Corporate gaslighting, absentee leaders and the emotions of work
Laura McHale asks whether the inability to ‘manage ambiguity’ is a personal failing or an excuse for bad management.
07 November 2023
This is an updated and extended version of an online article.
One of my clients, a respected senior manager at a major international firm, recently had to lay off a third of her department. In the aftermath of the redundancies, her previously high-performing team was experiencing plummeting engagement and morale. She raised her concerns at a strategy meeting with senior leaders, along with recommendations for how the company might address them. She was met with stony silence and then resistance. One member of the leadership team suggested that she was not ‘supporting the change initiative’ and another cautioned, rather menacingly, that she was not ‘being a team player’. Not only were her observations dismissed as flawed, she was criticised for sharing them in the first place. In short, she was gaslighted.
This pattern has repeated over and over in recent months, as organisations continue to tighten their belts amidst persistent economic and geopolitical uncertainty. This is the case even though the evidence in support of lay-offs is negligible, with few companies actually achieving the financial gains they seek (Sucher & Westner, 2022). And the impact can be severe, including stress-related illness, reduced loyalty and trust, and family distress – for those made redundant and those surviving the cull (Carrington, 2016; Pfeffer, 2022).
Corporate narratives and executive communications have become loaded with generalised platitudes – such as ‘we are well on track with our strategic review’ – and implicit admonitions, such as thanking employees ‘for their support’ – that are conspicuously insensitive to the fear that comes from the increasingly precarious nature of work. Thought-terminating clichés are used in place of dialogue, critical thinking, and problem-solving. Are we now be experiencing ‘peak gaslighting’, as evident in the corporate sphere as it is in the political?
Symptoms of systemic dysfunction
A particularly sly form of gaslighting occurs when people have difficulty coping. Psychologists have long known, and neuroscience proves, that lack of control and an inability to shape one’s environment are intense stress triggers (Ghadiri et al., 2012). Yet manifestations of anxiety and overwhelm at work are usually framed as a kind of personal or professional failing, rather than symptoms of a larger, systemic dysfunction. Or even more, as adaptive challenges that need leadership commitment, in partnership with employees, to help resolve (Heifetz et al., 2009).
Job descriptions reveal a growing trend in asking for candidates who can ‘cope with uncertainty’ and ‘manage ambiguity’ – competencies which can also be performance evaluation criteria. There’s no doubt that these skills matter: changing markets, shifting organisational realities, and dizzying technological advances all require resilience and dexterity to navigate. But it’s also true that the ability to ‘manage ambiguity’ banner puts the onus on individual employees, allowing leaders a free pass to ignore the underlying structural and managerial challenges that create uncertainty and ambiguity in the first place.
Gaslighting points to a larger drift toward ‘absentee leadership’ in modern organisations (Hogan et al., 2022). Absentee leadership is defined as leadership that fails to lift off; where individuals occupy leadership positions (and enjoy their attending privileges), but neglect to fulfil many of leadership’s core responsibilities. These include skills and behaviours such as providing clear direction, protection, orienting employees to their roles, and setting and reinforcing group norms (Heifetz et al., 2009).
Absentee leadership is one of the most pervasive examples of adverse organisational behaviour – reported seven times more than behaviours such as bullying and aggression (Aasland et al., 2010; Hogan et al., 2022; Skogstad et al., 2007). Yet, it usually flies under the radar. It’s not as overtly destructive as incidents such as shouting and abuse; it moves by stealth, a phantom creep underlying many workplace interactions. But make no mistake, absentee leadership is toxic. It can cause significant psychological distress, especially around neglect and social exclusion. It also leads to poorer organisational outcomes, by sapping motivation and loyalty.
Like other forms of gaslighting, it’s also about what absentee leadership can reveal, such as misplaced organisational priorities and poor leadership accountability – particularly when HR indicators suggest decreased morale, lack of engagement, and high turnover.
The emotional experience of work
Gaslighting and absentee leadership may also be contributing to a sharp uptick in levels of workplace anger. Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace Report 2023 shows that almost 20 per cent of UK professionals report feeling strong anger at work (with a global average of 21 per cent) – and 90 per cent of workers are disengaged (Berwick, 2023).
What is all the anger about? Well, absentee leadership is especially sneaky in the way it marginalises legitimate needs around leader presence. The experience can lead employees to blame themselves for having these needs in the first place as if they are somehow shameful or irrational. Then, if employers expect and ask their staff to manage increasing amounts of ambiguity and uncertainty, that puts the burden on individuals rather than leadership systems. It also disables inquiry and discourse around root causes and adaptive solutions for ambiguity and uncertainty.
It’s also the case that anger and other psychological injuries at work can be due to the psychodynamics of these complex human systems. Organisations and leaders tend to have a limited repertoire in terms of the emotions that they ‘allow’ or tacitly encourage and reward (Kantor, 2012). They want people to be motivated, engaged, authentic, and proactive (to use some of the preferred terminology in workplace jargon). But they get uncomfortable when people are unhappy, disappointed, demoralised, or grieving.
Organisations and leaders may be even more unskilled when their own defence mechanisms kick in, revealing a larger issue around failing to acknowledge the richness – both positive and negative – of the emotional experience of work. Esther Perel’s recent exploration of this topic is so compelling because she illuminates how profound work really is, full of exultant joys and bitter disappointments. Even workplace relationships, which can be some of the most significant in our lives, are often given short shrift, as if they aren’t ‘real’ when compared to those in our personal lives. Granted, work may require some degree of inauthenticity and manipulation as we navigate complex dynamics, but the disregard of fundamental emotional and social needs around employment is vexing. Especially when the trauma of working for a toxic boss, or not getting a promotion that was promised, can feel like a punch in the gut, reverberating in the body for years upon recalling the event, even when an employee has moved on to bigger and better things.
Organisational behaviour in context
Of course, most leaders are good people and do not mean to gaslight. The majority work very hard and care deeply about their employees. Leaders do a huge amount of invisible work, not seen by the rank and file, to make people’s lives better. That creates a strange type of cognitive dissonance, even with leaders we like and admire.
We also need to put organisational behaviour in context. For this, it’s helpful to borrow from structuralism by considering the interaction of work and our societies at large. Indeed, it’s no coincidence that failures of leadership in organisations reflect larger failures in society more generally. And although politics has always been something of a cesspit, it seems to have reached a particularly low point in recent years – corresponding to a marked devolution in pro-social corporate leadership. American law professors William Black and June Carbone, in their crackerjack body of work, have argued that the ‘managerial era’ of executive stewardship in the US’s post-war period –which saw dramatic reductions in both corporate fraud and income inequality – has undergone a dark transformation to the ‘agency cost era’ of today, which emphasises the CEO as capitalist, a focus on short-term share prices, and dramatic upswings in corporate malfeasance and scandal. Leadership in this context is murky indeed, with huge knock-on effects downstream in organisations.
Many organisations are also reflecting the creeping hard-right drift of many democracies and the resurgence of authoritarianism on the global stage. Echoing the current state of leadership, political and corporate discourse have become inundated with thought-terminating clichés, black-and-white thinking, and other cognitive distortions. We are seeing what Hannah Arendt, in The Origins of Totalitarianism, described as a combination of cynicism and gullibility, causing people to become highly susceptible to disinformation, propaganda, and of course, splitting and projection.
Clients also tell me of sadness and even despair; which is why shining a spotlight on absentee leadership and gaslighting is so important.
What can occupational psychologists do?
First, we need to get smarter about recognising gaslighting and getting at the root of why it’s happening. Gaslighting is a canary in the coal mine. Leadership teams are just like individuals, and construct defence mechanisms – sometimes elaborate ones – to avoid acknowledging uncomfortable or painful emotions (Obholzer & Roberts, 2019). These can include difficulty conceding failure, a fear of being blamed, and perhaps even an unspoken sense of shame. These things need to be talked about and brought into the sunlight – particularly among senior executives.
As psychologists the world over know, when people realise that many of their private experiences – especially painful ones – have a name and are studied as real phenomena, it can come as an enormous relief. My own work on absentee leadership has inspired many readers to contact me and thank me for describing their experiences so aptly, which has helped place these experiences in a larger context and frame – and perhaps feel a little less lonely. And while it’s always gratifying to know one’s work has made a difference, it’s also telling that almost all of this feedback is done privately – not visible to the prying eyes of colleagues or managers on social media. This speaks to the larger issue of not being able to discuss these things out loud, part of the cycle of invisibility in which absentee leadership thrives.
Many leaders, as well as employees, don’t like the status quo, and seek to be change agents in their organisations. But complex problems require complex solutions, and it’s going to take some time to work our way (no pun intended) out of this one. We can start by recognising that employees have legitimate needs for better leadership at work and that we need to proactively engage in discussions around leader presence.
It also requires that we fundamentally rethink the nature of work. Two venerable pioneers in organisational behaviour, David Cooperrider and Leslie Sekerka, wisely observed that organisations reflect our deepest assumptions about humanity. They also posited that inquiry and change are simultaneous events. Conversations about leadership require sunlight, courage, and inquiry. Only then can we see about change.
On a practical level, occupational psychologists can also partner with corporate communicators to help them draft smarter internal communications, which consider how ambiguous language, weasel words, and other linguistic contortions often trigger threat responses in the brain (McHale, 2022).
We can also fight gaslighting by encouraging the organisations we work with to not ignore the psychological injuries of work – by honouring reactions to them as legitimate and providing resources and training around emotional wellness. We can help them assess, hire, and promote leaders who can recognise and will not tolerate gaslighting – who can do the hard work of understanding themselves enough to overcome their resistance to being challenged, and role model to the rest of the organisation that this is safe.
This doesn’t mean emboldening bullies and trolls. Nor does it mean that employees are always ‘right’. It does mean respecting the value of dissent and respecting the courage that it takes to speak truth to power. We work to help our clients build the kinds of organisations we all want to work in, where people can make a difference, and we need this now more than ever.
Dr Laura McHale (PsyD, CPsychol) is a Hong Kong-based leadership psychologist and managing director of Conduit Consultants Limited. She is the author of Neuroscience for Organizational Communication: A Guide for Communicators and Leaders (Palgrave Macmillan, 2022).
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