Dr. Robin Stern: Welcome to the Gaslight Effect podcast. I'm Robin Stern, co-founder and associate director of the Yale Center Free Emotional Intelligence and author of the best selling book, The Gaslight Effect. I'm an educator and a psychoanalyst, but first and foremost, I'm a wife, a mother, a sister, aunt, and healer. And just like many of you, I was a victim of gaslighting. Please join me for each episode as I interview fascinating guests and explore the concept of gaslighting. You'll learn what it truly means to be gaslighted, how it feels, how to recognize it, and how to understand it, and ultimately how to get out of it.
Dr. Robin Stern: Before we begin, I want you to know that talking about gaslighting can bring up challenging and painful emotions. Give yourself permission to feel them. Some of you may wanna go more deeply with your emotions. While some of you may hold them more lightly, no matter what you're feeling, know that your emotions are a guide to your inner life. Your emotions are sacred and uniquely you respect and embrace them for they have information to give you. If you want to listen to other episodes of the Gaslight Effect podcast, you can find firstname.lastname@example.org or wherever you listen to podcasts. Thank you for being here with me. Welcome everyone to the Gaslight Effect podcast. I'm thrilled to introduce as my guest today, Dr. Heidi Brooks, who teaches at the Yale School of Management and consults in organizations across the globe. Heidi, I know you and I have had many conversations through the years about gas lighting in organizations. So I'll just start with the simplest question. What about that is interesting to you?
Heidi Brooks: Oh, well, first of all, I'm delighted to be in any conversation with you. I feel, you know, like, um, we kind of elevate each other's work and thinking and, you know, kind of way of being in the world. So thanks for inviting me in and, and on. Uh, secondly, this is such an important topic. Workplaces are really very confusing between the kind of pandemic break from kind of being together every day to really renegotiating lots of aspects of social connection and belongingness and hierarchy and power and being face to face and being together and being on teams together and apart and not co-located. There's a lot going on about human connection. And then there's the kind of like old school stuff that we didn't even know how to talk about to begin with, and that in that category is gaslighting where we're confusing each other with a little bit of unconscious blame factor that doesn't belong where people are pointing fingers. So it's a really important topic for us to get clean and clear about together.
Dr. Robin Stern: So thank you for that. And, um, I agree our conversations are really dynamic and exciting and excited to be doing a next one with you right now. So you mentioned the pandemic and how does gaslighting and the, uh, the want for some people to undermine reality of other people? How does that show up, especially, um, post pandemic or even during the pandemic among leadership in organizations? Was there more of a, I use the word want, but maybe it's the wrong word, is the more of a, uh, drive to shift blame, to deny, to, uh, take credit for other people's work to confuse other people by having a suddenly a, a, uh, very short memory or simply to by shading the facts. What do you think about the pandemic and this time post pandemic lends itself to more confusion?
Heidi Brooks: Well, I mean, maybe the first thing I'd want, I'd want to say is that, you know, not all gas lighting is kind of on purpose or intended for insidious effect mm-hmm.
Heidi Brooks: Um, so I'd be curious to what, what you think, you know, because there's a lot of negotiation going on right now about are we consciously or unconsciously kind of gifting or burdening people with rewards and disadvantages based on whether or not they're actually in the workplace, right? Like physically at, at work. So, you know, a lot of employees have been saying, I'd like the freedom to be able to work from home. And a lot of managers are saying, I can't control what people are doing. I can't tell what they're doing. I'd like to see you in the office more often, even while they themselves would prefer to walk work outside of the office. So there's a little bit of confusion. So for me, it has a potential for real gas lighting, like you are not getting promoted because I haven't seen you as often is a kind of, it feels like rife with potential for, um, for a little bit of like blaming, um, based on kind of like presence or the confusion of this time about what privileges and membership and advantages and even like what, who gets to do tasks based on who's in the office and who's known and who's seen.
Heidi Brooks: And so it feels to me like it's, it's rife with potential for gas lighting. What, what do you
Dr. Robin Stern: Think? Yeah, so I think that you're absolutely right and, and I think, um, definitely the example you used is, is a great one because I could imagine, um, a conversation going something like, like this, you know, gee, I you're saying that, um, this is what you've been doing this year, but I, you know, unfortunately haven't had the opportunity to see that. Um, and, uh, then the person responds, Well, you know, I've had to work virtually. And, uh, the, the supervisor or boss acknowledges that and said, yes, says yes, you have. And, uh, it's unfortunate that then I haven't seen. So the person is in fact being punished and gaslighted, the gaslighting being about whether or not they're really in the office and whether or not it's really okay saying, on the one hand a little bit like that double bind we've talked about saying, on the one hand, it's fine if you, you need to work virtually, but on the other hand, can't get promoted because you are in fact working vo virtually.
Heidi Brooks: Here's what I would be curious about, Like what are the feelings that people are experiencing as you, as you would expect in this, in this dynamic? And I'm talking about like in a kind of simple interpersonal dynamic between manager and, and, and report mm-hmm.
Dr. Robin Stern: So I would say that it is, it's a very confusing time. And when you're not on firm ground, it's ripe for gas lighting. Yeah.
Heidi Brooks: Because
Dr. Robin Stern: After all, gas lighting is about questioning your reality. Um, is it really okay to not come into the office? Well, I hear it's okay, but I'm not feeling like it's okay because what I'm asking for to be included in a project, or when I'm questioning why I wasn't given the promotion, um, I'm hearing that people can't really see my work because I'm not in the office yet. They're saying it's okay, but it's not really okay. Yeah. So that, that difference between what somebody's saying, but what I'm feeling is where, um, can I, as the the worker trust myself, can I trust what I'm seeing? It's not okay because I'm not getting promoted and I'm not being invited. Right. And yet when I ask about it, I'm, I'm either being asked to believe something that I don't think is true, or I'm being deflected from something that I know is true. Mm-hmm.
Heidi brooks: Mm-hmm.
Dr. Robin Stern: And earlier in the pandemic, there was a, a, um, policy that came down that said we could sit in the conference rooms together as long as nobody had covid. But we weren't allowed to ask anybody if they had covid. And if somebody had covid, they were allowed to, they were encouraged to say it, but they weren't, uh, they didn't have to tell people if they didn't want to at some point.
Heidi Brooks: And so you see the potential for gas lighting in that setup.
Dr. Robin Stern: I see the potential of yes. Of gas lighting. I see. But more than that, I see the potential of the environment feeling so confusing that you begin to second guess yourself in every way. Should I go to that meeting? No. Maybe I can't go to that meeting cuz I actually don't know if anybody has covid. But I trust my, my coworkers, they're gonna tell me if they have covid. I'm not gonna sit next to somebody worrying. Uh, no, no, no. That would never happen. But would it
Heidi Brooks: Happen?
Dr. Robin Stern: So I feel like in, in that kind of environment, um, when you say to someone, uh, you know, I haven't been invited to those meetings or, um, no, no, no, that was here, here's my work. We agreed that it was due today when somebody says back to you, No, don't you remember it was, I don't remember it like that it was due yesterday.
Heidi Brooks: This this thing that you mentioned that, you know, gaslighting is about kind of happens when you, when you're questioning your reality, like that's the circumstance under which gaslighting can like most have take hook. Yeah, I understood that. Yeah. So mean, this makes this conversation just so important. I'm so glad you're doing both, that you did the book, that you have the workbook and that you're doing this podcast because this is such a confusing time. It's like people are like asking questions of like, what is the new normal? What is reality? And so where in many circumstances it might be people with less power in any organizational situation who would be questioning their power now or questioning their reality, already used your phrase. Um, uh, now everyone is kind of questioning reality. It's partly because we're actually pre making reality up again. So, you know, at this time when we're kind of revisiting some of the purpose and function, how we work together, trying to include some of our experience in the pandemic, it's so rife with potential for gas lighting.
Heidi Brooks: Um, and so I I'm, I'm really delighted. You're, uh, you're, you're, you're doing this. The thing that I really would comment on, which I think is a response to, um, to what you were asking, is the, these kind of stories of convenience that we actually aren't necessarily, um, lying. We kind of like, we, we, we take what we see and we have a kind of logic that matches it. And so when on the one hand people say, I need to take time off, that seems logical. Of course, people can't come to the office if they're sick or they have something that seems logical on the other juncture when we're kind of evaluating people who has contributed also seems logical that the people that I feel have contributed are the ones who get the resources, the perks, the promotions, the right. But sometimes these two things don't line up.
Heidi Brooks: They were, there was permission for time off or for working out of the office, but then when it's time for accolades or rewards or some sort of allocation of, you know, honor or respect or promotion, it doesn't match up with the, it seems like the story. So that seems like it's not really an intentional thing. It's one of the kind of like inconveniences that we have where we actually don't look across time periods to kind of make ourselves make sense. So it's also kind of structural that we haven't necessarily created accountability mechanisms and systems. And we don't make one que the question at juncture two make sense with what we said at juncture one. And so, you know, some of this feels like it's interpersonal and some, some that feels like it's structural and like our way of thinking through work.
Dr. Robin Stern: That's really interesting. And so what can leaders do about this? What can leaders, how can leaders run an organization that's gaslight free?
Heidi Brooks: Well, you know, I mean, this is the way that you and I have done some work together. You know, it's, it starts by, I think, with the intention of creating a little bit more fairness and transparency in the way that we're working. Um, and one of the ways that you can do that is not by being like, you know, supremely conscious of all dynamics and all thoughts that employers are having, but by having for forum where they can actually talk to each other and kind of raise concerns if, where it's psychologically safe enough to say, Hey, I'm wondering about these, like you said, it was okay for me to work from home, but now I feel like I'm not getting the promotions or access to the projects. And we maybe you intended for it to be fair, but it doesn't feel fair. Right? Uh, or I'm worried about my capacity or the capacity of my team to really be fair. So making that actually discussable. Um, if you want to be an organization that's really kind of playing fair and not gaslighting, you might need transparency of voice and, uh, the kind of psychological safety to be able to have productive conversations around it. So we can learn our way around this corner where we are, uh, which isn't just about pandemic. It's also about just being clear and being able to communicate well with each other, which turns out to be kind of hard for us to begin with.
Dr. Robin Stern: Hard for us to begin with is an understatement. And I'm thinking about, um, people and their, and off, I'm thinking about people in organizations and typical responses to, um, you know, I, I'm a little confused right now. You said it was okay to work from home, but, um, then you can't see my work, or you don't see what I'm doing, or I'm not counted among the people who should be in that meeting. And, uh, in my book, I interviewed a number of people and there are a lot more who would get the following response from their bosses. Come on, Aren't you being overly sensitive? Or no, you're, that's just your exhaustion talking. Maybe you need a day off. I know we're under a lot of stress right now, but don't take it out on what you're, what your boss is saying to you. Or don't take it out here.
Dr. Robin Stern: You're feeling stressed, I'm sorry. Let's continue our work. So the ability to communicate and as you said, to create psychological safety where people can come to their team or come to their leader and say something doesn't feel right and not be put down or blamed for that, which doesn't feel right. Of course, something doesn't feel right, You're so stressed out. No, something doesn't feel right because it's not right. So I think one thing that in, in healing from gas lighting and in creating organizations that are gaslight free, people need to be able not only to trust when something isn't right, it's not right. Maybe they don't know what it is yet, but if some, if you feel like something is not right, investigate, explore, go after that information and the ability to be heard and to be seen when you're saying that and not to be blamed or have, uh, some period of disturbance in the organization or period of disturbance in the world blamed for your feeling like you are not right, would be a huge step forward.
Heidi Brooks: Well, so how do you differentiate between kind of people who've had difficult work experiences before and bring kind of a social memory of a bad experience, and it's kind of like a there and now, like it actually happened before, and so I'm worried it might happen again, but it's not necessarily happening again. It's kind of like the baggage factor. What do we, what do we do when things don't feel right, but it actually might be historical rather than occurring now. How can how can people like differentiate for themselves, for their employees, for their teams? What belongs to this conversation and what's coming in from some other location and memory?
Dr. Robin Stern: So my first response would be a little bit of a longer conversation rather than, um, this doesn't feel right and being dismissed because you are too stressed out. Or you, maybe you're, you are, um, uh, you know, 20 years ago, somebody might even say, Well, is it that time of the month if you're a woman, you know, um, or be, Well, of course, you know, nothing feels right. It's the pandemic rather than being dismissed out of hand. Well, tell me more about the situation. So having a conversation and then helping the person to see if there's something that really is very specific to this situation or, um, wait a minute, that is just like what happened last year in my, in my current in in my other group, or helping them to, to unpack it enough that they can either confirm or deny in the, in their own awareness in that moment would be my initial go-to.
Heidi Brooks: I see. I love that. So people then need like serious conversation, communication skills to, first of all, rather than solving the problem, to actually get curious about it, Like, listen to your employees, like, what, what's, what's going on? Let me see if I can help you unpack this a little bit more so I can really get underneath the dynamic here. Um, whereas a lot of managers are professional problem solvers and they come to fix whatever they're hearing about. And maybe the, their initial sense is like, No, that's not true. There's not something amiss. Um, rather than getting more of the perspective of the person who's, who's, who's, who's worried,
Dr. Robin Stern: Right? So you are saying something, um, what what you're saying is really interesting also, because you don't have to be denied your reality by having it blamed on something else. It can simply be that your boss says, No, that's not true. That's not happening.
Heidi Brooks: It, it can, it can feel like gaslighting Yeah. When actually it's kind of a manager with like, you know, a kind of automatic prob fix the problem, uh, uh, a default. Yeah. But also they have systems view that the employee doesn't have. Um, but I mean, I, I think you're raising a very important question for the managers who are out there who might be, um, creating kind of a, an impression of kind of a gas lighting, um, that it also might be happening, right? So like, I don't know, that kind of objective reality is, is is so important here. You're kind of raising a subjectivity. Can we kind of, you know, get into the dynamics through conversational avenues and just be curious and connect a little bit more. And of course, I teach interpersonal and group dynamics, so I'm very interested in the way that we lead through interacting with each other through kind of, of curiosity and connection and recovery and creating enough, uh, sense of trust and psychological safety that we can make lots of hard moments discussable. And so I kind of go slow to go fast.
Dr. Robin Stern: Exactly. And in those hard moments, you might discover as the manager or the leader that, wait a minute, I I, I didn't mean to shut you down there, or wait a minute, I didn't mean to, um, ignore what you were feeling. Let me think about that too. So that the burden is not just on the employee coming to their leader and, um, uh, being curious about their own version of reality, but also the leader thinking, Well, I, yeah, I guess when I said, No, that's not happening, don't worry. Um, I was denying your experience that you were saying something is happening. And so in the workplace, gas lighting happens between individuals, but it also hap can happen in the organization that the individuals are living in where they're thinking, Gee, something's going on here and I, I don't really understand it. So they go to their supervisor or their leader and they say, um, I'm noticing that so and so go, just got moved to a different unit and, uh, this person is not in charge of this project anymore. Like, are there changes afoot? And your boss or a supervisor who doesn't want you to know but knows you're right, just says, No, that's not happening. Not necessarily intending to drive you crazy in the, um, in a malevolent way, but just to shut down the conversation. Those kinds of shut down the conversation. Communications leave people who are vulnerable to it, second guessing themselves. Oh wait, that's not really happening.
Heidi Brooks: Hmm.
Dr. Robin Stern: And so that in and of itself can be very destabilizing when an organization's leadership makes decisions that then are not to be communicated or not to be communicated right now, which happened a lot during the pandemic, um, when there were things going on and people were getting information, but it was trickle down as the leaders saw fit. So, um, when leaders are controlling in that way, people can end up second guessing themselves, which then leaves them open and more vulnerable to not only gaslighting themselves, but to, um, to interpersonal gaslighting too.
Heidi Brooks: Right. And of course, you know, I I, I, you know, I'm, I'm always thinking from a meso perspective, you know, so things that are happening kind of within you happen in a, in a larger context in ecology, right? So we work in the context of groups and other humans. And so any of these things that are happening at any level happen, um, within, within a larger context. So you're talking about gaslighting being an interpersonal phenomenon, and the things that's really getting my attention is how much some of these feelings that you're talking to are potentially kind of contagious, right? Like, you know, a kind of like low morale is kind of contagious. And so if there's a kind of suspicion of whether or not the organization has your best interests in mind, and you express that to colleagues, that kind of thing kind of spreads.
Heidi Brooks: And so those organizations might be places where people might be more likely to experience just out at a kind, a growing sense of like, I need to protect myself here a sense of gas lighting. So I, I guess I would be really, um, uh, encouraging, you know, managers to be, um, realizing actually the potential for that kind of contagion, uh, in this, in this dynamic that once it starts happening, people might be like, Oh, you can't trust John, or, you know, Susan, because they're trying to gaslight me. Whether people have that language or not, they're not trying to do right by me. And I've been concerned in this conversation about what do you do with, like, if you, if you as a manager feel like it's actually a different story, how do you actually protect from, you know, a sense of kind of like actually gaslighting people versus having different information about the system. I think they can actually co-occur. Like you can have people question their reality, um, uh, even, even even, even though there's something, you know, kind of like fact based happening in there. So I think part of what you're talking about is kind of a psychological impact of having people feel kind of unordered that what, that what they thought was reality isn't actually based in fact and kind of this like having the carpet taken out from under you.
Dr. Robin Stern: Yeah. And I would say that a lot of Americans felt that way during the pandemic mm-hmm.
Dr. Robin Stern: Is suddenly very different. But in the, in the, I don't mean to deflect the conversation because in the case of the pandemic, it was the pandemic controlling it. But in the case of, um, an organization, it could be, uh, the leaders controlling it. And I think the, what is the antidote to all of this, and what is the way to have an organization gaslight free and to not have that kind of contagion, that that, um, uh, informs your reality whether or not it's, uh, subjective or it's objective, uh, objectively happening, very basic building box blocks of communication and trust and psychological safety, and maybe during times where those, that contagion is happening or times of great, uh, uh, destabilization, Yeah.
Heidi Brooks: Mm-hmm.
Dr. Robin Stern:
Heidi Brooks: That's nice. I mean, I would, I, I I can, I can really see how, how that would happen. You know, it's like another term for psychological safety might be that people experience permission for candor, that they could actually name with some sense that they'll be kind of received and listened to, um, when they have a concern. Um, and a permission for candor. I think it's a nice alternate language for, for, for, for psychological safety. And it's really kinda, you know, you know how we do things around here. And so, you know, your example of a superintendent who's communicating more often, um, and I assume also inviting voice.
Dr. Robin Stern: Inviting voice.
Heidi Brooks: Yeah. So there's some mutuality to it is really helping to encourage, you know, a kind of sense of permission for candor. When people speak, you're gonna find stuff out. So like, you know, you know, one of the reasons to not have people speak is so that actually you don't have things to address
Dr. Robin Stern: Exactly. And you don't have to confirm it or deny it because it's not even spoken so
Dr. Robin Stern: Riskier to do the, the latter riskier
Heidi Brooks: To it feels riskier. Riskier. Can we, you know, part of what you're raising here is the cost of not doing it. Can we afford to not get more skilled in, you know, what you're referring to as communication basics? And, uh, you know, so a lot of my, you know, teaching at Yale has been around some of the kind of interpersonal skills. How can we talk about what seems kind of undiscussable in the workplace? And you're raising this really powerful kind of corollary question, which is, how can we not talk about it if we don't actually, we're creating more of an environment that's rife for gas lighting, um, you know, the, the work of John Gottman and his kind of pithy little, you know, kind of boiling it down, allowing for a situation of, of, of criticism or defensiveness, right? Or contempt or for, um, you know, stonewalling to just be the everyday norm instead of curiosity and inquiry and connection and, uh, some sense of, uh, of, of curiosity with the other person's perspective.
Dr. Robin Stern: So that sounds like a really great place to stop our conversation for today, What makes your organization ripe for gaslighting. I will remember permission to candor, and thank you, Heidi, for coming on this, um, this episode. And I hope that you'll return because I just love having these conversations with you and hearing, hearing your wisdom.
Heidi Brooks: Thanks so much for inviting me.
Dr. Robin Stern: Thank you. Thank you everybody for listening. Thank you for joining me for today's episode. I hope you found today's podcast helpful and meaningful. If you want to listen to other episodes of the Gaslight Effect podcast, you can find them at robinstern.com or wherever you listen to podcasts. You can also follow me on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter with the handle at Dr. Robin Stern. The Gaslight Effect podcast is brought to you by the Gaslight Effect Production Company. This podcast is produced by Ryan Changcoco, Mike Lens, and me. The podcast is supported by Mel Yellen, Gabby Caoagas, Suzen Pettit and Marcus Estevez.