Wait, is my boss gaslighting me?

I teach leadership & organizational development, conduct industrial and organizational psychology research, and occasionally pick up consulting work. When consulting, I typically conduct qualitative research and some sort of organizational audit. In most instances, I am attempting to gain insights into organizational culture, while exploring familiar cultural dynamics like communication, work outcomes, and employee performance, but these days, I am most interested in personal and organizational well-being. When inquiring with employees, and especially executives, about organizational well-being, I typically receive responses oriented around economic performance, or so-called objective performance measures, which is of great value, but it neglects the employee “lived experience” and associated work outcomes.

I don’t necessarily consider the economic framing of organizational well-being as intentionally dismissive of the employee lived experience, but I do feel strongly that this kind of narrative is incomplete, neglecting to learn from the employee’s actual experience, which includes feelings, emotions, perceptions, and other dimensions of psychological well-being. Accordingly, when consulting with organizations, I always introduce questions intended to bring forward insights into the subjective, psychological dimensions of well-being, which I propose are directly linked to organizational objective and economic success measures. When developing an interview questionnaire, I incorporate questions about relationships, engagement, purpose, meaning, goal attainment, and positive sentiment, built on Seligman’s foundational PERMA model of subjective well-being. Other subjective well-being models are readily available to practitioners and researchers, but in addition to being a strong proponent of the PERMA format, I find that it also resonates with executives and HR professionals.

Here are some enduring themes I frequently encounter when researching and consulting: people are hurting, and many folks are suffering with real mental health complications and conditions, affecting both individual and organizational well-being. For instance, in a recently published journal article, our research team identified rates of anxiety and depression with workers that were off the charts! It has already been well-established through a long history of research that the general population also struggles with these two conditions. In another forthcoming journal article, we examined associations between intrinsic motivation, compassion fatigue, with symptomology like that of generalized anxiety and depression, and compared findings against various organizational performance measures, but that is for another discussion. I’m sure some of you want me to get to the point and tell you more about what I hear from workers, so here it is: lots of people are fed up with their bosses! It’s more than just being frustrated at work; it is about profound contempt and resentments directed towards a very specific group of individuals – the bosses! From what I have learned, these kinds of expressed frustrations should not be brushed off as another instance of employee disconnect or apathy. Many of the situations described to me are examples of supervisors and leaders having earned the title of “terrible boss!”

Knowing I’m not the only person who receives this kind of feedback from workers, I am so interested in why the topic is infrequently discussed in a way that is reflective of the employee lived experience, including their point of view regarding terrible leadership, and the psychic toll these kinds of leaders exact on workers. I would suggest that it is time for leaders, theorists, and practitioners alike to pause, and account for the rapidly growing trend of workers actively, and vocally, despising their bosses! There is so much evidence to readily substantiate this idea; any online search will generate hits. Consider the recent Great Resignation, marked by millions of employee resignations as indicated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), which undoubtedly contains implications of worker frustrations with deficient supervisors. Prior to the Great Resignation, researchers already identified a trend associated with younger workers, suggesting that employees, on average, stick with their employers for only 2 ½ years. There are numerous reasons cited by employees choosing to leave their employers, but I believe an accurate framing of the issue must also consider lesser known causes, including the implications of working for a terrible boss. I know many HR professionals and other researchers are contemplating these concerns, and I have seen financial analytics illustrating the economic impact to organizations tasked with critical recruitment and retainment responsibilities, yet the problem persists. So, why the reluctance to discuss crappy bosses?

Consider the following possibilities:

  • A lack of organizational introspection.
  • Incomplete organizational well-being metrics, especially those associated with subjective well-being.
  • Organizational confirmation bias (more on this in the future).
  • Ineffective leadership training.
  • Not holding leaders to high (higher or highest) performance standards
  • Inability to adapt and pivot.
  • Nondescript and inadequate HR terms, like “soft skills and people skills”, used to describe relational connectivity between workers and leaders.
  • Viewing employees as expendable, so-called, “human capital’, thereby transforming people into commodities.
  • Neglecting the employee lived experience.
  • And…a default response of positive reframing

I recently had a worker describe an ongoing challenge with her boss, wherein the supervisor routinely referenced the employee’s perceived performance deficiencies, but also spent a considerable amount of time attempting to redefine the worker’s reality. When the employee requested clarity on failing to meet expectations, the supervisor would say things like, “oh, I can’t even talk to you. Your voice is now elevated, and you are becoming frustrated and upset!” The supervisor’s comments conspicuously side-stepped the question, instead choosing to go on the offensive with a series poorly timed and combative assertions, missing a critical moment to skillfully communicate expectations and reconnect with the employee. When listening to the worker’s experience with her boss, I was rather surprised by a specific comment. The worker said, “please tell me I’m not crazy! I feel like my boss is gaslighting me.” This individual, although struggling at work, is far from crazy (her term), and after hearing more about her boss and the overall working conditions of the organization, it was quite clear: her boss was awful, and the organization was a mess.

Although I have heard many similar stories in the recent past, this worker/boss interaction helped me to recognize how my resilience training and stylistic preferences quickly moved in the direction of reframing the scenario as a positive learning opportunity. A likely reflection of my tendency to problem solve. I recognize the benefits of positive reframing and appreciate tributary concepts, like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), but I think that we (the collective WE: researchers, practitioners, theorists, clinicians, etc.) may be defaulting to “positivity” way to fast and as a default mechanism. Consider, CBT and other therapeutic modalities also incorporate “exposure therapy” as a foundational method for treating various psychological conditions, including trauma and PTSD, to great effect. While acknowledging the benefits of positive reframing, I suggest that it is essential to also hear workers when they say, “my boss sucks and I can’t stand working here for one more second!” Naturally, we don’t want people to languish in the negative dimensions of their work experience, but we should be – there for it! Again, positivity is important, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. The whole story is where the learning and growth happens.

When I asked the emotionally exhausted worker how I can best help her in the moment, she had one final question: “do you think I should quit?” How would you respond?

Thanks for reading, and…. LEAD ON!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: