A topic in my recent article about humanizing leadership prompted a strong reaction with readers: organizational gaslighting. Many people reached out to say they had experienced something like it, or were examining their own leadership as a result. I thought it would be worthwhile to dig a little deeper. Here is what I wrote in the original piece:
“In the past decade, companies have come to understand that having a core set of company values and actually talking about them is paramount to creating the culture they desire. Where we go wrong is that often the team building exercises or the core values awards are only focused on the employees. It’s as if the leaders assume that they embody the values, and do not require accountability or self-reflection. I call this ‘organizational gaslighting.’ When you speak of values as being important, but (even unintentionally) behave in a completely opposite way, it can begin to make your employees feel like they are going a little crazy.”
Merriam Webster defines gaslighting as, “psychological manipulation of a person usually over an extended period of time that causes the victim to question the validity of their own thoughts, perception of reality, or memories and typically leads to confusion, loss of confidence and self- esteem, uncertainty of one’s emotional or mental stability, and a dependency on the perpetrator.”
Sounds pretty harsh, doesn’t it? As someone who believes that we all wake up and do the best we can every day, it’s hard to read that definition and believe that any leader would intentionally manipulate anyone. Yet, that is what we are doing if we use our core values to recruit and retain employees without the necessary self-reflection to ensure we are daily living those values. Organizations are at high risk of committing this gaslighting right now. In this time where talent is hard to find and retain, every organization is likely to differentiate themselves through their culture and focus on people. This is wonderful — if the claims you are making are true.
Walking the Talk of Organizational Values
I work with leaders and teams to help them close the gap between them. The gap is often a symptom of absent trust and visibility in both directions, and it’s a self-perpetuating cycle. When leaders espouse a specific set of values, but behave in an orthogonal manner, the teams do not have clarity or clear expectations of their leader. In response, the teams may become risk-averse and avoid making decisions without the leader weighing in. This slows them down and prevents forward progress. The lack of progress frustrates the leader, likely causing them to act outside their own values or the core values of the company. Ultimately, this leads to confusion, frustration and fear in the team.
How does an organization ensure it is being true to its word and embracing the culture it is advertising? My first recommendation is to take a good, hard look at the core values of the company, particularly as they relate to the current organizational strategy.