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Organizational Gaslighting

May 06, 2022 Leadership
melissa boggs
By Melissa Boggs

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.

Are the core values aligned with the organizational strategy? For example, if self-organization is a core value — will self-organization allow the org to reach the stated goals of the strategy? If not, we find ourselves in a conundrum: should we change the value or the strategy? Overall, we hope for our values to be enduring. The strategy will evolve over time, but hopefully the behaviors we embrace will endure. However, a misalignment between the two may clue us in to a value that we can no longer embrace. This is a hard truth to face, but an important one. Don’t be afraid to recognize if your cultural landscape has changed.

My second recommendation is to understand how you are or will operationalize the values. Are your values well-defined and associated with specific behaviors that demonstrate them? If so, are they behaviors that the leaders are willing to commit to? Design a plan of accountability as a leadership team. How will you have ongoing discussions about your leadership behaviors? Leaders will often have these discussions about how to hold employees accountable, but fail to recognize that they require the same accountability, and there needs to be a plan for that. Find ways to explore your employees’ perception of your core values and how you are embodying them. Be willing to make changes. Be willing to change the values if necessary.

One way to evaluate the culture and soul of your organization is to use the Organizational Culture Assessment Instrument (OCAI) (based on the Competing Values Framework) to understand current organizational culture and behaviors. This will allow you to clearly see what the current state of your org is, and how you might clearly and honestly speak of it. Often, organizations who use this or similar tools may find that there is a gap between what we want to see and what actually is. What if we learn that our values are no longer aligned with where we are going? It’s OK to change! While our core values should be enduring enough, it is important that we are true to them. If we can longer do that, it may be time to reimagine our values.

Related Article: Are Your Culture-Building Initiatives Actually Hurting Your Culture?

Informed Consent … in Hiring 

One of the most difficult but important things we can do as an organization is be honest with ourselves and others about who we are as a company. When you are honest and transparent, you will attract and retain the talent that resonates with you as you truly are. Even if the soul of your company isn’t the sexy startup type, there will be people who resonate with a steady and predictable organization. The most kind and true thing we can do is be real about who we are so that potential and current employees can make an informed decision about partnering with us.

Related Article: When the Workforce and Jerkforce Collide

About the Author

Melissa Boggs is a keynote speaker, leadership coach, and employee experience designer. She is host of the “Wild Hearts at Work” podcast, redefining our relationship with work through stories and conversations with those challenging the status quo of today’s workplace.

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