11 Warning Signs That Your Boss is Gaslighting You at Work

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The work environment is usually stressful, one way or another, whether you’re flipping burgers at McDonald's or are employed at a prestigious corporation. There are tasks to complete, deadlines to meet, and sometimes difficult co-workers to deal with. So, the last thing you want to deal with is a gaslighting boss.

Gaslighting at work involves manipulation by your manager or supervisor, usually to undermine your performance and overall ability to function. The individual could make your day-to-day experience a living hell and, according to BetterUp, cause you to dread going to the office.

Continue reading to learn what gaslighting means, the signs, and how to cope when it happens at work.

What Is Gaslighting?

The term gaslighting is used to refer to a form of psychological manipulation where the perpetrator tries to convince you that you’re losing your mind or can’t trust your own memory, perceptions, and judgment. Manipulative tactics are often used to mess with your mind whether the gaslighter is your boss or a loved one.

In the instant case, your boss may achieve this goal by denying things that happened or minimizing your feelings or experiences. Changing the details of what transpired or causing you to feel responsible for their mistakes are other gaslighting tactics.

As a form of abuse, gaslighting can have implications for your mental health and ability to carry out your duties. Whether experienced at work or in close relationships, gaslighting typically has similar psychological effects. These include dreading the workplace, which can lead to worry, panic, anxiety, depression, and missing work.

Other effects are low productivity and a drop in performance. In addition to questioning your own reality, you may also experience lowered self-esteem, or grow hypervigilant. For example, becoming preoccupied with avoiding mistakes to prevent your boss from getting on your case.

You may feel like you always have to tip-toe around them so as not to draw their attention or upset them. The uneasiness can lead to avoiding your boss or resigning altogether.

Why Do People Gaslight You? 

The term “gaslight” became popular after the 1944 movie, Gaslight. In it, a man intentionally kept lying to his wife about his actions when she questioned whether he kept doing something to cause the gaslight in the home to dim.

The husband kept denying he was responsible, causing her to think she was going insane. Convincing her she’s insane would help him commit her to a psychiatric ward. He could then steal her inheritance.

Against this backdrop, it’s safe to say a person may resort to gaslighting to cover their wrongdoings or make you mentally off-balance. Interestingly, gaslighting could be done intentionally or unconsciously. Either way, you’re likely to begin questioning your own abilities and judgment at work or feel inadequate or worthless.

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Personal attacks such as this are a strategic way to make you doubt yourself and cause a downward spiral in performance.

Manipulation is a socially learned behavior to maintain power over others. It then becomes an automatic response whenever the individual feels they’re losing control of a situation. That’s according to Robin Stern, Ph.D., co-founder and associate director for the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. Stern is also the author of The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life.

While anyone can end up gaslighting someone, even without realizing it, certain individuals do so knowingly. I’m referring to extremely controlling or devious people, such as malignant narcissists and psychopaths. They use clever tactics to manipulate and exploit others for self-serving reasons or to cause mental or physical harm. Vulnerable people are most often the target.

11 Signs Your Boss Is Gaslighting You

A gaslighting boss may use subtle tactics to confuse you and diminish your self-esteem. To tell if this is happening, you’ll need to pay close attention to his behavior and conduct when dealing with you. Let’s take a look at 11 signs that represent gaslighting at work. They include acts by your manager and how they leave you feeling.

#1. Your Boss Uses Gaslighting Phrases

An easy way to spot gaslighting is by paying attention to what your boss says to you. Top red flag phrases or questions are “Why are you overreacting to such a small matter?” Is everything okay? You’ve been acting strange and crazy lately.”

Another famous one is “What are you talking about? You’re not making sense.” These phrases or questions are intended to make you feel stupid or incompetent. Those are hurtful things to hear and injurious to your mental health and self-esteem.

#2. Your Boss Frequently Lies or Denies Things

An effective way for gaslighters to keep their victims off-balance is by causing them to question their senses. It could be something they saw, heard, felt, or experienced. In this case, your boss tries to dismiss your memory as false or bad by completely denying she ever did or said something.

Example statements include “You’re remembering wrong” or “That’s not how it happened.” Of course, you’re left feeling confused or may begin questioning your own memory. In other cases, a supervisor who wants to mentally destabilize you may put their own spin on what exactly happened. This may cause you to question your sense of reality.

#3. Your Boss Makes Empty/False Promises

Lying and denying are two common manipulative tactics used by gaslighters. Your boss may promise you a raise if you complete a big project, knowing from the get-go they have no intention of fulfilling the promise. They’re in effect lying to you.

They’re just using you to get something done, perhaps because it’s something outside the scope of your work responsibilities.

In some cases, a manager may have a beef with a staff member and decide to make false promises to anger or make the person feel small. They usually do these things to individuals they believe are weak or powerless to do anything about it. For example, confronting them or reporting them to human resources.

#4. Your Boss Launches Personal Attacks on You

For example, by saying, “How did you get this job, again? I thought you had the qualifications.” He’ll say this to imply that you’re ineffective at your job. Personal attacks such as this are a strategic way to make you doubt yourself and cause a downward spiral in performance. You may begin second-guessing your ability to perform your work competently.

Ironically, making you feel incapable of functioning in your capacity at work can lower your self-esteem. That in turn can lead to a drop in productivity. Your toxic boss may want to achieve this outcome, so he could write a bad report on you or get you fired.

#5. Your Boss Keeps Changing Your Roles and Responsibilities

Clear, well-defined occupational roles and work responsibilities help make it easier for you to perform tasks efficiently. Otherwise, you won’t be sure how to proceed and are more likely to make mistakes.

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Being constantly met with criticism over mundane things may eventually take a toll on your self-image as an employee.

If your boss frequently changes how you should perform a particular job, take that as a red flag. This keeps putting you in a position to ask how to perform a task when a sudden change is made.

As a result, your manager gets a chance to put you down for not knowing how to function. Chances are they’re also trying to undermine your output and later use it as an opportunity to launch an attack on your competence level for the job.

#6. Your Boss Makes You Question Your Ability to Do Your Job

“How long have you held this position, what, one year? and you still don’t know how to do your job properly? This is an example of something he may say to insult your intelligence or imply you’re not fit for the job.

The gaslighting statement may come as a response to a question you asked. He may scoff at you or imply you’ve asked an obvious or ridiculous question.

In some cases, your boss may directly question your performance ability by comparing you unfairly to co-workers who’ve held the same position longer than you have. He may instruct you to sign up for a special class or get help from a work colleague to improve your abilities.

#7. Your Boss Gives You Backhanded Compliments

A boss whose agenda is to make you feel inferior is going to humiliate you by making snide remarks about your race, gender, or work ethic. Sometimes, they do so in front of others. In other cases, they’ll use sarcasm or backhanded compliments to hurt your feelings.

For example, saying “At last, you succeeded at completing the assignment correctly. Never mind it took you three tries.” The statement is actually a criticism disguised as praise. They’re really telling you that you lack the skills for the job or are a slow learner.

If they realize their statement is upsetting, they’ll brush it off by saying, “Relax, I was just joking.” Another tactic is to minimize your feelings, either by saying you’re thin-skinned or asking why you’re overreacting.

#8. Your Boss is Never Satisfied with Your Performance

Do you feel as if you could never do your job satisfactorily enough for your supervisor? No matter how much you follow the procedures to a ‘T’, she’s able to successfully find a fault. If the problem isn’t how you worded an email, it’s some other frivolous criticism about how you did your job.

Being constantly met with criticism over mundane things may eventually take a toll on your self-image as an employee.

Think of it this way. If you were in fact doing your job poorly, why then haven’t you been fired? That alone is an indication your boss is targeting you to reduce your sense of self-worth.

#9. You’re Always Apologizing to Your Boss

It’s not fair for you to be put in a position where you experience fear or dread every time your supervisor comes around. However, having a boss who constantly criticizes your work or attacks your abilities can put you in an awkward position.

You may find yourself frequently apologizing to get them off your back, even for things you haven’t done wrong. These include mistakes your boss made himself plus those of your workmates. You should only apologize for your mistakes and let your boss be accountable for his.

#10. You Feel Like You’re Losing Touch with Reality

Getting gaslighted at work day in and day out can eventually leave you in a state of mental confusion.

You’re no longer sure what to do and how to do it without attracting negative criticism. You keep second-guessing yourself and are always on the lookout for putdowns by your superior.

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As a result of second-guessing yourself or being afraid your boss will criticize you mercilessly, you may find yourself making a lot of mistakes.

You’re also dealing with his lies, denials, and statements that cause you to question your memory, skills, and sanity. You wonder if what you’re experiencing is real or if you’re losing your mind.

If you challenge the way your manager treats you, he’s going to make things worse for you. Either that or he’ll make false reports to human resources about you to make you lose your job.

#11. Your Productivity Level Keeps Dropping

As a result of second-guessing yourself or being afraid your boss will criticize you mercilessly, you may find yourself making a lot of mistakes. Otherwise, you are not sure how to begin doing your task or which procedure is the right or best one to apply.

You feel as if you’re doomed either way. Your boss will micromanage and find something to complain about. They may scrap your work and tell you to do it again. Over time, you keep feeling small or afraid to even go to work.

In a healthy work environment, your manager will take a positive and supportive approach by pointing out errors. They’ll even take time to show you how to avoid the same mistake. Consider it a sign that they want to help you improve your skills, not put down and demean you every chance they get.

How to Handle a Gaslighting Boss

Dealing with gaslighting at work can interfere with your ability to do your job effectively. Fortunately, you can protect yourself from a gaslighting boss. Here are some things you can do:

  • Make a record of conversations.
  • Take notes when they instruct you to do a task.
  • Copy emails to team members when appropriate. 
  • Don’t confront your boss directly. They may retaliate according to Psychology Today. Speak to HR instead.
  • Minimize direct contact.
  • Seek a position in another department.
  • Affirm yourself to prevent a loss of self-esteem, e.g., by reminding yourself daily that you’re a knowledgeable, skilled, and valuable employee.
  • Surround yourself with people who have your best interest at heart.
  • Talk to a counselor or therapist if gaslighting has taken a toll on your mental health.

Final Thoughts on a Gaslighting Boss

In a healthy workplace where there’s no gaslighting, you’re able to develop your knowledge, skills, and abilities. You tend to feel valued and like an asset to the company. However, when confronted with a gaslighter boss, you’ll keep feeling off balance.

Their main goal is to prevent you from succeeding, particularly if they feel threatened by your qualifications or experience. Mind you, the individual might be the same person who gave you endless compliments when you first joined the company.

On the bright side of things, you can rise above the situation by applying the tips provided on how to deal with a gaslighter. For more on this topic, read Gaslighting at Work: 5 Signs, Examples, and Phrases.

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