A TOXIC LEADERSHIP APPROACH AND IT’S IMPACT ON MY LIFE
Disclaimer: This article is individually owned and doesn’t necessarily represent Air Force positions, strategies or opinions. Additionally, the article’s intent is to educate and inspire, not to identify a specific person and/or work center.
According to Doug Mann, an employment lawyer who specializes in workplace lawsuits: Workplace gaslighting is a form of harassment involving tactics that cause the victim to get penalized or fired for something they are not doing. Sometimes gaslighting involves lying to the victim to make them believe something incorrect or arguing with a victim until they believe the attacker is correct and they are in the wrong.
I remember reading about gaslighting during Air Force PME and thought it was a completely alien and strange concept. “Wow, who would deal with that?” I thought. More importantly “Who would do that?!” I couldn’t believe it was a thing, but sadly today we are hearing about it much more. On Facebook pages like Air Force Wingman Outreach, you will read story after story with these toxic leaders running amuck in their employees lives.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop there. It’s also become a very common approach in abusive relationships as a way for the abuser to have complete control over their significant other by bending truths, downplaying situations, isolating them from their loved ones, and leaving the victim feeling like they are losing their minds. An issue is brought up by the victim, and by the end of the conversation, the abuser has convinced the victim that it’s actually their fault and that they need to work harder at the relationship. This vicious cycle of abuse and questioning reality keeps the victim stuck in a continuous loop with the abuser. The victim over time forgets what a “healthy” relationship even looks like and becomes empty inside.
I’ve dealt with many toxic leaders in the 17 years that I have served in the Air Force. I’ve seen some pretty brutal situations, had my pride stomped on, and have completely lost my cool during some confrontations. I’ve learned a lot, a whole lot, about how to identify these toxic leaders and the best way to handle them. I learned about myself. I thought I was prepared, and I thought I could handle any toxic approach, I felt confident…I was wrong. Nothing could prepare me for one of the most deceiving, confusing, and covert tactics to toxic leadership that I have ever encountered. Gaslighting…Manipulation level: God Tier.
In order to fully understand my experience, we first need to take it back to TSgt Josh White in 2018: I was on the up and up! I had finally broken my self-imposed glass ceiling made of doubt, fear, and excuses. I was hungry. Hungry for change, for a challenge, and to see what I was made of. An underdog most of my career and most of my life, this was my time to really get after it, I could feel it. I was coming off a successful year as the Group’s Executive Officer and selected to run the Base Honor Guard for the following two years. It was a program that had completely fallen off the rails and a lot of work was to be done, but I was more than ready for the challenge.
When all was said and done I spent those two years living outside my comfort zone - on a daily basis. We had accomplished every goal we set out to achieve and benchmarked our program at the Air Force level which included a meeting at the Pentagon with the Office of the Secretary of Defense. We swept most of the awards and I personally walked away as a 12 Outstanding Airman of The Year. We positively impacted many careers and straight up changed lives. This experience left us all better human beings and the energy was high. My time leading this unique mission was over and I was now heading back to my career field and to apply everything I learned. I felt invincible.
Six months into a new assignment (and gaslight experience) I was at my wits end and desperately searching the internet for a solution. I was confused, full of self doubt, and completely miserable. “Was I this terrible?” I was now unrecognizable to my then self in 2018. I had been threatened constantly, blamed for everything, removed from opportunities, excluded from awards, not included in decisions, lied to, and now questioning my own self worth. I felt exhausted, and the abuse had turned me into a hallowed out shell of who I used to be. I was defeated.
The harder I tried, the worse the abuse became. Every tool in my toolbox backfired. I learned to retreat to my cubicle and “shut up and color” to avoid any harassment. A small piece of my brain remembered that PME article all those years ago and I finally stumbled across a video titled “Signs You Are Being Gaslighted at Work” I was blown away, this was it. “Ok great, I guess i’m being gaslighted?…now what?” I had fallen into this trap - hook, line, and sinker. Here are the 5 lessons I learned from dealing with the situation.
1. Know The Warning Signs - Because they are not as obvious as you’d expect. A skilled Gaslighter can go on for years completely unchecked - ruining careers, ruining lives, and feeling justified every step of the way. Their arrogance builds momentum. I could list out every red flag to this behavior but I think it’s easier to sum it up like this: A gaslighting boss has only one outcome for handling their target: Failure. Your merits, relationships, performance, work ethic, etc. are not a factor. The end has already been decided, and it’s you failing. All efforts to change the abusers mind is a fools game.
Gaslighting is an extreme form of narcissism manifested into toxic behaviors in an attempt to control the environment and the people to their liking. Here’s why knowing the warning signs is so important: The end goal of a gaslighting boss is to either have you fired or permanently damage your career. The longer the abuse goes on, the greater impact a toxic leader will have on your livelihood and mental health.
2. You Will Never Know Why It’s Happening - To try and understand why will only make things worse. Trying to understand is a normal, logical approach, but with a gaslighting boss they are taking a completely illogical stance. Logic is out the window. Maybe you remind them of someone from their past they didn’t appreciate? Maybe you intimidate them? I can narrow down the why to this: Your strengths (what you bring to the team) are perceived by the abuser as either completely useless or an attack. They will do everything in their power to squeeze you into their box of how they want to see you. Part of this approach means to isolate you, pit you against your peers, remove you from opportunities, and take whatever steps possible to give you zero credit for any “wins” the team may garner, and to absorb all the blame for any of the “losses.” Suddenly, you apparently are the worst person to step foot into your organization and left wondering “How did I get here?”
3. Accept It Will Not Just “Go Away”- My initial response to this treatment was shame. I worked longer hours, completed projects way ahead of time, and went above and beyond to cover all my bases. I even neglected my friends and family. It got me nowhere. Looking back, I went about this all wrong. Had I known the signs and recognized the trap I was now living in, I wouldn’t of wasted my time trying to change my bosses mind. I naively thought I could. Instead, I would have asked for help right away and spared myself at least 6 months of targeted abuse. If you are living your best life and by the organizations core values, it’s not your fault if that triggers someone’s own insecurities, this is called narcissistic injury—a perceived threat to their self-worth or self-esteem—remember that term, but more on that later. Don’t feel bad about being a kick ass leader, you have earned the right to live your best life. Use your support system, family & friends, peers you can trust, and a possibly a therapist. Share your struggles - own them, talk about it. Don’t bottle them up and absorb it, because eventually it will impact all areas of your life, it will follow you home like a stray cat you can no longer evade. Your spouse will notice, your kids will notice, and it will start to perpetually make things actually start to get bad. The false narrative your abuser created will now start to become your reality, you will be squeezed inside the box.
4. Show Up For Yourself - Because your abuser will deny any and all allegations (lying is a second language to a gaslighter,) it will take work and will be emotionally draining, prepare yourself - screenshots of texts, past emails, and dates & times of witnesses and your interactions with them. It can be a lot. It’s tough to document, to relive the events that trigger you. It makes your blood boil, and flushes your face. It can be soul crushing. At the end of the day you are the only one who can shine a light on the problem. Don’t be like me, don’t wait a year to say something from feeling shame of the situation. You didn’t ask for this, but it’s yours and it’s not going away. Use the proper channels to shine a light on the issue (IG, EO, HR) if problems didn’t exist, there wouldn’t be such a large market for conflict resolutions and work place harassment investigations. Use your resources! Confronting them is playing into their world and will get you nowhere. Reporting the behavior and having an unbiased investigator probe the issue is the only option that will affect positive change.
5. Control What You Can Control - As soon as you come to the realization that the treatment will not go away, and that you need to start showing up for yourself, you now need to take steps to reclaim your power. If you can't remove yourself from the situation (i.e. get a new job), you can certainly now take steps to place buffers between the Gaslighter and yourself to minimize and counter the emotional impact that they have had on your mental health. This is where you take care of yourself by shining a light on the issue to a reportable agency, surrounding yourself with trusted advisors - people who have your best interest at heart, and doing the things that reclaim your worth - maybe it's volunteering, being an awesome spouse or parent, journaling, reading, or daily exercise.
Leverage your personal power by exerting your influence with those that are not influenced by the gaslighter. i.e., gaslighters typically gossip about you to others, so insert yourself into the dynamic and control your own narrative by showing people the truth, the real you, and what you bring to the table. That undermines the narrative that the gaslighter has painted, and impacts their credibility, because now their peers say, "but wait, I know (your name), and they are actually pretty awesome…” This takes a tremendous amount of courage. You will naturally be inclined to do the exact opposite: You will want to retreat, to fit into the box the abuser has stuffed you down into, and hide. Don’t. Be courageous! Be you!
I will end with this: A good friend of mine named Shā Sparks once told me “Hurt people hurt people.” Keep in mind anyone who feels the need to gaslight to survive, is an extremely traumatized, hurt, and frankly - scared human being. You don’t beat a gaslighter at their own game, you beat them by living your best life—the same reason they were inclined to target you in the first place. Your strengths, what you bring to the table.
Dr. Stephanie Sarkis of mindbodygreen.com states: “Gaslighters who were psychologically abused as children learned maladaptive coping techniques so as to cope with the cruelty inflicted upon them. Many gaslighters have narcissistic injury—a perceived threat to their self-worth or self-esteem. They then react with narcissistic rage. This rage isn't always loud—it can be quiet and just as dangerous.”
Don’t lose your humanity and stoop to their level. Focus on what makes you awesome, leverage it—foster your relationships and let your character speak for itself through your actions, by actually caring about people. Live by your values, write them down, read them often. Most of all…Show up for yourself, show up for your team, you’ve got this!