How comms pros can prevent ‘organizational gaslighting’

Corporate leadership coach Melissa Boggs’ new term defines the common disconnect between company promises and employee experience.

Picture this: Employee A is hired by Manager A to work at a well-known tech company. During the recruiting process, Manager A touts the company’s values and ideals to Employee A, telling them all about how workers are encouraged to be self-motivated and look into new projects themselves.

Once Employee A begins work with the company, they continue to hear from managers and the company’s C-suite about how independence is encouraged. However, Employee A soon realizes that workers should be self-motivated in name only, as Employee A can’t get through a single step of a project without having it checked by Manager A.

Employee A might think to themselves, “This isn’t the job I signed up for. Why is everyone talking about independence while, in practice, we’re subjected to tons of oversight?” Employee A might consider looking for another job.

This is an example of what Melissa Boggs calls “organizational gaslighting.”

Boggs, a corporate leadership coach and employee experience designer, coined the term to describe what happens when organizations sell themselves on their company culture but fail to live up to those promises — and do so knowingly, to some degree.

Boggs says company leaders often boast about their organization’s core values — things like employee empowerment or transparency — but then behave in a way that is completely opposite of those values.

“It feels like gaslighting because people are like, ‘Am I crazy? They said these were their values, and they’re still saying that — it wasn’t just in recruiting,’” Boggs says. “‘We have this all-hands, and they’re talking about how much they believe in empowerment. And then the experience that I am having as an employee is in direct contradiction to that.’”

Gaslighting, as defined by Psychology Today, is a form of manipulation in which victims are “deliberately and systematically fed false information that leads them to question what they know to be true, often about themselves.”

Organizational gaslighting isn’t as insidious, as most company leaders aren’t trying to psychologically control their workers. But because it’s a symptom of a broken company culture, rather than one person’s psychological manipulation tactic, it can be harder to identify and mitigate, Boggs says.

“When it’s an organization that is gaslighting you, it’s opaque,” she says. “It’s like you don’t know where to begin to unravel that, and most people don’t.”

And rather than taking the time to unravel a company’s culture problem, most people just leave their jobs. Boggs says organizational gaslighting is yet another cause of the Great Resignation.

“[Organizations] have to convince people that they want to be there,” she says. “And it’s not fair if you’re lying about who you are, you know? It’s like lying on a first date.”

Communicators are in a unique position to help stop (and prevent) the phenomenon.

Boggs says comms pros, both internal and external, could be the last line of defense against C-suite members or managers who are poised to take actions that don’t align with company values.

“For years, I have told organizations that your core values should not be your brand,” she adds. “They should be the thing that you live by, and that informs your brand. But if you are treating it like a marketing opportunity, then you are at risk for actually not living up to those things.”

Comms pros can determine if employees are experiencing organizational gaslighting using pulse surveys that cover the recruiting experience and onboarding process.

Leaders also shouldn’t be afraid to bring in some outside help.

“Maybe you need an outside perspective to say, ‘Yeah, when you did this thing, this is the message that you were sending,’” Boggs says.

Ideally, communicators should address the subject of organizational gaslighting with their leaders before a crisis necessitates remedial intervention. If your company is showing signs of a disconnect between the culture that you’re promising workers and what employees are actually experiencing, it’s time to re-evaluate your messaging.

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