Gaslighting, toxicity and other workplace woes

By Jerome Doraisamy|07 April 2021
Dr Hannah Korrel

Workplace bullying and related misconduct remain pervasive in the legal profession. Recognising when you are the victim of such toxic behaviour, and taking steps to address it, are critical, says one neuropsychologist.

Everyone, at some point in their lives, gets exposed to another person – be it a boss, partner, friend or family member – with whom they interact and walk away feeling far worse than when they encountered that person.

If one is continually exposed to that person, or persons, “life just sucks”, neuropsychologist and author Dr Hannah Korrel (pictured) crudely surmised.  

Speaking recently on The Lawyers Weekly Show, Dr Korrel said that legal professionals in particular work incredibly hard to get onto, and stay on, pathways to personal and vocational success. But, too often, they will compromise on the environment in which they exist, she said.

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“Lawyers put so much effort into crafting this amazing life. You work really hard, and you have to keep working hard to maintain that, so why would you settle for somebody who treats you so poorly?” she argued.

“You clearly care about the quality of your life. Yet, lawyers and others can give certain people a hall pass to treat us like trash. You don’t need to do that. It’s okay for you to say ‘No’ to these people. You’re not detonating a confrontation bomb that you’re going to regret for the rest of your life. You’ll probably actually find that learning to say ‘No’ to people who are toxic is one of the best things that you ever did.”

Recognising when you’re a victim

One psychological technique that is most commonly associated with social interactions, but very much exists in professional services workplaces such as law, Dr Korrel said, is the “evil and manipulative” approach of gaslighting.

“That’s where we make a person think that they are the ones in the wrong. That they’re the crazy one who is being too sensitive or overanalysing. Gaslighters belittle your experience and say it’s all your fault, when in actual fact, they need to own their own behaviour,” she said.

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“It can be very hard to know that it’s happening to you, and often, you don’t realise it’s happening to you until you walk away from that interaction, or somebody else helps you realise that what was happening to you was not okay or fair.”

In such circumstances of gaslighting, Dr Korrel continued, professionals in law will be told to stop complaining and to not speak of mistreatment in being convinced that they are the ones in the wrong, which is how workplace bullies get away with what they do.

Fears for one’s professional standing, or job prospects, often play into one’s thinking, she added.

“There is a fear that speaking out will mean being tarred with a certain brush, and no one is going to want anything to do with you. That can be so disabling to so many people, which is often why victims don’t speak out…they just bunker down and experience the pain of that workplace,” she said.

The reality, Dr Korrel mused, is that sometimes workers “can attract an unfair reputation” because someone more powerful has spoken ill of them in professional circles, and this risk has to be factored in when taking steps to move on.

This, of course, is hugely unfair, she noted. But what one must balance this against is that if you continue to exist in a toxic workplace, she warned, is that the treatment may evolve into so-called performance management. It, Dr Korrel explained, is “where they’re looking for reasons why you’re doing the wrong thing”.

“Having your performance overly scrutinised – whereby someone’s taking a magnifying glass to everything you do, like checking the time you arrive and have your lunch breaks, checking every single word in the document you wrote for mistakes – means that you will start to perform more poorly, because the stress and anxiety makes you more likely to make errors,” she outlined.

“Then, that person is able to say, ‘Look at all the mistakes you made, you need to shape up or ship out’.”

Is workplace toxicity ever useful?

When asked if experiencing a toxic workplace relationship, or being gaslit by one’s colleague or superior, can ever be a positive learning experience – in the way that one might learn about personal tolerance thresholds after the breakdown of a romantic relationship – Dr Korrel said it is possible to glean silver linings.

“Yes, you can potentially better define the boundaries of what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable,” she ceded.

However, she added, “I don’t think it’s essential for you to constantly, or even as a one-off, be exposed to somebody toxic, because if you keep that person in your life and you continue to be exposed to them, the effects of that over time have been described, in research and literature, as being on par with obesity and smoking and greater chronic illness, [having the effect of] shortening your lifespan”.

What should always be remembered, Dr Korrel espoused, is that “the value you place on yourself is the value that other people are going to place on you”. Therefore, lawyers cannot allow toxic colleagues, and those who gaslight them, to dictate not only their professional direction, but ultimately, their happiness.

Taking action

In advising how best lawyers can “break up with a bad boss”, Dr Korrel pointed to both professional and personal steps that must be taken.

On the former, it is fundamental to document what is happening to you. “Cover your ass,” she said. “It’s never going to hurt for you to keep a record of what’s occurring, however minor you think it is.”

It’s also essential, she noted, to seek and weigh up expert advice from counsellors, careers advisers and mentors in one’s life. Such people, Dr Korrel said, can offer objective perspectives on whether or not formal complaints are necessary and how best to navigate such a process.

“In some cases, formal processes are a great idea and the workplace will support you. In other cases, it might make your life a lot worse because the workplace won’t support you and you’ll get performance managed. These are outcomes you’ll have to carefully weigh up by way of external advice,” she said.

Whether one formalises a complaint or not, employing personal strategies to manage a toxic workplace, or boss, while looking for a new job or seeking resolution is non-negotiable, Dr Korrel submitted.

These strategies, she listed, can and should include getting proper sleep, taking active (not passive) breaks, meditation, journaling, healthier dieting, and sufficient exercise. Engaging all six of these strategies, she advised, will help boost one’s position on the spectrum of optimal performance. 

To listen to the full conversation with Dr Hannah Korrel, click below. The transcript of the conversation was edited for publishing purposes.

Gaslighting, toxicity and other workplace woes
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