punishment like your boss sabotaging your work. At one particular organization I was employed at, I disagreed with the publisher on how my name should be written in the byline. The byline on the article I had written was effectively removed as a direct result of my insubordination over this issue. This was when I knew I was not at a typical organization and that it was time to move on.

Forgetting/denial

Your boss claims to have forgotten conversations as they occurred or denies promises made. For example, if a boss promised a raise or compensation following a project or sale you completed but then insists the conversation never happened.

These are just a short list of what someone under a gaslighting boss might endure. In order to avoid falling into these workplace pitfalls and maintain healthy boundaries, consider the following tips on how to productively manage these situations:

  • Record everything in writing and have witnesses when possible. Try keeping a record of your conversations via email and avoid making spoken agreements that can’t be corroborated with documentation. This makes it harder for gaslighters to question your experiences and you’ll have a reference point if they try. Make sure to copy team members on emails whenever possible and communicate facts or necessary information as clearly as possible.
  • Lean on your tribe. When a boss is making you question your sense of reality, feedback from people you know and trust is absolutely essential. Don’t underestimate the power of a group of peers that can provide you with professional feedback and understanding. When you feel like you’re losing your grasp, this group will be imperative as a sounding-board and moral compass.
  • Trust your gut. Gaslighting takes a toll on your confidence, self-esteem, and even your emotional health. This may prompt depressive episodes, anxiety, apathy towards your work, or an unending sense of being overwhelmed. If you constantly feel attacked at work but can’t identify why, pay attention to subtle tactics and prompts that seek to undermine or discredit you. Make a record of them and escalate it to the appropriate team members when possible.
  • A good example of escalating an issue with a gaslighting manager appropriately is talking to your HR representative. If systematic sabotage is a reoccurring issue or you consider yourself in constant danger of emotional, physical, or mental harm, reach out to a trusted resource within the department. Be prepared with written or documented examples and think about solution-oriented outcomes you can request in your meeting. This will help your case move along in a productive manner.
  • Many may suggest telling the offender exactly how you feel, but for people who are in a position of power and do not showcase healthy emotional boundaries, this may be another opportunity to counter your perception of reality. It may be unlikely that the other party is willing to do the work to communicate or behave appropriately. In such case, another option may be a department transfer or finding a new job altogether. Make sure you don’t get caught in an endless cycle of having to prove yourself or seeking reasonable outcomes. Especially when you’re not speaking to someone reasonable. Challenging this type of boss offers an opportunity for them to stress your faults while entirely failing to acknowledge their own.
  • Keep the upper hand. Unfortunately, emotional reactions might incite the abuser to blame you for escalating the issue inappropriately, or prompt them to double-down by alienating you or adding punitive punishments. There’s a Polish proverb I find particularly helpful in situations like this, it goes, “Not my circus, not my monkeys.” Make sure you’re not becoming a sideshow for workplace manipulation. And when it’s time to move on to a new chapter in your career, leave the monkeys behind.

Rebecca Marie Jo is a writer, podcaster, and managing editor publishing three B2B magazines in print and digital. She is passionate about equipping others to succeed in their careers and in the area of personal growth. You can find more of her thoughts at pearlandsalt.com or follow her on Instagram for photos of her 3-year-old husky and travels across the world.