“We missed you at the leadership team meeting,” our executive vice president messaged me. “Your manager shared an excellent proposal. He said you weren’t available to present. Look forward to connecting soon.”
In our last one-on-one meeting, my manager had enthusiastically said that I, of course, should present the proposal I had labored over for weeks. I double-checked my inbox and texts for my requests to have that meeting invite sent to me. He had never responded. He went on to present the proposal without me.
Excluding me from meetings, keeping me off the list for company leadership programs, and telling me I was on track for a promotion — all while speaking negatively about my performance to his peers and senior leadership — were all red flags in my relationship with this manager. The gaslighting continued and intensified until the day I finally resigned.
Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse where an individual tries to gain power and control over you. They will lie to you and intentionally set you up to fail. They will say and do things and later deny they ever happened. They will undermine you, manipulate you, and convince you that you are the problem. As in my case, at work, the “they” is often a manager who will abuse their position of power to gaslight their employees.
Organizations of all sizes are racing to develop their leaders, spending over $370 billion a year globally on leadership training. Yet research shows that almost 30% of bosses are toxic. Leadership training is only part of the solution — we need leaders to act and hold the managers who report to them accountable when they see gaslighting in action. Here are five things leaders can do when they suspect their managers are gaslighting employees.
Believe employees when they share what’s happening.
The point of gaslighting is to instill self-doubt, so when an employee has the courage to come forward to share their experiences, leaders must start by actively listening and believing them. The employee may be coming to you because they feel safe with you. Their manager might be skilled at managing up, presenting themselves as an inclusive leader while verbally abusing employees. Or they may be coming to you because they feel they’ve exhausted all other options.
Do not minimize, deny, or invalidate what they tell you. Thank them for trusting you enough to share their experiences. Ask them how you can support them moving forward.
Be on the lookout for signs of gaslighting.
“When high performers become quiet and disinterested and are then labeled as low performers, we as leaders of our organizations must understand why,” says Lan Phan, founder and CEO of community of SEVEN, who coaches executives in her curated core community groups. “Being gaslighted by their manager can be a key driver of why someone’s performance is suddenly declining. Over time, gaslighting will slowly erode their sense of confidence and self-worth.”
As a leader, while you won’t always be present to witness gaslighting occurring on your team, you can still look for signs. If an employee has shared their experiences, you can be on high alert to catch subtle signals. Watch for patterns of gaslighting occurring during conversations, in written communication, and activities outside of work hours.
Here are some potential warning signs: A manager who is gaslighting may exclude their employees from meetings. They may deny them opportunities to present their own work. They may exclude them from networking opportunities, work events, and leadership and development programs. They may gossip or joke about them. Finally, they may create a negative narrative of their performance, seeding it with their peers and senior leaders in private and public forums.
Intervene in the moments that matter.
“Intervening in those moments when gaslighting occurs is critical,” says Dee C. Marshall, CEO of Diverse & Engaged LLC, who advises Fortune 100 companies on diversity, equity, and inclusion strategies. “As a leader, you can use your position of power to destabilize the manager who is gaslighting. By doing so, you signal to the gaslighter that you are watching and aware of their actions, and putting them on notice.”
If you see that a manager has excluded one of their employees from a meeting, make sure to invite them and be clear that you extended the invitation. If a manager is creating a negative narrative of an employee’s performance in talent planning sessions, speak up in the moment and ask them for evidence-based examples. Enlist the help of others who have examples of their strong performance. Document what you’re observing on behalf of the employee who is the target of gaslighting.
Isolate the manager who is gaslighting.
If this manager is gaslighting now, this likely isn’t their first time. Enlist the help of human resources and have them review the manager’s team’s attrition rates and exit interview data. Support the employee who is experiencing gaslighting when they share their experiences with HR, including providing your own documentation.
In smaller, more nimble organizations, restructuring happens often and is necessary to scale and respond to the market. Use restructuring as an opportunity to isolate the manager by decreasing their span of control and ultimately making them an individual contributor with no oversight of employees. Ensure that their performance review reflects the themes you and others have documented (and make any feedback from others anonymous). The manager may eventually leave on their own as their responsibilities decrease and their span of control is minimized. In parallel, work with human resources to develop an exit plan for the manager.
Assist employees in finding a new opportunity.
In the meantime, help the targeted employee find a new opportunity. Start with using your social and political capital to endorse them for opportunities on other teams. In my case, the manager gaslighting me had a significant span of control, and my options to leave his team were limited. He blocked me from leaving to go work for other managers when I applied for internal roles. I didn’t have any leaders who could advocate for me and move me to another team. I was ultimately forced to leave the company.
In some cases, even if you can find an internal opportunity for the employee, they won’t stay. They will take an external opportunity to have a fresh start and heal from the gaslighting they experienced from their manager. Stay in touch and be open to rehiring them when the timing is right for them. If you rehire them in the future, make sure that this time they work for a manager who will not only nurture and develop their careers, but one who will treat them with the kindness they deserve.
During the “Great Resignation,” people have had the time and space to think about what’s important to them. Allowing managers who continue to gaslight to thrive in your company will only drive your employees away. They’ll choose to work for organizations that not only value their contributions, but that also respect them as individuals.