When Leadership Becomes Toxic, Part 2: Gaslighting

This post is part of a six-part series. Click here for part 1 “When Leadership Becomes Toxic, Part 1: Ignoring Real Problems

The Gaslight

So, as we discussed so far, toxic leaders may deny there are problems, or fail to see the significance of warnings brought well in advance. Risks are not minimized or eliminated, and crises are not averted. In fact, crises may develop out of this approach to leadership that denies there are issues, and ultimately, denies anything could have been done about those issues.

” … toxic leaders may deny there are problems, or fail to see the significance of warnings brought well in advance.”

In that case, our leaders don’t have to tell us why they did or did not achieve the preferred outcomes. They should, of course. But these days, asking does not mean we receive an answer, let alone a sufficient one. Dodging questions is now a skillset to be admired.

Of course, who wants to admit that they did not heed the advice and warnings of the people around them because they failed to see or acknowledge the significance?

Instead they say that no one saw or could have seen it coming or provide some other reason why the way that we feel about what actions may or may not have been taken is completely irrelevant, or even unreasonable. 

This is gaslighting. 

It is one of many ways a leader might dismiss criticism or avoid being accountable to the people they’ve been entrusted to lead, and dare I say, care for. It works as a good misdirect as it causes us to focus on whether it is reasonable for us to be disappointed, to ask questions, or to expect better now or ever. 

It becomes unreasonable to have had different expectations. If no one else would have done better, and if no one else would have seen it, then perhaps we are being overly critical, and our expectations are too high and unfounded. 

Over time, this lowers the bar for our expectations both in terms of how our leaders prioritize issues and how they exercise transparency and accountability. And we don’t even realize it. 

We think “Our leaders know best, and are doing the best they can” when they may not be. Or perhaps they are doing their best but it’s not good enough. 

It’s in the same vein as “This is the way it is everywhere.” The implication is that things are like this everywhere, therefore, it is okay and something must be wrong with those who complain about it and expect something different. 

It also implies this is the way it’s supposed to be as if it were a law of nature. 

The truth is anyone who says these things is unlikely to be the person who does things differently or challenges things in the interest of other people unless it also benefits them. 

They are unlikely to be vigilant (enough) regarding your interests. Fire is only a concern when the house is on fire and engulfed in flames and someone needs to put it out.

These are often the people who then get promoted for subsisting long enough or thriving in environments where everything is needlessly urgent, chaotic and toxic. They are praised for making it through situations that either should not have existed or should have been a less chaotic issue.

Regardless, the problem is not that expectations are too high.

The first problem is that expectations either do not exist, are extremely low or are essentially meaningless, as they are abstract “would-like-to-haves” we have not really agreed upon as a collective, nor have we made tangible.

We take good leadership as a whole for granted.

The second problem is that the cost of not meeting expectations or supplying a good enough or transparent enough account of not meeting them is not high enough, if there is any cost at all.  

Answering the questions of the powerless has become a mere matter of fly-swatting, and driving one’s critics to exhaustion.

This post is part of a six-part series. 

Click here for part 3 “When Leadership Becomes Toxic: Taking the Easy Way Out” 

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