Tag Archives: Persuasion

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.

Is Substance for Suckers? One More Leadership Lesson from Donald Trump

Back in August, I wrote an article on leadership lessons from Donald Trump. At the time, the GOP Convention was about to begin at which time Trump would officially become the Republican presidential nominee. While I was not thrilled with the thought of a Trump presidency, I was able to provide a few research-supported leadership techniques utilized by Trump that can be beneficial to anyone in or aspiring towards a leadership position.

Such techniques as repeating key words, maintaining a strong vocal presence, and creating a common enemy have earned Trump the highest position in the USA. It doesn’t matter that he has no actual plan to make America great again. Or that his twitter account is filled with nonsensical tirades. Or that he consistently contradicts every statement he makes (often within the same speech). Trump won, and he did so by connecting with the crowd.

Ah, the crowd—that nameless, faceless group of supposed likeminded people. If you’ve read James Surowiecki’s popular book Wisdom of Crowds you may think the populace is smarter than the individual (and since Trump lost the popular vote there may be merit in this argument). I, however, continue to side more towards Gustave Le Bon’s classic 1895 study The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind.

In his research, social psychologist Le Bon discusses the attributes of those who successfully lead crowds. First, he describes them as “more frequently men of action than thinkers.” They “are not gifted with keen foresight” but that’s considered to be a good thing since it prevents them from expressing doubt and inactivity. Confidence is king and these leaders display it in droves.

Next, crowd-based leaders are able to stir an arousal of faith through ideals pertaining to religion, politics, or societal ideas. Their intensity of faith gives power of suggestion to their words and, according to Le Bon, influences “men gathered in a crowd [to] lose all force of will, and turn instinctively to the person who possesses the quality they lack.”

The great events of history have been brought about by obscure believers, who have had little beyond their faith in their favour.—Gustave Le Bon

The final attribute is simplicity. Leaders of crowds deliver boiled-down concepts presented in a straightforward, uncomplicated manner. Context is distracting, as is an overreliance on details.

Notice that these three attributes do not include expertise, know-how, or anything resembling substance. They are all predicated on how a leader presents himself—confidence trumps foresight, faith in the institution trumps strategy, and simplicity trumps intellectual discourse.

There was a recent study in Industrial and Labor Relations Review stating, “the benefit of having a highly competent boss is easily the largest positive influence on a typical worker’s level of job satisfaction.” Sure, you may believe employees are far happier when their leader has a deep technical expertise in the core activity of the business, but let’s get real. We had a presidential nominee with more technical expertise than any other candidate in the history of the country, and she did not win.

If you decide to model Trump, stop combing through your morals, beliefs, and worldviews to formulate an ideology. Don’t waste your time building expertise to become an individual of substance. To be a leader in the vein of our new President, all you need is a brand… and that brand is winning. Display an air of self-assurance. Commit to a sentiment, not any one belief. Then deliver it in one-word declarations.

In the end, I’m still betting on competence. And though I am interested in how emulating Trump’s leadership style pans out for you, you may first want to wait and see how it works for the United States.

How Did ‘Post-Truth’ Become the Word of the Year, and One Way to Create Your Own Post-Truths

posttruth-headerIn the wake of the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom and the presidential election in the United States, it is not surprising that Oxford Dictionaries has declared post-truth to be its international word of the year. Defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief,” post-truth is the perfect term to encapsulate a year dominated by highly-volatile political and social unrest. Accordingly, the editors at Oxford indicated that its use has increased by 2,000% in 2016 compared to last year.

Fuelled by the rise of social media as a news source and a growing distrust of facts offered up by the establishment, post-truth as a concept has been finding its linguistic footing for some time.—Casper Grathwohl, President of Oxford Dictionaries

Post-truth is not a new word, but it has adapted a new meaning. Prior to the early 1990s, it referred to comprehending “after the truth was known.” This changed after an article on the Iran-Contra scandal and Persian Gulf war stating, “we, as a free people, have freely decided that we want to live in some post-truth world.” Since then, the implication has been that the truth is unimportant or irrelevant.

I don’t like the idea that we may live in a post-truth era. In one sense, facts have always been somewhat malleable; we live by a set of actualities dictated by the news, leaders, and our social groups. The difference is that where we use to search for facts, they now don’t seem to matter as much.

Yeah, the truth is now an opinion. Unfortunately, thanks to social media, you can live in your bubble of opinion truth for as long as you like.—Trevor Noah, host of The Daily Show, when asked about society’s ability to agree on a truth

As leaders, we have an opportunity to create a post-truth that is reliant on the actual truth. One tool we can use is the simple art of repetition. Research shows that the more often we hear something, the more likely we are to believe it. One study found that this misapprehension works even when the individual hears a statement that contradicts well-known facts. Per the study,

The present research demonstrates that fluency can influence people’s judgments, even in contexts that allow them to draw upon their stored knowledge.

While post-truth may be the word of the year, it does not have to be the word of your organization. Propagate a culture where the truth is valued. Use repetition to spread facts. Allow your staff the room to question what you are saying. Don’t penalize those who are able to disprove your statements with new facts. And always encourage intellectual curiosity. Otherwise, your post-truth may result in a post-job.

The Art of Peer Pressure: Where’s Your “I Voted” Sticker?

i-voted-stickerHow do you convince others to follow your lead? That’s the question election officials have been asking since the dawn of democracy. The importance of voting seems self-evident; yet, voter turnout in the United Stated typically hovers around 55% for presidential elections and a dismal 35% in the mid-terms.

Since we aren’t going to mandate voting, like some other countries, we need a technique that exerts pressure to participate in our government. Taking bribery off the table (it leads to corruption) and coercion (it leads to tyranny), there is an effective research-proven method that many States already use—appealing to people’s social standing, aka their vanity.

A study by four researchers at Harvard, UC Berkeley, and the University of Chicago found that a key motivator to vote is that we enjoy telling others we voted. In the experiment, homeowners were notified that the researchers would show up after the election to conduct a survey on their participation. It turned out that people were significantly more likely to vote when they knew they would be asked.

Economist Patricia Funk echoed this sentiment when she studied elections in Switzerland. The country attempted to increase voter turnout by incorporating postal voting to make it more convenient. Instead, turnout declined, especially in smaller communities where the significance of seeing your neighbors at the local polling station was removed. Funk concluded that “social pressure creates incentives to vote for the purpose of being seen at the voting act.”

If you think you’re immune to this level of pressure, consider whether you’ve ever worn your “I Voted” sticker that is handed out at polling stations. If so, congratulations, you are as susceptible to societal influence as the rest of us. That sticker is an advertisement demonstrating your civic duty. It makes you feel good to show it off and applies social pressure on others to get to the polls.

Consider this the next time you are trying to persuade your team into action. Instead of directing them, utilize peer pressure so they are influencing each other. Promote the volume of patronage you’ve generated and create opportunities for public displays of support. Fancy sticks don’t hurt either.