Do you engage in organizational gaslighting?


PHOTO: Kaikara Dharma | unsplash


A topic in my recent article on humanizing leadership elicited a strong reaction from readers: organizational gaslighting. Many people have reached out to say they have experienced something like this or are examining their own leadership as a result. I thought it was worth digging a little deeper. Here is what I wrote in the original piece:

“Over the past decade, companies have realized that having a set of core values ​​and actually talking about them is paramount to creating the culture they want. Where we go wrong is that often team building exercises or core values ​​awards focus only on the employees, it’s as if leaders assume they embody the values ​​and don’t demand accountability or self-reflection.

I call this “organizational gaslighting”. When you talk about values ​​as important, but behave (even unintentionally) in a completely opposite way, it can start to make your employees feel like they’re going a little crazy.”

Merriam Webster defines gaslighting as “the psychological manipulation of a person, usually over an extended period of time, that causes the victim to question the validity of their own thoughts, perceptions of reality, or memories and usually leads to confusion, loss of confidence and self-esteem, uncertainty about one’s emotional or mental stability, and dependence on the abuser.

Sounds pretty harsh, doesn’t it? As someone who believes that we all wake up and do our best every day, it’s hard to read that definition and believe that a 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 living those values ​​every day. Organizations are at high risk of committing this gaslighting right now. At a time when talent is hard to find and hard to retain, every organization is likely to differentiate through its culture and focus on people. It’s wonderful – if the claims you make are true.

Follow the Word of Organizational Values

I work with leaders and teams to help them bridge the gap between them. The gap is often a symptom of a lack of trust and visibility in both directions, and it’s a self-perpetuating cycle. When leaders espouse a specific set of values, but behave orthogonally, teams lack clarity or clear expectations of their leader. In response, teams can become risk averse and avoid making decisions without the leader weighing in. This slows them down and prevents progress. Lack of progress frustrates the leader, which likely causes them to act outside of their own or the company’s core values. Ultimately, this leads to confusion, frustration and fear in the team.

How does an organization ensure that it is true to its word and embraces the culture it advertises? My first recommendation is to take a close look at the company’s core values, especially as they relate to current organizational strategy.

Are the core values ​​aligned with the organizational strategy? For example, if self-organization is a core value, will self-organization enable the organization to achieve the stated goals of the strategy? Otherwise, we are faced with an enigma: should we change value or strategy? Overall, we hope our values ​​will endure. The strategy will evolve over time, but we hope the behaviors we adopt will endure. However, a misalignment between the two can tell us a value that we can no longer adopt. This is a difficult but important truth to face. Don’t be afraid to recognize if your cultural landscape has changed.

My second recommendation is to understand how you operationalize or will operationalize the values. Are your values ​​well defined and associated with specific behaviors that demonstrate them? If so, are these behaviors leaders are willing to commit to? Design an accountability plan 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 don’t recognize that they need 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 embody them. Be prepared to make changes. Be prepared to modify the values ​​if necessary.

One way to assess 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 organization is and how you can speak about it clearly and honestly. Often organizations using this tool 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! Although our core values ​​should be sufficiently enduring, it is important that we are true to them. If we can do this any longer, maybe it’s time to reinvent our values.

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

Informed consent… when hiring

One of the hardest but most 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 talent that resonates with you for who you really are. Even if the soul of your business isn’t the sexy startup type, there will be people who resonate with a stable, predictable organization. The kindest, truest thing we can do is be honest about who we are so potential and current employees can make an informed decision about partnering with us.

Related Article: When Labor and Jerk Collide

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

Aubrey L. Morgan