Dr. Robin Stern: Welcome to The Gaslight Effect podcast. I'm Robin Stern, co-founder and associate director of the Yale Center For 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 them at robinstern.com or wherever you listen to podcasts. Thank you for being here with me. Welcome everyone. Um, I am really excited to have with me today on this next episode of The Gaslight Effect podcast. Michelle McQuaid, a colleague and new friend from Australia.
Dr. Michelle McQuaid: Hey, Robin.
Dr. Robin Stern:
Dr. Michelle McQuaid: Oh, my pleasure. Uh, so, uh, my name is Dr. Michelle McQuaid and I have a business called the Wellbeing Lab. And we work with organizations all over the world in how to take the latest science in wellbeing and leadership and behavior change and make that as accessible and effective and affordable for as many people as we can, and particularly with a focus in workplaces. Um, but we also do lots in communities and schools.
Dr. Robin Stern: Fascinating work. Thank you very much. And, um, it was a pleasure to be on your podcast. I think we determined it was a couple of years ago at this point.
Dr. Michelle McQuaid: It was, yeah. Early 2021
Dr. Robin Stern:
Dr. Michelle McQuaid: Yeah, I think we were definitely seeing more and more in workplaces as an understanding and recognition of gaslighting became more mainstream, that it was often a challenge that workers were experiencing and not really knowing them what to do about it. And in fact, we've just done some research in September with more than a thousand workers representative of the Australian working population right now. And we found that for workers who were reporting that they felt burnt out, the number three reason for burnout was harassment at work. And of course, harassment often takes the form of gaslighting in our workplaces where perhaps we're being made to feel too sensitive. We can't take a joke. You know, we're being too serious about things that we shouldn't take. So, um, so much to heart. And often because of that power dynamic that people may be experiencing in their workplace between their boss or a group of colleagues and themselves, or perhaps sometimes even our societal expectations, cultural expectations that come into the workplace as well, that can make harassment, um, really take the form of gaslighting practically day to day. And I think gaslighting and understanding what it is, is a helpful way perhaps to identify those signals, to know that perhaps you are not the crazy one
Dr. Robin Stern: Thank you. And, and how wonderful and important that you're doing that research. Now, tell me, um, if you can, what, what will you do with the research now that you know that harassment is the number three reason that people are burnt out at work mm-hmm.
Dr. Michelle McQuaid: Yeah, so we undertook this research because there are new international standards around mental health and wellbeing that were released last year. Uh, it's a set of standards called the is O 4,503, which really rolls off the tongue
Dr. Michelle McQuaid: Now, there are 14 of the hazards, but one of them is harassment and harassment being anything around, uh, it can be sexual harassment, it can be harassment on the basis of gender, ethnicity, sexuality, age, all these types of pieces, uh, that can go on to create that, um, power dynamic
Dr. Michelle McQuaid: And that's not a unique number in our country. We've seen other studies this year see a similar level, but what was unique about our research was then going, well, which of the hazards are actually causing that? And that was where we saw, um, first was unachievable job demands, second was poor relationships, and third was harassment. And I would actually, I think, fairly safely assume that gaslighting is probably involved in some of the poor relationships and most definitely involved in the harassment piece of it. So we've been sharing these findings out with workplaces. What's kind of nice in Australia right now is because this is becoming legislation, there's a lot of sudden focus in organizations at the most senior levels about, well, what are we doing around these things? How are we identifying and trying to mitigate these hazards so we can tick the compliance books?
Dr. Michelle McQuaid: But we are really trying to encourage workplaces to go a step further and say, don't just comply. We also found in our research that if leaders are helping to build a safe and caring work culture, then all these hazards reduce significantly. And so I think that's what's so interesting in your research as well, Robin, around gaslighting is, yes, we can identify and try to minimize it, but that doesn't necessarily mean that we're creating healthy relationships, which is ultimately the goal, right? The goal is not just to avoid guest li being guest lit, the goal is actually to have healthy relationships. And so that's the other piece. We're trying to work with organizations now in Australia and around the world to use this lever around these hazards to say, let's go this extra step now and really see if we can get rid of these behaviors in our workplaces.
Dr. Robin Stern: Yeah. So important. And, and I I thank you for that really thoughtful, um, and clear explanation. I I love that you, um, talked about it as the, not just the absence of gaslighting, but the presence of, um, psychological safety reading between the lines of a caring environment. And, and we found actually many years ago when we were doing some focused work on bullying in schools that, um, a lot of the programs that were anti-bullying programs didn't work in our opinion because they were about what do you do when there's bullying rather than let's build an environment that, uh, that predicts for healthy interactions that predicts for respect and caring and softness between people rather than emotional violence. So I really love that you put it in that way. And, and I would ask you then to follow up what is a gaslight free environment.
Dr. Michelle McQuaid: Yeah. So a guess light for environment, and you touched on it Robin, just then is a psychologically safe environment was what we found when workers were telling us that they often felt psychologically safe. So they were able to be honest and open in their team about problems and mistakes. Then all of the psychological hazards, not just um, uh, harassment, but every single one of them was reduced significantly. In fact, workers who were often feeling psychologically safe were rarely reporting any of the hazards in terms of their experience at work. And this was such an interesting aha harass, I mean, we'd been working in that space around psychological safety for a while in workplaces. So, you know, if we had a hunch that it was going to be an important factor, but every single one of the 14 hazards,
Dr. Michelle McQuaid: Um, one of the things that we found in terms of them, well, how do we build that practically? How do we teach leaders how they can create a more safe and caring work environment is that there are four factors that seem to really have a big impact here. Um, one for leaders is compassion, and not just the, the, you know, we're gonna be kind to everybody, but compassion with boundaries. As Dr. Brene Brown talks about in her research that says, I respect and value enough that when we need to have the uncomfortable conversations cuz something's not working, we're gonna do that. We're gonna do that in a clear and kind way that allows you learning and growth opportunity is where you most need them, rather than getting stuck on the hump of politeness or I'm gonna bite my tongue or fix it for you cuz I don't wanna make you feel bad
Dr. Michelle McQuaid: So compassion's one of them. Um, appreciation. So yes, the gratitude of each other's work, but also appreciation of each other's strengths. Exactly. To your point before Robin about the bullying experience, and it was the same when my elder started school. He came home at the end of the first week and he could tell me all about what bullying looked like and what you should do if you were being bullied and how you mustn't bully other people. But he couldn't tell me one thing about what it was to create respectful relationships with his classmates
Dr. Michelle McQuaid: Um, are for the responsibility. So are we encouraging each other to take responsibility and ownership for what is ours to own rather than blaming and shaming, which of course is one of the big pieces that undermine psychological safety. And then e is for the emotional wisdom to understand that all the feelings we've got are data
Dr. Michelle McQuaid: And the research. And in my experience also, it's actually much harder to gaslight somebody who feels safe in themselves because they're much less likely to get involved in that cycle of doubt,
Dr. Robin Stern: Yes, I completely agree. And taking the larger vision or the larger purview of the, the workplace community, absolutely on the one hand and what you can do to create that safety net for everyone and how you account for individual differences and how you can help someone, uh, lift themselves and, uh, feel and build confidence and build that sense of being rooted in their own integrity that's not really shakeable by somebody's bad manner or bad behavior behavior or in fact gaslighting. So I would ask you then, have you seen examples of people who do it well, either companies who do it well or individual leaders, you don't need to name names, but what have you seen that you can share with our listeners?
Dr. Michelle McQuaid: Yeah, look, one of the easiest and most effective things we see leaders putting into their workplaces, and we've got a number of organizations, uh, that we've been working with on this over the last few years where we've been testing does it work? Can leaders do it? Will they stick with it? Does it have any impact? Right? These are always our questions when we're trying to introduce any practice into a workplace. Uh, because, you know, if it falls down in one of those things, the chances it might be the most effective idea in the world, but the chances of it being used are not that high. So the thing that we found that's kind of the smallest but will have the biggest impact and passes all those tests, leaders can do it, they will stick with it
Dr. Michelle McQuaid: Um, and a safety check. Often leaders will use it as part of their weekly meetings. So it just becomes part of the rhythm that they have within their routine in the organization. And it's, it's four really simple questions. It's what's working well at the moment when it comes to our relationships with each other, the ways we're working together, and we always start there a bit too. Again, your example Robin on the bullying problem is that what we're trying to do is get to respectful relationships. If we have respectful relationships that are neutral and reciprocal and healthy with each other, then we don't have, you know, the problems of gaslighting or other things going on. So we wanna always be looking for what's working well in our relationships, how we're working together, how do we keep building on those strengths. The second question though is always, and where are we struggling?
Dr. Michelle McQuaid: And this is the really important part because not only does it normalize that it's okay to talk about where we're struggling with each other, it's safe to be able to do so, but it also makes it a healthy and natural part of how we learn and grow with each other as well. There are always times where even the most well-intentioned leader may unintentionally be creating negative outcomes on the relationship with their team or team members might unintentionally not be realizing the impact, what they're saying or doing or how they're showing up is suddenly having on other people in the team either because context has changed quickly in the team. I mean, I think we only need to think of the last two years with Covid to see how much what might have been okay two years ago now suddenly is not okay. It might be a new team member that's come in that's perhaps changed some of the diversity dynamics in that team that meant what was okay before now no longer feel safe and comfortable for that team.
Dr. Michelle McQuaid: It might be something that's changed in the way they're being asked to work or the type of work they're asking to do. So the thing is that there is no shaming struggle, right? Struggle is how we are wired to learn and grow. But so often, particularly in workplaces where we feel like our worth and our opportunities depend on us being able to get it right all the time, struggle is often not allowed and it doesn't feel safe. And of course the heart of psychological safety as Professor Amy Edmondson's researchers looked at it is around that, is it safe to talk about problems and to talk about mistakes and what's not working with each other? So that question, where are we struggling is so important to keep asking all the time to normalize and to get the learning and growth out of the struggle. The third question is exactly that.
Dr. Michelle McQuaid: So based, based on what's working, where we're struggling, what are we learning, the fourth one is then. And so what do we wanna do about that? Because again, I think often in workplaces we are very outcome focused, understandably because of the commercial nature of the work that many of us do, or the positive impact we want that work to have. But actually what matters more is the learning we're getting along that journey cuz that's what allows the next outcome to be achieved and the next outcome to achieve. So that those two last questions, what are we learning from what's working and where we're struggling and then what do we wanna do about it? This is where we allow for that intelligence and flexibility, adaptability to keep coming in as the world around us keeps changing.
Dr. Robin Stern: I think that's great. I love your four points. What's working? Where are we struggling, what are we learning and what are we gonna do about it? And so, um, within each one just pushing a little bit and and taking it a little deeper, um, what are the rules around those conversations? Because in my experience, one of the things that really helps conversations that are difficult are, uh, things like clear boundaries. Yeah, clear expectations. Things that we know we're, we're not going to, uh, engage in yelling. For example, if the people who were involved are yellers or known to be yellers and containment, we're going to do this same thing as boundaries, I guess, um, from seven 30 to eight 30 and, and then we'll revisit it if we need to do that at another time. Which I think gives people confidence going into a conversation that they can come to close even if there's not completely a, a resolve at the end of a certain time. It's like respectful and trusting of people's ability to manage themselves, giving them that little extra support and scaffolding and doing that. Um, so I, I wanna hear from you, what, what are some of those rules when you take that deeper?
Dr. Michelle McQuaid: Yeah, absolutely. And I think the rules as a somewhat dependent on the team and the culture environment in which you're in. So some of that may already be in place in terms of the ways that you have agreed to work with each other. Um, we probably find that there's a golden rule, um, robin, that then allows sort of teams to find the nuances within that are specific to their situation and circumstances. And that golden rule for psychological safety in the way that we talk with each other is how do we try to stay out of judgment and reach for curiosity instead, right? Our minds have that tendency because we want all the pieces of the puzzles to fit together all the time, to rush to judgment when things don't feel comfortable for us or don't make sense for us, or we wanna make sure that it's going the way we think it should go.
Dr. Michelle McQuaid: And what we are not so great as, as a result is sitting in the uncertainty and the curiosity. Our brains don't like uncertainty and not having all the answers, which is why many of us have this tendency to rush to judgment and to not sit so much with curiosity. Um, so we found that there are a couple of things then within that golden rule that can help us then reach for the behaviors in these conversations, in these safety checks to be able to show up and create that safe space for each other. Um, the first is not mind reading each other again. It's that thinking. We know all of the answers instead of slowing down and asking the questions. So if somebody's sharing, hey, this is what's working well, or Hey, this is where I feel we're struggling at the moment, rather than thinking, oh, you know, that person's always trying to make it about x
Dr. Michelle McQuaid: Or Can you help me understand perhaps what that's been like for you so that we are asking rather than mind reading? Um, the second one we find is that getting stuck on the hump of politeness and biting our tongue. So we just won't say anything, you know, that's just Robin's thing. Like just let it pass by instead of actually saying, Hey Robin, that's not my experience of it. Can I share mine with you? And maybe between what works for you and what works for me, we can find a middle way here or at least appreciate that it's different for each other. So biting our tongue is not kind. Um, just because we are not willing to get into the awkward or uncomfortable parts of a conversation, it's actually disrespectful because we're not allowing the opportunity for something to be figured out. We're not showing each other the respect we deserve to sit in the uncomfortable and the awkward, um, no groaning and moaning.
Dr. Michelle McQuaid: Um, so instead of like, it's always this way never works. We've tried that before. Instead, how do we dare and share, yep. How do we be honest and vulnerable with actually what is ours to own or what we are struggling with rather than blaming everything else? And that last one is the pointing the finger. I know every time I've got the pointing the finger out or my team call it the cat poo bum face on sort of, you know, sucking in the lips, then I know I'm in judgment and I'm not in curiosity. And so everything that happens in our relationships, Robin, as your research so beautifully shows is a two way street, right? There's what's mine to own, there's what's yours to own and there's what's happening in the middle together between us. And to your point about those boundaries, how do I talk about what's important for me whilst also being willing to listen to what's important to you?
Dr. Michelle McQuaid: And then how do we sit in the middle of that together and see is there a middle ground or is it simply appreciating that this is different for each of us? And being respectful of that and trying to find the ways we can work together that's going to be helpful and safe and caring for both of us. So think it varies, right? There's a long list, but that's why we come to the golden rule, Robin, of just how do we stay outta judgment and sit in curiosity with each other? Just because again, neurologically our brains are wired to wanna jump to judgment. Not cuz we're bad people, but cuz we like all the pieces of our puzzle to fit together and people are confusing. So judgment, you know, makes it easy to do that. How instead do we sit in that mess? An uncomfortableness of curiosity
Dr. Robin Stern: At the L center for emotional intelligence. We call that being an emotion scientist where we're curious, not judgmental. So I'm, I'm interested in obviously the, uh, the rules and the practices that you're talking about and how they can create, uh, a better workplace, a safer workplace, compassionate, respectful, um, ethical workplace. And, and I wonder, um, where the legislation comes in. So if there is, um, a, a workplace where, uh, the harassment index or the harassment numbers are really high, how, how does that get communicated? What is the process? And um, I mean maybe that's a little far field from the actual questions about gaslighting, but I'm, I think it's important because one of the things that happens when somebody's in a gaslighting relationship and they say, I'm just, I'm not comfortable with the way you're talking to me anymore and I'm just gonna opt out of this conversation. Maybe you do that once, maybe you do that twice, but what are the consequences if somebody's going at it? And in a personal relationship, the consequence ultimately has to be I'm leaving you otherwise there's no, uh, there's you risk there being no accountability or no real consequence. So I wonder if you could speak to that a little bit.
Dr. Michelle McQuaid: Yeah, so the legislation, and it's only legislated at the moment in one state in Australia, which is New South Wales I mentioned earlier, but it has become part of Australia's, uh, safe Work Australia code of practice, which means that it's meant to be treated like legislation companies now are being very proactive around it. Um, so both the New South Wales legislation and the code of practice require three things. Uh, one is that you must identify these psychosocial hazards in your workplace. So there's a lot going on at the moment in terms of risk management, a bit like the bullying piece in schools, right? Where suddenly they're like, do we have problems around this? What is our existing data looking like? Do we have issues? Um, the second is they must monitor it on an ongoing basis, basis around the frequency with which it is occurring, the impact that it is having on people's wellbeing and the duration of that impact.
Dr. Michelle McQuaid: And again, if we think about burnout is kind of a, a longer term stress experience at work, that is why the legislation and code are requiring that ongoing monitoring. So Robin, that's where we might expect that, where we haven't necessarily seen companies having to measure, um, what might be going on with gaslighting or harassment on a regular basis. Companies in Australia will now need to show we have identified, um, risks that we have and we are monitoring risks that we have. And so we have lots of workplaces here at the moment, suddenly going, oh my God, how am I gonna measure this? What am I putting in place, uh, to be able to assess this? And that's where we might start to see more identification coming out that, hey, we have a leader who is really struggling around their use of these behaviors and there needs to be some intervention or action taken around that.
Dr. Michelle McQuaid: Um, so clearer reporting I think is one factor of it. Um, the third part is that leaders must be trained to be able to recognize and mitigate these risks. And so again, this is just the compliance side of it, right? So again, we've got lots of leaders suddenly going through training on these hazards and why these things are not acceptable and the fact that the organization is the one that will be fined, not the leader per se, if, uh, if, uh, so let's say there's a, a big risk of harassment in an organization, um, it's identified in their numbers that organization must report that to the, um, safe work, the government body that oversees this and what they're doing to address it. And if they don't, but a worker then later does, the organization can be fined a lot of money, tens and thousands of dollars. And in fact, there is a, uh, case that's just gone before our high court here in Australia testing this legislation recently. Um, and the employer has been fined, um, tens of thousands of dollars around not taking the care that they needed for the employee and the risks they were exposed to.
Dr. Robin Stern: I mean, I would imagine that many listeners are, um, thinking they're, they're moving to Australia because that's a bit Yeah.
Dr. Michelle McQuaid: Ha
Dr. Robin Stern: I definitely think, um, uh, it's, it's excellent news, really excellent news and it isn't surprising, uh, as we go on in this hour that, um, that gaslighting would be, uh, would lead to burnout.
Dr. Michelle McQuaid: Absolutely.
Dr. Robin Stern: And when we think about gaslighting, it is that long tail.
Dr. Michelle McQuaid: Absolutely.
Dr. Robin Stern: First of all, it takes time for it really to be, um, the, the way that the relationship works if you are being gaslighted by a a particular person. And then it's over time and there's that, um, the phase long phase of ruminating about what is real, what's reality, and really feeling like you're being driven crazy and you're second guessing yourself. And the long term consequences, as we both know are um, loss of self-esteem, depletion, exhaustion, and, and the feeling of, um,
Dr. Michelle McQuaid: Shame. Isolation, right?
Dr. Robin Stern: And no joy, no energy. And so that sounds a lot like burnout.
Dr. Michelle McQuaid: Yeah, very much so. And, and I, I can share this story cuz I've done so publicly before. In fact, I wrote a whole book around it, um, which was, that was my experience with gaslighting in the workplace where, um, I had a, a male, uh, boss, um, well intended a good person, but he got it very into his head that in order for me to take the next step in the organization, I needed to lead in a much more assertive and masculine way. I was in a very male dominated environment. And so he started really coming at me with, I wasn't resilient enough. I needed to be more resilient. And so every conversation suddenly started to become, I wasn't resilient enough. And it wasn't that my work hadn't changed. I was still getting, you know, I'd gotten very good performance reviews before this became a big thing for him.
Dr. Michelle McQuaid: But every conversa you're not resilient enough. You're not resilient enough, you're not resilient enough. And so that entire, just as you'll just go like, doubting, am I not resilient enough? Maybe I'm not resilient enough. I mean, I've survived a fair amount of in my life. I think of myself as pretty resilient person generally, and I climbed to the top of this very masculine dominated environment, but my leadership style was definitely more feminine and collaborative and inclusive than what was the norm in that organization. And for whatever reason, my boss at that time was like, you gotta be more masculine. I think perhaps I was embarrassing him in front of other male leaders for my inclusive style. I don't know. But he was. So, and this became every story was I was not resilient enough. Every action I took was seen through this lens of my lack of resilience and I needed to toughen up and I, and all the self doubt and the shame and then feeling disconnected, not wanting to be as, you know, spend as much time with my peers for fear that they'd see I wasn't resilient, like completely gaslighting crazy, making stuff.
Dr. Michelle McQuaid: Um, and fortunately in that mix I did manage to advocate and get myself an external coach. And when I sat down with that person, I'm like, this is what's, you know, happening. And this is what's in my head. Maybe I'm not resilient. I mean I survived a ton of I got to hear in my career, but maybe I'm not resilient. And she's like, Michelle, you are perfectly resilient. This has nothing to do with you. This is a masculine feminine style thing going on in a very masculine work environment. So what do you wanna do about it? So in the end, to set the boundary exactly to your examples, Rob
Dr. Michelle McQuaid: Um, you can beat that out
Dr. Robin Stern: Well first of all, thank you for sharing with the public, um, our public here. The name of your book, where can they find it?
Dr. Michelle McQuaid: Uh, Amazon. You'll find it on Amazon,
Dr. Robin Stern: Yeah. Wonderful. And thank you for sharing that personal story that, uh, really brought home the points that we've been talking about and, um, just so thrilled that you've been able to join me and I hope they'll be another time. We have lots more to unpack as, as you keep doing the good work you're doing in the world. And, and I really, um, know that the listening audience today has gotten so much as have I, um, from listening to your very, very carefully thought out, um, uh, way of making the world a psychologically safe place. I really appreciate your coming today.
Dr. Michelle McQuaid: Oh, you're so welcome, Robin. And if people want more of that research that was done in Australia and the information on the Hazards, if they go to, sorry, uh, the leaders lab.net/ 2022 workplace report, they can find it there. So, um, again, lots more on those hazards and that safety check and things. If people are wanting those tips, it's completely free and you can download it.
Dr. Robin Stern: I have one last question for you. Yeah, sure. What's next for you this year?
Dr. Michelle McQuaid: Yeah, so it's taking this research into workplaces and continuing to help individual workers build that personal psychological safety so that we don't doubt ourselves so much. I think that's the hardest thing, uh, with gaslighting in many ways. When you come out the other side of it, it's like, why did I doubt myself for so long around this and not feel able to set the boundary? And so again, if we look on that building the strength side, um, that for me is a big passion of how we can help workers do that. And how do we help leaders create those cultures of safety and care in their experience? Most leaders want to do the right thing. Um, very few of them are, and I don't think even my old boss was intentionally gaslighting me as such. He thought, you know, that was what I needed to do to survive in the environment that he was in and probably didn't realize just how much that was undercutting my confidence and wellbeing and performance at work. And so helping bosses have a different set of tools that they feel more confident and able to use, uh, to get better results out of their people. And what the research shows is performance goes up, wellbeing goes up, safety goes up. Like all the things we want are better
Dr. Robin Stern: Wonderful. Well, I look forward to hearing more about that as you move forward, right? Thank you. Thank you all for listening, and please join me on the next episode of The Gaslight Effect podcast. 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 and Gabby Caoagas, and Suzen Pettit and Marcus Estevez from Omaginarium Marketing LLC.