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Work and occupational

The new corporate gaslighting

Laura McHale asks whether the inability to ‘manage ambiguity’ is a personal failing, or an excuse for bad management?

25 July 2023

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. However, 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. We may now be experiencing ‘peak gaslighting’, which is as evident in the corporate sphere as it is in the political.

A particularly sly form of gaslighting occurs when individuals 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 occurs when individuals occupy leadership positions but fail to fulfill many of a leader’s core functions. It is, by far, the most common type of destructive leadership – 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. Like other forms of gaslighting, it can reveal misplaced organisational priorities and poor leadership accountability – particularly when HR indicators suggest decreased morale, lack of engagement, and high turnover.

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. Which creates a strange type of cognitive dissonance, even with leaders we like and admire.

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 coalmine. 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.

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)

References

Aasland, M. S., Skogstad, A., Notelaers, G., Nielsen, M. B., & Einarsen, S. (2010). The prevalence of destructive leadership behaviour. British Journal of Management, 21(2), 438–452.

Carrington, L. (2016). A qualitative phenomenological study of employee perceptions of the impact of layoffs (Order No. 10180869). Available from Dissertations & Theses @ Walden University. (1835091785).

Ghadiri, A., Habermacher, A., & Peters, T. (2012). Neuroleadership: A journey through the brain for business leaders. Springer-Verlag.

Heifetz, R. A., Grashow, A., & Linsky, M. (2009). The practice of adaptive leadership: Tools and tactics for changing your organization and the world. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press.

Hogan, R., Kaiser, R.B., Sherman, R.A. & Harms, P.D. (2021). Twenty years on the dark side: six lessons about bad leadership. Consulting Psychology Journal, 73,199-213.

McHale, L. (2022). Neuroscience for organizational communication: A guide for communicators and leaders. Palgrave Macmillan.

Obholzer, A., & Roberts, V. Z. (2019). The unconscious at work: A Tavistock approach to making sense of organizational life. Routledge.

Pfeffer, J. (2022). Why are there so many tech layoffs, and why should we be worried? Stanford scholar explains. Stanford News. 

Skogstad, A., Einarsen, S., Torsheim, T., Aasland, M. S., & Hetland, H. (2007). The destructiveness of laissez-faire leadership behavior. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 12(1), 80–92.

Sucher, S.J. & Westner, M.M. (2022). What companies still get wrong about layoffs. Harvard Business Review