When Your Boss is a Corporate Psychopath
How to Identify Signs of Gaslighting
“When you first met this person, they were probably one of the nicest people you had ever met,” … “Charming, lovely, easy to get on with”~ David Gillespie (Taming Toxic People)
So, this is what makes it so hard.
They don’t come with a placard on their forehead that announces, “Hi, my name is M…., and I am a psychopath!” (This, would, of course, make it a lot easier to figure out, and you wouldn’t have to spend months thinking you were going mad or losing your mind).
My Experience: Ignorance is Bliss
I worked for five years in a job, where for the first four years I was oblivious to the fact that my boss was a corporate psychopath. It was not until the final three years when I had been Supervisor and had to see her frequently one on one and in daily meetings, that I experienced gaslighting, ghosting and the toxic nature of her management style.
Before this time, I had worked on, in blissful ignorance. I had heard tales of dissatisfaction from other employees who left, or who had been there longer than I had, but I had put this down to coming from mostly disgruntled ex-employees who had issues after their bullshit had been called out. I had no experience of her being any other way but nice.
Oh, how wrong I was. Ignorance had been bliss while it lasted.
I had been brought up to believe that if you worked hard, were honest, gave more than you got, and were loyal; that this would pay off, and get rewarded. You would have value as a staff member, you would advance in your job, and you could work out compromises or solutions to most issues that came along.
Unfortunately, holding this belief is what played into my staying 18 months longer than I should have in this position, and led to my near total breakdown.
I always felt like if I tried hard enough, pushed hard enough, worked hard enough and long enough, and attempted to understand my boss and what she wanted from me that eventually, it would all turn out alright.
“It’s common for people going through workplace gaslighting to try to work even harder to prove themselves to bosses or teammates, which can backfire by increasing anxiety and stress” ~ Wanda Thibodeaux, Inc.
I ended up second guessing myself, my recollections, my memories, my recall of events, conversations and my actions.
I ended up starting to doubt my sanity.
Working for a corporate psychopath is no joke.
Amalgam of Behaviours
So, it is important to distinguish that it is a compilation of some behaviors coming together that form a pattern which makes this different.
It is not just your boss having a bad day, or being a jerk every once in a while.
“It’s not just someone lying… or saying, “I don’t like what you’re wearing” once in a while. It’s an amalgam of behaviors that together are very indicative of abusive behavior” ~ Stephanie Sarkis, Ph.D. (Psychology Today).
It is more common to be working alongside people like this, than you may at first think.
“… a report from Gallup presents that out of 7,200 adults surveyed, roughly half left a job “to get away from their manager.” For every incompetent or overbearing manager, there’s a more nefarious kind that may cause harm not only to your career but also to your psyche” ~ Rebecca Jo (Ladder).
Behaviors Which May Indicate a Corporate Psychopath
The term gaslighting comes from a 1944 film ‘Gaslight’ where a husband controls the lighting in a house and creates noises in an attic but denies he is doing it until eventually, his wife starts to doubt her sanity and perception of reality.
Today, the term is used to refer to a series of behaviors by a person that is emotionally manipulative but has the result of making another person doubt themselves, and lose confidence in their self-belief and view of reality.
“But when it becomes a series of behaviors where the sole intent is to gain control of someone else, then you’re getting into gaslighting behaviors. It’s a form of abuse, and usually the person displays a pattern of these manipulation tactics throughout several relationships” ~ Stephanie Sarkis
When the gaslighter is a boss, this can be even more devastating.
Gaslighting is an umbrella term, that encompasses all, or some of, the following behaviors by an individual towards another.
No Work/Life Balance
In my own experience while I was working as a Supervisor in a government agency with 12 staff working overtime was sometimes a given. I never had an issue with this when there were urgent matters. With the type of job I was doing, the situation could mean the safety of a person, or community was threatened if specific actions did not happen immediately. Overtime came with the territory.
I had spoken to enough people who worked as Supervisor in other offices not just in our District but in others, to realize that an hour or so overtime two or three times a week was the norm. However, in my situation, it extended well beyond this.
Like the frog slowly boiling in a pot of water that doesn’t immediately recognize his dire circumstances, it took me a long while to figure out my slow burn was toxic.
Over the last two years in the office, any time that an issue was identified with staff not performing, I was tasked by my Manager with adding it to a list of either daily or weekly oversights I had to conduct myself. Technically individuals were meant to be responsible for their work, but because of people consistently overlooking specific tasks, it was tasked to me to do jobs not completed.
So, I was never told NOT to work overtime, but I was told to stay until I had completed the expected workload. I was doing an extra 12–15 hours a week work on top of my normal workload to get the additional tasks completed. It gradually kept increasing and increasing.
Anytime I brought it up or complained: I was told to look at my time management or to go ‘offline’ for an hour or two to catch up. Even though I did this, I ended up being in the office from 7 am in the morning until sometimes 8 or 9 pm each night. Working a few hours or a whole day each weekend also became the norm.
It wasn’t until another boss came to relieve as District Manager in our office for four months and I had the extra oversight taken off me, that I was aware of how stressed this had made me. She was horrified at the expectation which she assured me was unreasonable. She had worked as Supervisor in multiple offices in our State, and she affirmed that there was no reason I should have to work more than 9– 5 pm each day (as did everyone else in the same position).
It was like a weight lifted off my shoulders. I was the happiest I had ever been working in the role once I was only expected to do my job. If it stayed like this, I would have happily stayed in the position.
It was watching how badly treated this new manager was who was only ‘babysitting’ the role for my permanent boss that ignited my self-awareness that it wasn’t ME that was the issue — it was my boss.
It took seeing the abuse happen to someone else for the ‘blinkers to drop off my eyes’ and for me to accept that my treatment was abusive and not okay.
The temporary manager made all the staff go home at 5 pm each day unless it was something that was urgent. My old boss tried to sabotage this for us in every way possible. If there were a matter that she needed to sign off on before we could go home, she would wait until 6.30 or 7 pm before she rang and told us her decision. It was embarrassing to experience her behavior through someone else’s eyes, but it emphasized to me how it was not ME that was the issue but my old boss’s expectations.
My new temporary manager, fortunately, had the good sense and enough experience working in other offices to be able to know how toxic the situation was. She was able to privately speak to me about what was happening to her (the behaviors which were all the same as had been done to me) which helped me place the responsibility where it should have gone right from the beginning.
In many ways (and I am not too dramatic) she saved my sanity by taking the risk of sharing what she was experiencing. Once she realized that this is what I lived with on a daily basis in my work environment, she was able to cope better for the short time she had agreed to contract as manager and was able to support me emotionally.
I had not confided in any of my other friends at work as I knew none of them had experienced or seen what was happening to me. I was so scared they would not believe me. I was ashamed, feeling at my core that I must be doing something wrong.
Some other behaviors to recognize and identify a corporate psychopath are:
Strategic co-dependency, trivializing, punitive punishments, manipulation, hoovering, getting others in the office to align against you, always moving the line, micromanaging, mixing up some praise with high levels of criticism, countering and diverting and lying to others.
- Co-dependent bosses have a high need for power and control.
- They micromanage.
- They need to blame and dimish others.
- They like to feel they are the only ones who can do anything a job correctly.
- They view other employees doing their job well as a threat rather than seeing them as an asset.
Seeing Employees as Threat to Their Position And Not Assets
My particular boss let go some female employees who were tremendous workers who also had drive and ambition.
“…the top 10 percent generate as much or more output than the other 90 percent.”
― Robert I. Sutton
All of them didn’t have their contracts renewed despite the understaffing creating impossible workloads for remaining staff.
Having workers my boss could emotionally manipulate, and control was less threatening to her than having capable, reliable employees.
“Leaders who don’t listen will eventually be surrounded by people who have nothing to say” ~ Billy Carney
Confusion (Reward and Punishment)
On one occasion my boss invited another colleague and myself to accompany her on a trip to meet up with two of her friends in a city about five hours away. The trip was outside of work hours and over a weekend. She said that she had already paid for the accommodation and we could get a lift down with her in her car. She said we did not have to pay anything towards the trip as she had paid regardless of whether we came or not, and she would like the company. She also said she felt that my colleague who had been experiencing stressful personal issues deserved to get away for the weekend. So we went.
After we arrived at the hotel, we went out to dinner. My colleague and I decided to come home about 11.30pm as we were both tired. My boss and her friends were going nightclubbing. She didn’t appear phased that we were going back to the hotel.
I heard my boss arrive back at the hotel about 4 am in the morning. I was sharing a room with a colleague (it had two single beds). I got up to make coffee for myself about 9 am the next morning. My boss came out. She said that we had missed a good night and asked me how our night was. I said that we had a great night and we had shared an intense and meaningful conversation about some things and then gone to bed.
She rolled her eyes, shook her head, frowned, walked away and shut the door in my face. My colleague was still asleep. I had no idea what I supposedly had done wrong or why she acted so irritated. The previous night when we had both said we were too tired to stay up all night, she had been laughing and saying it was all okay.
I thought she must be jealous. She came back out of the room, and she commented that some people at work had wondered if there was ‘more’ between my friend and me than just work colleagues. I didn’t immediately understand what she meant. My friend and I were both happily married. We rarely saw each other outside of work hours. I must have been looking confused as she raised her eyebrows. Then I realized what she meant.
I was shocked. I immediately said “that’s rubbish” and “ridiculous.” I asked her who had said this. She nodded no with her head. She then said, “I’m only just telling you, so you know.” She was acting like she was saying this to do me a favor. She then tapped the side of her nose and said in a little girly sing-song voice “you better be careful.”
I never told my friend about this conversation as it was too ridiculous and she also had been going through trauma in her family which my boss was aware. It was my boss who had said we needed to share a room between us and we had indicated it was not an issue.
I spent ages going over in my head in distress as to who at work might have mentioned such a thing. I don’t have a problem with lesbianism, but I did have a problem with people gossiping and thinking we both were lying and being deceitful to our mates. I also didn’t understand why she would say such a cruel thing to me when she did. Her reaction before her comment had been annoyance and irritation which still confused me.
On the way back home and at breakfast (where other friends joined our table) she did not speak directly to me. She ignored me. I was so angry inside that I went and paid for breakfast for all of us. It was my way of not feeling beholden to her for the trip. When she realized I had paid for us all my boss just rolled her eyes again, frowned and walked away.
It was not until much later that I realized this is classic gaslighting behavior. Pulling someone down, and then giving compliments. Doing something nice in the middle of criticizing. Demeaning someone in the form of ‘helping them’. Insinuating others feel the same way as them but not providing any details. Leaving you with no way to fix the situation. Leaving you feeling beholden to them. Leaving confusion and a mass of contradictory emotions in their wake.
She had tried to put a wedge between my friend and I. I thought “Why did she even invite us?” Maybe someone had let her down, so she got back at them by taking us to bolster her self-esteem. Her actions showed to me that she did not care about us. She only showed this behavior to me, not my colleague who thought she was terrific for taking us away. I struggled with the conflicting emotions for a long time afterward.
Over the two years, I was Supervisor my boss would often not speak directly to me for days. She would send emails about tasks even though she was sitting less than 10 meters away, she would walk around and say hello to everyone else in the office and would laugh and joke with people all around me but ignore me. Occasionally I would try and ask her if everything was alright, or tell her that it felt like she was ignoring me, but she would always deny it, tell me I was imagining it and then continue.
If I tried to talk to her, she would often not look at me and would walk away if no one else were around or would give a minimal reply not looking at me. At the point where I felt I could not go on anymore, she would suddenly start talking to me again as if nothing had happened.
This intermittent hot and cold behavior towards me regularly occurred.
“Your boss pretends not to see you, acknowledge your work, or refuses to listen to your feedback. Meanwhile, they might offer isolated compliments and praise that seems out of place or uncharacteristically generous” ~Rebecca Jo (Ladders).
At intermittent times my boss would let me know that I was performing better than all the other Supervisors in our District. She took it as a matter of pride that the statistics for work performance and completed targets were better in our office than anywhere else.
Having my boss compliment me in-between criticizing me — made me question my understanding of the reality of what was happening.
“This person or entity that is cutting you down, telling you that you don’t have value, is now praising you for something you did. This adds an additional sense of uneasiness. You think, “Well maybe they aren’t so bad.” Yes, they are”~ Psychology Today.
On one occasion near the end of my time working under her she had called me into her office to ask me to do something for her.
In the five years, I had been working there I had never before heard the terms she used when telling me what she wanted me to do. She was at her desk typing looking at her computer and did not look up.
I spoke to her calmly and apologized saying that I didn’t understand her request as I had never heard of it before.
Without looking up at me, continuing to type on her computer, she enunciated her words, slowly repeating them like she was talking to a child, in the same way, she had previously asked.
I stood there. I felt stupid. I was wracking my brain as to what my boss meant. I couldn’t understand what she was asking me at all.
I again apologized. This time I said, I am not disrespectful, I am trying to understand. I want to do what you are asking me to do. Can you please word it differently?
She again repeated without looking at me talking in the same monotone slow voice like she was speaking to a child.
I stayed silent this time. I could feel the anger brewing up amongst the shame and embarrassment.
She then again without looking at me said with a huge sigh, and raised voice, “Don’t worry. I will have to do it myself. I would have been quicker to do it myself without even bothering to ask you”.
I walked out of the room.
I knew I could not contain the tears. Being tearful at work was something that had never happened previously. The receptionist had walked in the room after I had left, and they both were laughing and joking together. I picked up my bag as it was 10 minutes before closing time.
As soon as I had left the building the tears came. I sobbed like a child walking home for 45 minutes. I got back to my home, and my husband just held me as I collapsed.
I felt so much anger and so much shame about what had happened. I had conflict in me over whether it was my stupidity or her words that were the issue. I constantly self-doubted myself around her, which I had never done in all my previous work history or this job. I knew that I hadn’t deserved to be spoken to in the manner I had been, as I was more than willing to assist in any way she asked. I had spoken respectfully towards her.
I noticed I had three missed calls from my boss. I couldn’t speak to her. My friend and colleague then rang. I answered. She could tell I was crying. She said, “M……asked me to call (referring to our boss) as she thinks she is the reason you are upset.” She says you couldn’t do what she asked you to and now she feels awful about it”. I could hear my boss laughing and talking to someone else in the background.
I knew my friend was being used by my boss to get at me. I had never walked out without saying goodbye before. My boss was trying to save face and cover ground to rectify the situation but not out of genuine remorse or care for me, but to manipulate other staff to feel sympathy for her and put me down.
I told my friend I would be fine, but I was in no position to be able to talk to my boss and the next day when I went to work my boss acted as if nothing had happened.
You should never listen to criticism that is primarily intended to wound, even if it contains more than a grain of truth.”
― Robin Stern
Trivializing is another example of gaslighting.
“…your boss suggests you’re too emotional, making a big deal out of nothing” ~ Rebecca Jo (Ladders)
- Your boss calls your perception of reality into question by making you doubt your natural response to a situation or behavior.
- They downplay your emotional response and put your answer as being the problem.
“…you may also experience judgment or punitive punishment like your boss sabotaging your work” ~ Rebecca Jo (Ladders)
- Punishment may be subtle and indirect and is due to their perception that you are threatening the power balance.
- They aim to alienate you and to do this they sometimes employ others on their behalf.
- Punishment or humiliation can be done under the guise of fun, etc.
My boss would get other staff to make fun of me, always at her instigation. I was the only one who knew she was ignoring me and constantly criticizing me. Usually, I had no idea why despite trying to raise it in conversation with her. She always would say nothing was wrong, and I was reading too much into things, over thinking, and being too sensitive.
She would get other staff to laugh at my clothes, my hair, or my facial expressions as I worked. She instigated it but always under the guise of “liking me” or “having fun.” It made me feel completely demoralized. It never felt like fun. She knew what was going on, and so did I, but no one else did. I am shortsighted and often squint even when wearing my glasses and she would make comments about this laughing and making jokes. She didn’t make fun of anyone else-only me.
I felt like if I said anything about not liking it that I would be seen as a poor sport, especially as my workmates were unaware of the daily criticism and ignoring that was occurring between us.
“Make sure you’re not becoming a sideshow for workplace manipulation” ~ Rebecca Jo
“…when you try to leave a gaslighter, they do this thing called “hoovering,” just like the Hoover vacuum… Gaslighters will either try to hoover you back into the relationship, or they’ll have someone waiting in the wings, and they’ll drop you like a hot potato and move on to the next person.” ~ Stephanie Sarkis, Ph.D. (Psychology Today)
If they think you are going to leave, they will tell you all the things they love about you, and then make you second guess your motivations. If you stay or leave and then go back things will be worse than they were before.
It is very similar to living with domestic violence, but instead of being in an intimate relationship it is a working relationship where it is happening. As you spend more time each day with this person than an intimate partner, it can be as bad as living with domestic violence especially if it is all done behind closed doors and no one else in the office is aware of it.
About 2.5 years into working in this job my husband who was self-employed invited me to come and work for him. I was only required to give two weeks notice, but I gave a month. My boss begged me to stay for an extra six weeks as she said she had booked an overseas holiday she couldn’t change and had already approved other leave for other staff which she would have to cancel.
I agreed to stay for the sake of the other staff more than for her. She never said goodbye. She never organized a farewell for me. I approached her on her final day after having been ignored for nearly two weeks by her and initiated a conversation directed at her. She gave some comment about how it would be up to other staff if they wanted to organize a farewell and walked away.
Organizing goodbyes for staff leaving was something that I as Supervisor was always tasked to do on the Manager’s behalf. I knew her lack of oversight in tasking someone to do this for me meant she was showing how little regard she had for me.
Unfortunately for me, within three months my husband’s business plummeted due to external factors outside of his control. We were facing possible bankruptcy unless I could get employment somewhere else. I rang my old boss to advise her I was seeking to put her name down as a referee on a job application I was making. She sounded thrilled to hear from me, and she asked to meet with me. I was utterly taken aback by her reaction, and so I agreed.
She acted ecstatically happy to see me. She bought me a coffee. She ended up saying how much the staff and herself missed me and there was an opening back in the office. I accepted her offer to come back and work in my old role. As she stood up and we were both about to leave she turned to me and said, “Oh, the only reason I am taking you back is that you didn’t badmouth me.”
I was left gobsmacked. What about my work? What about my value as an employee? I realized once again I was walking straight back into the lion’s den. However, I believed I could handle it. I thought I was strong enough.
“More common forms of manipulation are about getting our own way — “gaming the system” ~ Stephanie Sarkis
In the last year before I left this job, my boss had an opportunity to act up as Regional Manager in our District. She wanted to act up in the role but was struggling to find someone to fill her job as District Manager. She also had a senior staff member leaving which left a critical role in the office empty. Despite not having found someone to replace her straight away as District Manager she accepted the role of Regional Manager that had been offered to her and was doing both jobs. She also was trying to juggle the vacant position in our office.
She approached me and asked if I would consider doing the role of both Supervisor and Senior Case Manager for a few months as she was so worried about how the office was going to survive and function without someone experienced looking after things. I agreed to help out for three months.
I did both roles for these three months. It nearly killed me. But I did it. I worked 12 hour days and weekends. Some mornings I was there before 6 am. My boss was exceptionally friendly to me, and whenever I asked her how she thought things were going, she always replied that she thought everything was going well.
At the end of two months, she called me into her office and pulled apart everything I had been doing in both roles.
She said that it was “her fault” I sucked at both roles, and she should never have asked me to do it. She said she had therefore decided to make me “choose” which role I wanted to do; either be Supervisor or Senior Case Manager — but not both.
I was stunned. I couldn’t have worked any more hours than I had or completed any more tasks. I hit back. I asked why I ‘sucked’ at the Supervisor role in this time if all our office statistics showed our office was performing better than any other office, in the whole region. She paused and then said, “Our office is better at everything only because I make you work longer hours than other Supervisors!” So even in the midst of tearing me down, she complimented herself on why our office was doing so well, as she had MADE me work the hours, rather than congratulating me on a job well done.
“Don’t ask yourself, “Who’s Right?” Ask yourself, “Do I like being treated this way?”
― Robin Stern
I can only surmise why she attacked my work when there was no apparent reason for it, but I think that because so many people in our District had been complimenting her on how awesome it was that I was helping her out by doing these two roles, that she couldn’t stand having any attention off her. She hated me getting praised.
So she had pulled me into her office and torn me to shreds. She had no evidence to back up what she was saying. She kept saying that extra tasks I had been delegating to other staff were not welcome by them (she had asked me to delegate these tasks) and that if I could not do ALL the jobs entailed in both roles, then I shouldn’t be doing them. There was no room for negotiation; no examples presented of shoddy work; it was a full on frontal obliteration.
They Try To Align People Against You
One way that they do this is by telling you that:
- This person (person’s name) has told me this about you.
- They (person’s name) also believe this.
Or, they say to you, everyone thinks this about you. But refuse to name who has allegedly spoken.
In the end, you don’t know who to trust. You feel totally isolated. You think everyone in the office hates you and is against you.
“When the gaslighter uses this tactic it makes you feel like you don’t know who to trust or turn to — and that leads you right back to the gaslighter. And that’s exactly what they want: Isolation gives them more control” ~ Psychology Today.
With my boss, it appeared to be a popularity contest with her. She couldn’t stand NOT to be popular.
She wanted to remain everyone’s friend so she would direct me as Supervisor to talk to a staff member about poor work performance. She would tell me precisely what to say and what examples to give to them about their work as well as a timeline. I often felt like a puppet on a string being manipulated and pulled with no mind or voice of my own.
I would speak to the staff as directed. I would spend ages figuring out and carefully choosing my words and the most productive, positive and strength-based way of having the discussion. Often I would feel quite sick to the stomach at some of the difficult conversations I had been asked to have. I would run to the toilet numerous times before having them. But I would always have the talks as in the majority of cases they were warranted.
The staff member would sometimes then go and complain to her about what was said, and she would sympathize with the staff member. She would not back up anything I had said. She would never let on that she had been the one directing the conversation to occur. She would let the staff member know she would ‘speak to me about it’ thereby implying I had done something wrong.
So instead of being supported, she was giving the staff a friendly ear and voice and then she would sit back — and watch. It was like she was supplying the ammunition and loading the gun and then took pleasure in seeing the result. I didn’t realize it was happening in this way for nearly 18 months until a chance conversation with a staff member.
I was shocked, horrified and instantly realized that she was deliberately creating this situation to keep the flow of information happening to her in the office.
She still wanted to be perceived as ‘the good guy,’ but was isolating me as the Supervisor by giving me all the difficult conversations about staff conflict and management, most of which her role stipulated she should have been doing.
She was also deliberately sabotaging me in my role in the office by this behavior. Instead of backing me up or presenting a united front she was allowing the perception that I was acting as a lone wolf, talking to staff without her knowledge.
She would commiserate with them, and then they were even less likely to improve in the areas she had asked me to speak with them about, and I would be tasked to complete their unfinished work. So, my burden increased.
Psychopathic Behavior in The Workplace
How a psychopath differs from a narcissist is that a psychopath is a predator. How this manifests from a boss in the workplace is that:
“They differ from the narcissist in that taking advantage of others is their most prized objective in their life” ~ Joe Navarro, M.A. (Psychology Today)
They do as they please and rationalize everything that they do.
“There is nothing that says a person cannot be both a malignant narcissist and a social predator” ~ Joe Navarro
“…narcissists tend to do things in public; they cherish public praise and recognition and love a servile, laudatory audience. In contrast, the social predator, for the most part, wants to work in secret and prefers isolation” ~ Joe Navarro
Sometimes you get a boss who is both narcissistic, loving adulation and wanting servile employees they can manipulate; and also psychopathic in that they do nearly all their attacks behind closed doors so that the person ends up isolated.
One of my work colleagues was about to go on maternity leave. Her last day at work was coming up. As Supervisor I organized the goodbyes and the morning teas for visiting dignitaries. I went to my boss’s office to talk to her privately about my plans for our colleagues’ goodbye. I had already spoken to other employees about putting a maternity basket together for her as a gift. My boss acted disinterested, and in fact, she told me she thought it was “a difficult one“ to use her words. When I asked what was awkward about it, she said to leave it with her. I did not understand. I said I wanted to organize it and she said ‘no.’ She didn’t or wouldn’t say anything else, and so I left the room. About two weeks later I came to work, and my boss had decorated all the office and my colleague’s desk with balloons, and there was a huge card for everyone to sign and a basket full of ‘baby goods’ for her sitting on her desk that my boss had purchased on her own.
I realized my boss needed to be everyone’s darling. She needed the praise. She had made out that I was showing favoritism by wanting to do this even though I had told her others in the office thought it was a good idea and had all wanted to contribute.
I couldn’t complain as it would be in poor taste and I would appear a lousy colleague — complaining that “I had wanted to do this.” I just left it. It was another example of weird behavior and exchanges between us.
A clinical psychologist visited our office once a fortnight and stayed overnight at a local motel (paid for by the agency). He saw some of our high-risk clients that we referred to him (the agency paid for this). It was an area of counseling he was seeing them for that was very specialized, and we had previously been unable to find anyone in the local area to do that service for the agency.
I found out this particular visit that it was his birthday the next day. His partner whom he lived with was four hours away, and he would be away from home on his birthday. I thought it would be a great idea to buy a card and cake and surprise him with morning tea. When I went in to let her know I was going to do this and the staff was all chipping in for the cake, she got annoyed. She said we had stopped buying office birthday cakes nearly two years prior for staff and therefore we shouldn’t be doing it for someone else.
I said this was different as he was only visiting and he was also doing us a favor. It was a nice gesture. I told her it would not offend or upset or make other staff feel left out by buying him a cake. She refused to participate and said she disagreed. She responded by making sure she stayed in her office when we presented him with the cake, she ‘ghosted’ (ignored) me in the office for a couple of weeks (all happy in front of others but never directly acknowledging or speaking to me — only sending me emails about work requests). Of course, nobody else in the office knew about this or were aware. As I had called her behavior out on this directly before and she had denied it and said I was mistaken there was no point in trying to communicate my distress or convey my anger at her behavior.
“…narcissists, in my experience, are noteworthy for their principal trait of overvaluing themselves at the expense of devaluing others. They think of themselves as special, privileged, entitled, and void of flaws — in other words, they give themselves plenty of latitude, while giving others little to none” ~ Joe Navarro, M.A. (Psychology Today)
On one occasion about halfway through working in this job I had invited my boss out to have dinner with me and a close friend of mine she had not met before.
My boss was quiet but not impolite, and this was not like her as she usually chatted a lot, was talkative and asked a lot of questions. But I thought the dinner went well. My friend worked as a Supervisor at another agency we had quite a bit professionally to do with on a weekly basis. I had met her at the university as both of us were mature aged students. We also both had an interest in permaculture and shared other worldviews.
About a month later my boss told me that she had done some asking around about my friend and as she had found out that she had changed places of employment twice in the last six years she thought she was fickle and lacked dependability.
It was a complete denigration of my friend, whom she did not know, had not really taken the time or made an effort to get to know, and took me completely by surprise. It left me gobsmacked. Why would she have gone out of her way to find this out? Why did she criticize her in front of me? What would be her motivation in that?
It appeared to be (and felt like) an indirect criticism of me and my choice of friend. It felt like she was questioning my judgment. I despised her for her comment. I said nothing. I did not need to vindicate my friend in front of her, who was worth 100 of someone like her. So, even though I was still trying to understand her, get her to like me, and stop her from being mean to me, I also disliked her behavior and was confused by trying to understand it.
She consistently made me question myself, my judgments and my self-worth, and my view of reality and the world.
It wasn’t until I was investigating gaslighting behaviors that I discovered denigration of friendships is one tactic these bosses use to demean you.
“I only associate with the best people, and frankly, most of your friends don’t measure up” ~ Joe Navarro, M.A. (Psychology Today)
Always Changing The Line
“They’re preachy masters of black and white moral categorizing. They always draw tidy distinctions with sanctimonious authority, as clear as the difference between heads and tails.
A psychopath boss often refuses to give feedback, or their feedback is very black and white and judgmental with no room for discussion. What they say goes and is always right. They may refuse to give you more information if you ask for it.
When I had the new relieving manager for four months who was mistreated by my permanent boss, one way she badly treated her was by refusing to give her all the information she needed to complete reports she asked for, and refused to tell her where to find it (in online files or in the office files). It took my new boss hours and hours, including weekends to therefore complete reports demanded, in short time frames. As a matter of pride, she worked all hours to get them done so she wouldn’t give her the satisfaction of having to say she had not been able to do it.
My new boss asked for weekly feedback on what was working and not working on how she was running the office so she could learn and implement the things as she went (she had only ever acted as District Manager on one previous occasion). My permanent boss refused to do so or avoided answering her, and in the end, when directly confronted in person, she said she would give it to her after she left!
Giving someone feedback, after leaving a job and not during it, is the least satisfactory scenario. It meant my boss could criticize her for not doing things ‘correctly’ without telling anyone she had refused to give her the information needed.
No Room to Criticize
She would send me twenty emails, with instructions in the first one to ‘go offline’ to complete the first task and then an hour into the morning; she would come in person to my office and open the door and demand an answer as to why I had not answered her last email? When I told her I had gone offline as she had requested to complete the task she reprimanded me for still not ‘checking.’
So, there was no room for a win-win scenario. Being given two conflicting bits of information meant my boss was always critical of the work I couldn’t complete.
My boss micromanaged me by dictating every aspect of my working day and each task in minute detail.
She also directed me to micromanage other staff despite it not being my management style or way of doing things.
There was no room for my own opinion despite the fact I was told to make the job my own, and do things my way. There was no room in my day to do things my way as she delegated so much to me it left me no time even to eat lunch away from my desk or take breaks. So, this was the day to day reality.
Inbetween the reality once a month or so, she would suddenly announce we were closing the office and going out to lunch to a local restaurant (everyone paid for themselves). Or, she would order pizza or order coffees and buy them for everyone to share. So this mix of good and deplorable behavior was confusing. Everyone who was not in management was not affected by her style. They did not see it. They thought she was just the best.
One of the things I was most ashamed of and found the hardest to reconcile in myself after I had left was the fact that even when I hated her the most, and was the most unhappy I would still be trying to please her.
I would compliment her, and ask her if she needed help. I actively would support her in front of others. I always pointed out her strengths.
I now know that this is common for abused people in domestic violence situations to try and appease their abuser. On reflection I was doing it to try and get her negative attention away from me, to take work off her to try and get her to be less critical of me. But nothing I did worked.
On one occasion I was away with my boss for a regional midweek work meeting at a town four hours away from home. We had separate rooms. There were about 20 staying in town for the conference. We stayed three nights in a local motel.
At 6.30am my phone rang in my room. It was my boss. We had all gone out to dinner the night before, and I had left about 11 pm and got a taxi back to the motel. She had stayed out later than me, and I was unsure what time she had gotten back to the motel. Anyway, she asked me if I could please do her a favor? She had the male Supervisor from another office stay the night at her suite, and he was meant to have stayed at his brothers in town (this is what he had told his wife). She said he couldn’t take the work car as she had used a breath tester and they both were still registering as over the legal limit for alcohol content for driving. No taxi drivers were answering as she had tried calling them without success (we were staying in a regional town).
She said he was very reluctant for her to ring me, but she had assured him he could 100% trust me, and she had implicit trust I would tell no one about him having stayed the night with her. I knew that if I disagreed and said no she would have made my life hell. I got dressed and dropped him off. He barely could look at me or speak he was so embarrassed by the situation. I didn’t ask him anything, and he didn’t talk. I knew he had a wife and young son who lived about an hour away and that is why he had organized to stay at his brother’s house. We never spoke about it.
Looking back on this situation, I can see now that my boss was exercising control by ordering me around and showing her power and influence over me.
She also may have been subtly indicating to him that now she could influence his actions in the future as she had something to use against him and I knew about it. She wanted him to feel guilty and feel bad about himself (which he did). She seemed to gain energy and joy from the situation.
By stating that she implicitly trusted me, she used praise to get me onside as she rarely praised me. She knew I would feel bad about doing this afterward and wouldn’t be happy about the situation as she knew how I felt about cheating so in a way that would have made her feel good.
Firm though their distinctions are, it doesn’t prevent them from being as slippery as they want. Drawing hard lines and then moving the lines fluidly to suit their whims is the gaslighter’s favorite trick” ~ Jeremy Sherman, Ph.D. (Psychology Today).
No Recognition of Achievement
As part of my role as Supervisor, the agency paid for me to complete a post-graduate Diploma in Management. For 12 months, I flew to the closest city and stayed at an academy four times during the year where we had week-long seminars, talks, and courses about our management role. It was a highlight of my time with this agency.
As part of my Diploma, I had to complete a project from beginning to end (planning stage to completion). My project suggestion was picked up by the agency and resulted in some ‘real world’ change in the area I researched.
All other offices where this happened it was a big deal. The managers would celebrate and acknowledge. My manager did nothing. She made me go and tell the staff and make them sit through a presentation about my project. It looked like I was showing off. As we were understaffed and under a lot of work pressure forcing staff to go off work and listen to me “talk about myself” was not that welcome. I was uncomfortable. I had tried to get out of it, and she had insisted I schedule and complete it. I overhead other staff talking to her about how inappropriate it was to ‘blow your own trumpet.’ I was horrified, upset and distressed over the situation. She had forced me to do something she knew would not go down well. It would have been wonderful if she had shown pride and praised my accomplishment instead of pushing me to talk about the success of my project.
“A group becomes a team when each member is sure enough of himself and his contribution to praise the skills of others.” — Norman Shidle
Although I thought my achievement reflected well on her and the office, she turned it into something that was a source of shame and embarrassment.
How To Deal With a Corporate Psychopath Boss: If You Stay
“…slowly, it makes you doubt your ability to think and judge for yourself, stealing away your confidence. That low self-esteem directly affects your career, making it harder for you to push good, innovative ideas, lobby for promotions, or even network and interact well with team members” ~ Wanda Thibodeaux, Inc
If you need to remain at your place of employment and you can see that some of these behaviors are occurring it is important to do the following:
- Document every encounter in writing.
- Get some trusted colleagues and friends involved and tell them what is going on — do this early on in the piece.
- If you belong to a union or have a workplace Human Resource (HR) representative alert them to the fact you believe gaslighting is occurring. Show them your written documentation that makes you think this is more than just a few isolated occasions, or your boss having a bad day.
- If you have a way of recording your work hours to prove the number of hours you are working make sure you do so. If you do not have automatic login and logout passes that record this information document it somewhere so you have a written record.
- If you need to talk to your boss about their behavior check with your HR representative. In Australia, you are entitled to have a support person attend with you (who is not allowed to speak).
- Stay calm. Keep to factual information.
- If they try and divert, bring them back to the conversation, and the same if they overtalk you. If your boss raises their voice or starts belittling you or speaking in a way that is demeaning, say that you will return when they are prepared to talk to you without interrupting or without personal attacks.
- If you have a boss above this boss (even if they are friends) make them aware in written correspondence that you wish to speak with them about the situation.
- If you feel it is affecting you mentally in such a way that you feel suicidal or feel you are completing losing your confidence, you need to try and speak to a person who can support you. Sometimes this can be good if it is someone outside the office. Most government agencies in Australia have an employees assistance scheme which pays for up to 12 visits with a registered psychologist each year.
- In Australia all government employees have a government superannuation fund that part of their pay goes into, that also includes income protection. If your mental health is at the point where you need to take paid leave, and if your holiday and sick pay are gone, you may apply to access this if you provide medical certificates. People can be on paid income protection for up to 12 months with medical documents in Australia. Having medical certificates may buy you some time to find another job or at least get other people to investigate and be aware of the situation if you have no choice but to go back.
In most cases, the goal of getting this sort of boss to change their behavior is not possible. They are not going to change.
But there are things you can do to mitigate the emotional fallout and damage to your psyche.
Unfortunately, I tried to mitigate it for nearly two years until it suddenly caught up with me.
In many cases the best thing to do is leave, even taking a pay cut to avoid the stress of working for someone who is a master at gaslighting and ghosting.
You need to look after you first as your mental health and well being are more important.
A manager who destroys your self-confidence, your self worth and your ability to trust your colleagues and even your judgment is an absolute nightmare.
Unfortunately, all too many good hardworking people find themselves in this situation.
I am stronger now than I was before. It took me over a year to unravel all the complexities of what happened in my last job. The effects compounded as I was too ashamed to let anyone know for a long time and only spoke to my husband.
I have learned so much from this experience. I have learned a lot about myself. I would never allow this sort of situation to go on as long in the future if ever I found myself again (horror of horrors) in this situation.
I realize looking back that my default position for months was not trusting completely that my behavior and actions were not at fault.
I am in a place now that I know myself so much better. I know I am not perfect, but I am perfectly willing to try and understand and do a job to the best of my ability.
I realized that being a high achiever all my life meant that from the first moment she criticized my work my instinctive reaction was to buckle down and work longer and harder, however, this didn’t work in this situation as it wasn’t about my work- it was about her.
In the future, if my work were called into question or my understanding of a situation, I would take the following steps:
- Unless they were willing to provide specific examples that warranted the level of condemnation given, I would not be prepared to keep listening to what was said.
- I would immediately enlist the help of the Human Resources Department.
- I would start documenting everything.
- I would try to make sure someone else heard our conversations or I would call someone into the room.
- I would talk to a superior.
- If it continued, I would submit a formal written complaint with the agency through the appropriate channels.
- If the behavior escalated in response, I would not hesitate to go on formal stress leave and apply for income protection through my superannuation scheme.
I now recognize gaslighting and corporate psychopathic behavior. At the time I went through it I did not have any understanding there were people like this in the corporate world.
- I had been a mature aged student not finishing my degree until I was 49 years old.
- I had not worked full-time in a professional capacity before this time.
- I had naively believed that university educated people would behave in a manner that was about collaboration, support and furthering each other and the workplace for the betterment of the common good.
“…psychological safety emerges when those in power persistently praise, reward, and promote people who have the courage to act, talk about their doubts, successes, and failures, and work doggedly to do things better the next time.”
― Robert I. Sutton, Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to Be the Best… and Learn from the Worst
I hope if you recognize any of the behaviors outlined here that you can garnish support and take some of the steps described to protect yourself.