Gaslighting at Work—and What to Do About It
Mita Mallick, head of inclusion, equity, and impact at the firm Carta, says gaslighting at the office is more common than many people realize. That’s when a manager or coworker engages in behavior where one thing happens, and they try to convince the victim otherwise. Gaslighting can damage the victim’s well-being and performance as well as the company overall. She explains how to recognize the manipulative behavior, what to do about it in the moment, and how companies can respond. Mallick wrote the HBR.org article “How to Intervene When a Manager Is Gaslighting Their Employees.”
CURT NICKISCH: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Curt Nickisch.
Have you ever come out of a work meeting where you did not understand what just happened, or why? Like, why was that person presenting the idea that you suggested at a previous meeting? Or wait, why did that supervisor do an about face and act like it’s totally normal? We’ve been taught to try to see things from other peoples’ perspective in the workplace, to fix things that you can control, like your communication and your collaboration. It’s easy to feel some self-doubt when things go awry. Like, “None of this is how I remember it. What am I doing wrong?” Well, maybe it’s not you.
Our guest today says that at some point in our working lives, we’re likely to deal with a toxic behavior called gaslighting. That’s the idea that someone can make someone else question their memory, their perception of reality. In the workplace, it’s often a manager doing this. They pretend not to understand, they change the subject, they trivialize your feelings, or they deny that something happened. And it’s exasperating deal with. When you’re being gaslit, it hurts your self-esteem, mental health, and job performance.
Joining me today is Mita Mallick. She’s the head of inclusion, equity, and impact at the firm Carta. And she wrote the hbr.org article, How To Intervene When A Manager Is Gaslighting Their Employees. Mita, welcome.
MITA MALLICK: Thank you so much for having me.
CURT NICKISCH: Now, this is a word that’s been used quite a bit in headlines. How do you define this colloquialism, gaslighting, especially when it comes to the workplace?
MITA MALLICK: Well, my really simple definition, I’ll start with, Curt, is if we were sitting next to each other right now, and I just turned around and slapped you across the face. And you looked at me and you said, “Mita, why did you slap me across the face?” I just looked at you and said, “I didn’t slap you across the face. That didn’t happen.”
That’s my really simple explanation when I think of gaslighting, but it is this form of psychological abuse where an individual tries to gain power and control over you. That would be particularly in the workplace. Similar to personal relationships where the term gaslighting has historically been used. It is this idea of lying to you to intentionally set you up to fail. The undermining, manipulation, and convincing you that you are the problem.
CURT NICKISCH: Yeah. Give me an example now of slapping across the face in a workplace setting.
MITA MALLICK: Yeah, I think one that is one that commonly happened to me is this idea of, which we all do, putting together work that you want to present, and my former manager saying, “Yes, of course you’re going to come present. Yes, I want you to come present. Yes, I’m going to send you the invite. Yes, I already sent it to you.” And they never actually have the intention of having you come to the meeting and/or present. So here you are checking texts and emails, and you think, “Well, the meeting’s at 2:00, it’s 1:30 now. They said I was going to present, but I don’t have an invite or an email.” And then later on, after the meeting has happened and you weren’t invited, someone reaching out to say, “Well, oh, it’s too bad that you weren’t in town. We would’ve loved to have seen you present your proposal.” That is just one of many examples that can occur in the workplace, of how gaslighting shows up.
And I think what’s dangerous is the accumulation of these incidents. Because the one incident happened, okay. But it happens again and again and again, and it can have a devastating impact on one’s sense of self-confidence and self-worth, because it happens over and over again. And then you actually start to think you are the problem. The gaslighter has convinced you that actually you’re the problem, not person who was gaslighting you.
CURT NICKISCH: What did you do when this happened to you?
MITA MALLICK: I left. I did end up documenting, journaling. The piece I wrote for HBR was in writing for many years, in my head and in journals. Because I think that’s what happens is because you start to doubt yourself, “I’m making more of this than it is. Maybe they didn’t actually invite me. Maybe they didn’t paint a negative narrative of me externally or to other leaders.” You start to doubt. So I think one of the things is to actually document to understand if it is gaslighting. And I think trust your instincts, because if you do feel that you are the target of gaslighting, you likely are.
CURT NICKISCH: It’s interesting that you felt like you had to leave, though, this company. Because that technically is a situation where we have a lot of advice on hbr.org about how to confront a supervisor about something. You can go with facts and you can go with “I feel” statements. Can we just talk about the power dynamic and why fighting this in that situation can be so hard?
MITA MALLICK: I think it can be really hard is because, in my situation, the former leader had a significant span of control in the organization. So power dynamics are a huge play here. Now, in our discussion, I am talking about the boss gaslighting the employee. It can also be peer to peer. In my situation, when there’s power dynamics, it becomes extremely difficult. I think also from the lens of identifying as a brown woman, and being, in many places and spaces where I show up, the lonely only, as I say, it can even be harder. Because if you don’t have allies within an organization that you can go to and you can ask for help, and you can say, “This is what I’ve documented. This is what’s happened to me. I need help.” I didn’t have that. So that is actually why I decided to write the piece because I wish that I had more allies and more people had seen what was happening to me.
And w hat I would also say is that somebody who is a gaslighter, it’s likely just not that one time or to that one individual, there likely is a pattern, but the individuals who are the targets of gaslighting aren’t necessarily talking to each other because the gaslighter will do a really good job of making that person feel really isolated and alone.
CURT NICKISCH: Yeah. What’s the motivation for people doing this? Because, I mean, you talked about gaslighting really about being a way to exercise and gain power over somebody, but a supervisor does already have power over somebody. What do you think is happening in their minds?
MITA MALLICK: Well, Curt, you might have to have a psychologist on for that portion.
CURT NICKISCH: Okay. All right.
MITA MALLICK: But what I will say, and I’m not a psychologist, but what I believe, and this is something that I will not take credit for, it’s something that the mayor of Atlanta said, which is that hurt people, hurt people. When you are deeply wounded, some people lash out in different ways. So that could be why this individual is gaslighting.
They could have been the target of gaslighting themselves and they are continuing to role model the only type of leadership they know. They could be incredibly insecure, which likely they are. And somebody who is gaslighting at work, they could also be doing this in their personal life. It is how they just operate and move through the world. And sadly, derive some sort of satisfaction from doing this to other individuals.
That is when organizations really need to think about the impact that individual is having. I would argue that coaching is not going to help a situation like that. I would think that this leader needs to go and get help, and then maybe come back at some point. Because I do think people deserve second chances, but that’s my view.
CURT NICKISCH: The article that you wrote, you talked a little bit about this, but I want to get into this a little deeper. You wrote it for the benefit of other managers looking on. How to intervene when you see another supervisor gaslighting their direct reports. Can you talk more about why you wrote this article specifically for other managers looking on?
MITA MALLICK: I wrote it because I wish other people were looking out for me when this was happening to me. It’s as simple as that.
CURT NICKISCH: Other people with power.
MITA MALLICK: Other people with power, absolutely. Other people with power. Now, in my situation, because the former manager boss had a significant span of control in the organization, that wasn’t a choice for me. That individual actually blocked me – every attempt I was making to move somewhere else within the organization. I think that there is hope that if you can find allies and leaders who can be helping you in the organization, that they can use their social and political capital to help you get a different assignment on a different team.
CURT NICKISCH: Yeah, that assisting employees and finding a new opportunity is one of the points you made for how managers and leaders should try to prevent and kind of subvert gaslighting that’s happening at their organization. Where do they start, though, when they first see it or they first hear about it, or they first just see an exchange in a meeting and wonder? What do you recommend people be looking out for and be trying to do?
MITA MALLICK: Yeah, I think that’s a great question. If you are, Curt, in a meeting with me and you see something that tells you, “There’s something off here.” Your instincts are telling you, “Something is happening with Mita.” You should pull me aside, try to grab a virtual coffee with me, if you’re meeting in person these days, and just start to get to know me and ask questions and start to build the trust. Because likely, I am desperate. I am wanting to have someone to talk to and share about this who will believe me. So this is really key. Believe me, I wish more people believed to me. I don’t know the stats, but in my experience, it is very rare that someone would make up gaslighting to the extreme, especially of what I went through, and I know what others have been through.
I think to build on the question, Curt, is what are some of the signs that you might see? Watch for patterns during conversations. For example, the gossiping and joking is a big one. So if you’re in leadership meetings and you see my boss gossiping and joking about me, and trying to create a negative narrative or seed the roots, that’s your job as a fellow leader, to say, “Well, tell me more about why you are saying these things.” Or, “What have your experiences been been with Mita?” Asking them a lot of open-ended questions, because then that puts them on the spot to have to provide more evidence on why they’re drawing these conclusions on me. “Okay, provide the evidence,” right?
CURT NICKISCH: Because it’s going to come in the form of conclusions when they talk about it. They’re going to say, “This person’s not a good performer or not a good team member,” or fill in the blank. You have to not take that at face value.
MITA MALLICK: Yes. And you have to ask, “Well, that …” You would say, “Well, that hasn’t been my experience with Mita. I think she’s ready for a promotion. Here’s the things I’ve seen.” You know what? Maybe when Curt speaks up, maybe then Mary will speak up. And maybe someone else will say, “Actually, yeah, that’s not my experience with Mita.” Leaders who are in positions of power, you then start to destabilize, as I say, the gaslighter, right? You start to-
CURT NICKISCH: As a manager, you’ve seen these signs. You’ve questioned the gaslighting manager, the gaslighter. You’ve maybe built some trust and had some conversations, and you see more signs and you believe the employee that this is happening. What happens next?
MITA MALLICK: One of the other things I recommend is, using the same example, Curt, you as a leader, who’s watching me be the target of gaslighting, is for you to also be documenting things that you’re seeing, and for you to come with me to HR. I think that sends a huge signal, when another leader is coming as well, versus just the individual who is being targeted.
Because like I said, where there’s smoke, there’s fire. This is likely not the first time this person has done this. It could have been in another organization and this organization’s not privy to that, but it’s likely not the first time.
CURT NICKISCH: Why is this so important? Like, why should managers and leaders try to prevent gaslighting from happening at their organizations now?
MITA MALLICK: The most important reason is if you want to keep your great talent, you will absolutely put an end to any gaslighting that’s happening in your organization. I think, as we’ve seen, Curt, with the great resignation or the great awakening as I like to call it, people will leave. They will no longer tolerate being abused, devalued, not recognized, not included. So if you are looking to hold on to your talent, who is the backbone of your company, your company doesn’t exist without your talent, this is something that should be top of mind for all leaders.
CURT NICKISCH: You’ve hinted at this, but it sounds like this is particularly … You’ve hinted at this, but it sounds like this is particularly important then through the lens of diversity and inclusion.
MITA MALLICK: Absolutely. As we’ve talked about in terms of power dynamics, if you are in a situation where you already are feeling alone, or a bit isolated, the gaslighter can come in and actually use that as an opportunity to isolate you even further.
CURT NICKISCH: Like a wedge, yeah.
MITA MALLICK: Yes. And then you feel more and more like you’re on an island by yourself, and you have nobody to talk to or get support from or ask for help.
CURT NICKISCH: If you see it happening to a colleague, maybe you share the same boss doing this. Is it possible to intervene when you’re not sort of that gaslighting manager’s peer?
MITA MALLICK: It might be possible. In particular, if you have a good relationship with that manager. It might be. And it might be a situation, “Well, I think Mita should be invited on that trip with us.” Or, “She should be invited to present that proposal that she pulled together for us.” Gaslighters are also very good at, in that moment, they might say yes and agree, and then come back to the target and unleash on them more. That happened to me as well. I think that it is unpredictable the ways in which the boss who is gaslighting will respond. So, just as we’re having this discussion, it’s important to brainstorm different alternatives and possibilities. And then again, weigh the risk and weigh what you feel comfortable doing at that time.
I think it’s difficult when it’s a peer. I think it’s difficult when the peer’s also on that team. I will tell you, that was my situation. Where, as I left, I discovered I wasn’t the only one. But also, there were peers who did not want to get involved, for exactly what you just mentioned, is also fear of retaliation and fear of their own careers and livelihood.
CURT NICKISCH: Mita, there are people listening to this who are the offenders, they’re the gaslighters. Whether they’re doing it consciously or instinctively, it’s just a numbers game here, right? Some of the listeners of this show are hearing this and realizing, or just wondering if they’re doing it themselves. Here’s your chance to talk to them. What would you say to them?
MITA MALLICK: I would say that you really need help to go heal yourself. I’m going to go back to that phrase, hurt people, hurt people. So, what is it that’s happened to you that makes you lash out this way and makes you interact with people this way? Likely, it’s much deeper than a 30 minute coaching session, to be honest.
So I think to be honest with yourself. If a gaslighter can be this self-aware, amazing. To sit down and write down, “How are all the times … when did you do this and why? And how could you be showing up for your people differently?” And then I would say, honestly, to go get help. To get help to understand why this is something that is part of your leadership style, your behaviors. I would argue that somebody who is gaslighting at work likely is also doing that in their personal life. So, as we’ve learned, especially in these last 19 months, there’s no separation right now for many of us between work and home. So these things are also likely creeping up in other relationships they have outside of work.
CURT NICKISCH: Prepping for the show, I read up that gaslighting came from a play called Gaslight, right? About a husband who really manipulated his wife. There’s that experience in a movie or the theater, where as an audience you’re seeing this happen, and you see how people are reacting and you’re watching the tragedy of it. But here, you’re giving people who are in the audience, other managers, other colleagues who are seeing this happen a way to actually speak up and do something about it, and to stop the play from going forward. We really appreciate your time and telling your story to help address this situation in the workplace.
MITA MALLICK: Thank you so much, Curt. I hope someone hears our conversation, and as a result, takes a different action or step, whether they are the target of gaslighting, or they are the gaslighter, because we all deserve to be in places where we’re celebrated. That’s what we all deserve.
CURT NICKISCH: Thanks, Mita.
MITA MALLICK: Thanks, Curt.
CURT NICKISCH: That’s Mita Mallick. She’s the head of inclusion, equity and impact at Carta, and she wrote the article, How To Intervene When A Manager Is Gaslighting Their Employees. You can read it at hbr.org.
If you like this episode, you might also like the conversation with Dorie Clark on how to make strategic career decisions even during a crisis. That’s episode 821.
This episode was produced by Mary Dooe. We get technical help from Rob Eckhardt. Thanks for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. I’m Curt Nickisch.