Are You a Victim of Gaslighting? How to Avoid Being Manipulated by an Unethical Leader

Let’s say, just for the sake of discussion, that the leader of a country stated his predecessor had committed a federal crime. Then, when asked to provide proof, he pivoted, declaring we misunderstood his blatant accusation. What about that same leader denying making statements when he’s been recorded making those very statements? Unlikely, right? What’s even more unlikely is that this guy has a loyal following who believes him. How does this happen? It may be a little psychological trick called gaslighting.

Gaslighting is a tactic in which the victim is manipulated into questioning their reality. Through methodical mental exploitation, the perpetrator is able to control the victim’s perceptions of themself and their environment, thereby providing control over the victim’s behaviors.

The term “gaslighting” originated with the play Angel Street and its subsequent 1944 film Gaslight starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer, in which a husband attempts to convince his wife she is crazy by manipulating small elements of her environment. For instance, per the movie title, he dims the gaslights and then pretends that she’s the only one who thinks the room is getting darker. Slowly and steadily, the wife begins to succumb to the self-doubt created by the subtle changes.

In the beginning of the article, I loosely described a leader who refutes the reality we all see. You probably thought I was discussing President Trump and his endless supply of falsehoods (his ‘landslide’ election, Russian hacking, history of sexual harassment, border wall, ability to save jobs/healthcare/economy, etc and etc and etc). I was, but I also described the actions of many other ethically-dubious leaders.

Leaders (the ethically-dubious ones, not you) utilize gaslighting to gain a loyal following… and by “loyal” I’m referring to a cult-like culture where no one disagrees with, questions, or even considers doubting the direction of the leader. People adhere because they’ve undergone a form of mental abuse where their perception has been morphed into viewing the world through the leader’s reality. It is then reinforced when they witness the belittlement and banishment of those who dare to deviate from the party line.

Before you pass judgment on these supposed weak-minded followers, its important to note that we are all susceptive to gaslighting. It takes place so slowly that we are often unaware we’ve been brainwashed. It can involve such truth-blurring techniques as:

Denying they said something even though you have proof. You heard them say they would do something, but now they deny it. It makes you start questioning your intellectual or moral validity. Maybe they never said it or you misunderstood. Either way, the more it happens, the more you blame yourself for being wrong and begin accepting their reality.

Telling you or others that you’re crazy or a liar. Not only is this dismissive and aimed to make you question yourself, it also creates a fear that others will side with the gaslighter to question your sanity and honesty.

Exploiting what is important to you. Gaslighters know what you care about and use it to make you doubt yourself. They then invoke your worst insecurities, intimidate you, and mock you under the guise of humor.

Wearing you down over time. Gaslighting typically starts small and gradually ramps up. It’s like the way you cook a crab; the heat is turned up so slowly that the crab never realizes the water is boiling.

Aligning people against you. Gaslighters know who will stand by them and they pit these people against you. As an FYI, they are pitting you against them, as well. Side comments like, “XXX doesn’t think you know what you’re talking about” are an effective way to isolate employees and create distrust amongst the ranks. It also forces people to rely on the gaslighter as the single source of “accurate” information.

Using occasional positive reinforcement. After a stream of criticism, slights, and insults, they throw in some praise. This can be confusing, but it can also make you feel just good enough to undergo more of their abuse and create an emotional opening for further manipulation.

I don’t list these techniques as a “how to.” With awareness, you can identify the signs and avoid the gaslighter’s trap. I stress avoidance because, according to the book The Gaslight Effect, this is the single most effective way to not be gaslit. Any attempt to prove the gaslighter wrong will most likely lead to you trying to prove the gaslighter right. That’s why they’re an effective gaslighter; they can turn your defense against you

No attempt to stop gaslighting will be effective unless the person being gaslighted is willing to walk away from the relationship. In other words, one must be willing to end the gaslighting relationship. In the arena that we are discussing; that means walking away from the wider culture at large.—Dr. Robin Stern, The Gaslight Effect

Whether it’s your supervisor or the President of the United States, we must remain vigilant against manipulation. Seek leaders whose actions match their words. People who do not feel the need to re-explain or re-clarify every statement. People who are more concerned with doing the right thing than with being right. People who can (and willingly) support their arguments with facts. People who exert more effort building you up versus pressuring you to follow them. This should be obvious, but gaslighting sneaks up on you; once you’re in, it is difficult to unwind.

Three Ways to Assess Someone’s Ethics

What if unethical behaviors emitted a visible indicator? That’s the premise of a great book I just finished, Smoke by Dan Vyleta. Set in Victorian-era England, people produce a trail of smoke every time they sin. As a result, they are not able to hide their worst thoughts or impulses.

As leaders, there are certainly benefits to a smoking-inducing culture. We’d always know who to trust, intentions would be crystal clear, and we could take immediate action when faced with ethical hiccups. Of course, with our morals on display we’d also have to remain on the virtuous path, but that wouldn’t an issue, right?

If you want to avoid the smokey discharge of corruption, the following are three ways you can assess your team’s ethics.

Establish a Baseline

When identifying an ethical quandary, many rely on perception. Sure, some situations are black and white, but these are the obvious examples. For those predicaments in the grey-ish area, perception is dependent upon circumstances and the individual trying to recognize the breach. Therefore, if you are going to be on the lookout, you need to ensure that everyone on the leadership team shares the same expectations.

Creating a foundation begins with assessing your current organizational culture. According to Kenneth W. Johnson, Director of the Ethics & Policy Integration Centre, there a number of measurable factors that can serve to align a company, including how employees:

  • perceive that leadership prioritizes ethics and the core values over the bottom line,
  • speak openly about ethics and the company’s core values,
  • consider the core values in decision making,
  • feel that they and their co-workers are treated fairly,
  • pressure felt to compromise values,
  • distinguish that ethical behavior is rewarded and unethical behavior is punished,
  • identify that “good faith” mistakes are seen as opportunities for growth and development, and
  • hold themselves and others accountable to the standards.

These factors provide a profile of the organization so as to help leadership design and implement an effective ethics program. Then, after the program has launched, this list is valuable in evaluating program success.

Ask the Right Questions

When you know what to ask and what to listen for, a behavioral approach to conversations can uncover a person’s ethical leanings.

If you ask people if they’re ethical, they’re going to say, ‘Yes.’ Behavioral questions tell you that the person was in a situation that they saw as ethics-related and tell you how they thought through the problem and what they did.—Patricia Harned, President of the Ethics Resource Center

When trying to gauge someone’s ethics, consider a few of these questions:

  • What makes up an ethical workplace?
  • At Acme Corp, we are accountable, dependable and transparent. How do you define accountable, dependable and transparent?
  • Did you see the section of our website where we described the company’s stance on ethics? Which of our core values made an impression?
  • When you’ve had ethical issues arise at work, whom did you consult?
  • Can you describe an instance when you witnessed or learned of someone engaging in unethical behavior? What was that behavior and how did you address it?
  • Tell me about a time when you felt it was necessary to cut corners on the quality of a job. What was the situation and how did you resolve it?
  • Describe a time where you were pressured to cheat on a [test / expense report / project. What were the circumstances and how did you handle it?

Clandestine Observations

Famed basketball player and coach John Wooden once said, “The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.” To really assess someone’s ethics, you need to observe them in situations where they aren’t aware of being observed. Consider:

  1. Creating a list of ethical criteria in which you are interested. This will provide a starting point in the behaviors of which you need to be mindful. They may involve honesty, value driven decision-making, modeling, humaneness, trustworthiness, and fairness.
  2. Getting a full picture. Use 360 practices to gather the team’s experiences with the individual. For instance, with interview candidates, I like to utilize the receptionist. How do they treat him/her when a manager is not present? Are they courteous and respectful or dismissive?
  3. Observing firsthand. You can’t rely solely on other’s perceptions. Watch the individuals’ actions and reactions in a manner where they do not realize you are monitoring their behavior. Take note of the criteria you outlined and anything else you find pertinent.

In the absence of smoke, a growing Pinocchio nose, or a flashing red “LIAR” sign, leaders must be able to detect falsehoods. Start with establishing your code of conduct. Then engage in intelligent conversations and observe people’s behaviors. It’s not as easy as watching someone emit smoke, but it’ll sure cut down on the cleaning bill.

Workplace Initiations: Six Ways to Build a More Loyal Team

I was meeting with a few colleagues last week discussing our companys’ onboarding practices. It was interesting to hear how they welcomed newcomers. Most had a formal one-day orientation followed up by job specific training and departmental hospitality. Then there was Chuck.

Chuck did some variation of what everyone else was doing but he incorporated six months of “hazing.” Hazing is probably too strong a term, but they certainly made new hires earn their place on the team. It sounded harsh until Chuck mentioned his company’s incredibility high retention rate, employee engagement scores, and seven-year streak of being a Best Place to Work. Now I’m questioning whether unconditional acceptance is the best way to initiate a newbie.

According to anthropologist Aldo Cimino, “hazing” is the ritualized humiliation of newcomers to a group, often through initiation challenges. This is not a new concept, nor is it relegated to one culture or social class—hazing occurs in upper-class schools, street gangs, sports teams, indigenous tribes, and any other segment of the society where a person joins new groups.

While this may sound barbaric or immature, it can be effective. Cimino’s research found that the groups with higher status and more resources had more rigorous initiations. Another study found that participants who experienced severe embarrassment and discomfort to gain access reported a much higher level of satisfaction with the group. And studies by Brock Bastian concluded that individuals who collectively experienced painful events display stronger bonds and greater generosity to group members.

So why do people (subconsciously) want to go through an initiation? As explained by cognitive anthropologist Harvey Whitehouse, the laborious experiences create a powerful shared memory that serves as social glue, thereby bonding members together. It could also serve to demonstrate an individual’s personal strengths, as well as the qualities of the people who can motivate such acts.

If it’s too easy to get into your organization and you’d like to incorporate an initiation, consider a few of these practices:

Start at the interview. Involve a few steps with a few people. Don’t hesitate from asking difficult questions and setting clear expectations.

Better orientation. The intricacies of your company cannot be taught in one day. Spread it out and, like the interview, involve many people from many departments.

Pubic displays. As they study the company, they need to share what they’re learning. Maybe include a few presentations to the department.

Group project. Get all the new hires together for a hands-on group project. This should be meaningful (no busy work) and inclusive of the team.

No bullying. This is about people being initiated, not threatened, coerced, or emotionally scarred.

Big ending. You’ve tested them, they’ve passed, it is time to celebrate. Make this a big deal. Involve the whole department and formally welcome them.

You take hiring seriously. You take performance seriously. You need to take your onboarding seriously. The way someone is welcomed sets the groundwork for their success. If you include an initiation passage, new hires can earn their way into your company through challenging tasks that expedite their learning curve and engrain them into the culture. Continue to be supportive, but they need to work for it. After all, your company is worth the effort.

Have a Fear of Losing? Self-Esteem Won’t Help, You Need Self-Compassion

What motivates you to pursue success? I’m not referring to money or fame; those are the products of success. What I’m asking is when you set your sights on a new challenge, what thought is going through your head?

On a recent episode of Pod Save America, they were discussing the inner dialogue of an unsuccessful presidential campaign—oversights, skewed approaches, why the candidate’s popularity seems to increase after losing. In regards to Hilary Clinton, one concept I found fascinating is the idea that her campaign and pre-election persona were too restrained and prudent. According to co-host Jon Favreau, this is not a new diagnosis after a failed run for the top office.

They said it about John Kerry after his concession speech. They said it about Mitt Romney after his concession speech. They said it about Al Gore after his concession speech. They said it about John McCain after his concession speech. There is a certain brand of politicians who are too cautious during a campaign and are less cautious after the campaign is over, and that is because they run with an overwhelming fear of losing. And that fear of losing makes them more cautious and calculated.

How many leaders are hampered by their fear of losing? Instead of operating from a position of confidence or positivity, they are focused on not screwing up. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy; the more you fixate on the negative outcome, the more likely they are to come to fruition. So how can we stop ‘not losing’ and concentrate on ‘winning’?

We are frequently taught that success stems from self-esteem. Unfortunately, self-esteem is situational. It is linked to social comparisons, unrealistic expectations, and arbitrary self-assessments. In truth, research shows that self-esteem does not cause success; it is the result of success. Therefore, to start thinking like a winner, we need to replace our aspirations for self-esteem with aspirations of self-compassion.
Unlike self-esteem which is concerned with how you evaluate yourself, self-compassion is about how you treat yourself. This has three aspects. First, self-compassion means caring for one’s self with the same benevolence, care, and consideration that you treat those you care about. Being driven, results-focused individuals, we tend to set idealistically high goals and bet ourselves up when we fall short. Hence, we need to practice more self-kindness.

Second, it entails recognition that all people are imperfect. Often when we fail, our initial response is that something has gone wrong, that this shouldn’t be happening. We have this flawed view that everyone else is living a struggle-free life. With self-compassion we can alter how we relate to failure and difficulty by turning “poor me,” into “I’m not the only one.”

Finally, self-compassion involves mindfulness, a willingness to acknowledge our suffering. This may seem counter to a “winning” mindset, but denying the pain does not mean you aren’t feeling it. Maintain an accurate reading of your emotions so you can deal with them and move on.

Kristin Neff, a developmental psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin, fi
rst proposed the concept of self-compassion in 2003. Since then, her research has shown that self-compassion is significantly associated with every indicator of psychological well-being.

Self-compassion yields greater emotional stability, resilience, life satisfaction, and a more optimistic perspective. The self-compassionate respond more adaptively to negative events with less pessimism, cynicism and self-critical thoughts and experience fewer negative emotions. And they experience lower amounts of stress, anxiety, and guilt.

Remember that fear of losing? Well self-compassion has also been found to enhance motivation. When people with greater self-compassion fail, they are less afraid of failure. In one study, after participants failed a test, they were coached to be more self-compassionate. Later, when they had the opportunity re-take the test, they studied longer than people who were not told to be self-compassionate.

Self-compassion filters how we respond to setbacks, thereby freeing us up to take risks and remain true to our convictions. Without the burden of hypercritical thoughts we can stop focusing on reducing distress and instead manage the actual issue.

And good news! We can learn to be more self-compassionate. Studies have found that even brief exercises instructing people to think about a problem in a self-compassionate manner have positive effects.

Step 1: Identify instances in which you are not being nice to yourself. Does your internal monologue tend to be negative? Are you punishing yourself when things don’t go your way?

Step 2: Determine why you are so self-callous. Do you think being hard on yourself is motivating? And if so, how badly do you need to feel in order be motivated? While negative thoughts can help us to manage behaviors, those with low self-compassion make themselves feel much worse than needed. Recognize when your sentiments cross from constructive into destructive.

Step 3: Stop it. When bad things happen, remind yourself that everyone fails, is rejected, humiliated, or experiences a multitude of other less-than-desirable happenings. Practice some self-kindness by being nice to yourself. Don’t lower the bar, but don’t beat yourself up when trying to reach it either.

Have a fear of losing? Stop trying to build self-esteem and start developing your self-compassion. Unlike the self-admiration of self-esteem, self-compassion does not depend on viewing yourself positively or even liking yourself. It is not contingent on failing or succeeding. And it won’t diminish when you experience a low point. So be compassionate to yourself so you can concentrate on winning, not avoiding catastrophe.