Aké Satia is the Chief Vision Officer at Aké Satia, a Human Capital firm in the DC area focused on strengthening organizations by bolstering the intersection of people strategy and business strategy.



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Gaslighting in the Cubicle!

Dear reader,

Some exciting news!!
Every so often, I take a sabbatical. And it is time for another!
This sabbatical is born of a realization that we thrive when we engage with luminaries, i.e., people who effuse wisdom, ignite new ways of thinking, and stir our minds. And on this exploration, I will engage with such people. I look forward to giving, learning, and laughing a lot! 😊

Now onto today’s piece!

Last week, in the second piece of the mini-series, The Impact of Language at Work, we discussed the practice called Cancelling. And it was apparent that canceling is a behavior that does not just happen on social media or in personal relationships. – It also happens in the workplace! Perhaps you have experienced this or know someone who has. To read more, you may check out the piece: Business in the era of Cancel Culture!_BLOGS_akesatia.com

Today, we will explore another term: Gaslighting!

Clouding Judgment and Reality!

Have you heard of gaslighting?

The term gaslighting is commonly used in conversation nowadays! You may hear this word in a discussion between friends, neighbors, or loved ones. And this prompts the question: What is gaslighting?
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, gaslighting is the psychological manipulation of a person, usually over an extended period, that causes the victim to question the validity of their thoughts, perception of reality, or memories. Gaslighting Definition & Meaning – Merriam-Webster 

Whoa! Sounds unpleasant!
The first time I learned the meaning of gaslighting, negative emotions surfaced! Because I have seen this happen way too many times! And in most cases, it seemed someone was intentionally messing with another person’s mind. Notably, sometimes people may gaslight others without knowing the damage they are causing. But of course, even when gaslighting is born out of a lapse in judgment, it does not justify the action or make it any less damaging.

Dangers of Gaslighting!

And this would lead one to ask: Why is gaslighting dangerous?

Simply put, gaslighting is a form of mental, psychological, or emotional abuse. It occurs when a person or group causes someone to question reality and doubt themselves. And this can be incredibly painful! Indeed, some who have experienced this trauma say it is worse than physical abuse in some ways. Because when one is gaslit, it may take a while to realize what is happening as one cannot see the wounds16 Gaslighting Phrases that Are Red Flags | The Healthy @Reader’s Digest
Also, the victim may wallow in a state of confusion, blame themselves for how they feel, lose confidence and self-esteem, and develop a dependency on the perpetrator. I bet you’d agree this sounds horrendous!

However, for many of us, the thought of lighting gas evokes sweet memories of preparing dinner for loved ones and family BBQs. But the meaning of gaslighting evokes an entirely different sentiment! Why?

Origins of Gaslighting

The term: gaslighting, comes from the 1938 stage play Gas Light. In the play, to drive a wife crazy, a husband dims the lights (which were powered by gas) in their home, and when his wife points out that the light changed, he denies it, leading her to believe she has a mental illness. What is gaslighting? | The National Domestic Violence Hotline (thehotline.org)

As in the play Gas Light, gaslighting is an effective form of abuse because it causes one to question their sanity and grants the abuser power. And this leads to a series of questions: Does gaslighting happen in my organization? How? And what can a leader do about it?

Gaslighting in the Workplace!

Upon reflecting on interactions with workers or situations you witnessed, you might see signs of gaslighting. And this could be distressing because it is! However, this awareness is invaluable because, as the saying goes: knowledge is power!

The National Domestic Violence Hotline shares a variety of ways in which gaslighting can happen. These include countering, withholding, trivializing, blocking/ diverting, forgetting/ denial, and stereotyping. To explore further, you may check out the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
Here, I will focus on one of the main ways gaslighting shows up professionally and the devastating effects that endure. – And that is withholding!

Withholding in the Cubicle: “I have what you need, but I will not give it to you!”

It is unrealistic and incautious to share everything with everyone and every stranger in passing. However, one must get the needed information to succeed at their job. And withholding required information is a way in which people are gaslit in organizations! I’ll share a story to make this real!

A few years ago, I met a worker who joined a company in a managerial role. She managed nine employees, and one of them, Thomas, also applied for her manager position. But he did not get the job! Notably, Thomas had been at the company for 14 years. He worked his way up from an entry-level position, felt he had paid his dues as a loyal employee, and was entitled to the promotion. And he was not pleased when he did not get the manager role – to put it mildly!

Discontent and frustrated, Thomas leveraged his tenure and contextual knowledge to consistently make his manager doubt her knowledge and understanding of the organization. Specifically, when she requested information or context on situations, he often said: You can find that information on the team SharePoint site, without telling her where. 

Also, in team meetings, when she raised suggestions on process improvements, his default response was: We tried that approach several years ago, and the clients did not like it. You don’t get the business or know the clients, so you don’t know! 

This behavior continued for several months! And the manager, though very experienced and successful in the discipline, began to doubt her ability to do the job. And she sought assistance from her leader. Ironically, her leader and Thomas started at the company in the same year and were friends. And her leader prioritized her friendship with Thomas, made excuses for his behavior, and did anything but address his negative behavior, thereby fracturing the team.

An organizational leader’s role in extinguishing gaslighting fumes!

While this story has a doomsday tone, I suspect it is not the first time you have heard about such a situation. Fortunately, an organizational leader can take several steps to alleviate the damage that such a situation can cause. First, leaders must approach workers (especially new hires) with curiosity. Specifically, ask employees about their perspective on the work, the work environment, and what you can do to help.

Second, the leader must set an example of treating others respectfully.
In addition, the leader must speak up about negative and positive behaviors and their impact on the business.

Knowing that gaslighting happens in an organization can be distressing to a leader. And one would be hard-pressed to hear a person describe their behavior as gaslighting. However, the behavior is the sign! And to dampen the negative effects, one must respond appropriately to such behavior.
Indeed, to maintain a healthy organizational culture, gaslighting fumes must be extinguished.

I hope this serves you well.

I look forward to returning with lots to share later in March. Be well and see you soon. Or as we say in French: Porte toi bien et à bientôt!

For you and to you,



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