The film Gaslight, released in 1944, tells the story of a Victorian heiress (played brilliantly by Ingrid Bergman) and her husband’s attempt to convince her that she’s mentally ill. It was a huge success, and it’s no wonder – there’s nothing quite as chilling as feeling like you’re not in control of your own thoughts.
Although it dates to this time, the term “gaslighting” is one that’s become adopted into our common vocabulary in recent years. Its meaning hasn’t radically changed since the 1940s; today, it’s still used to refer to the practice of undermining someone’s sanity or their perception of reality.
What we call “bureaucratic gaslighting” is a specific and insidious off-shoot of this, and it’s a phenomenon that I’ve seen in hundreds of businesses over the years.
While gaslighting usually refers to the behaviour of an individual, in cases of bureaucratic gaslighting, you’re actually struggling against your business. It takes place when your business convinces you that things can’t be done – even if you, and everyone else within it, sees their value and has the intention of putting them into practice. Put simply, it’s what happens between something being agreed in a board meeting, and it not being actioned on the front line.
Common phrases that suggest clients are falling foul of bureaucratic gaslighting are:
- It did seem like a good idea, but I went to the manager with it and they said it wouldn’t work here;
- There was literally no capacity to get it done;
- There is no way the team would do that… Well, you haven’t met them;
- And the classic… Marketing just doesn’t work for us.
Now you’re aware of its presence, it’s possible to take steps to counter bureaucratic gaslighting, and to assert your own decisions and their validity (for more on this, do read on).
It might be uncomfortable to admit, but bureaucratic gaslighting often begins when your business isn’t at its best. Your team isn’t as good as it could be, and neither are you. In this situation, all change is going to be painful, and you’re going to feel that you’re swimming upstream.
This is often when we start to see the friction. It may even manifest around fairly simple, strategic moves; for instance, switching a provider to save money every month. Although this apparent no-brainer will be agreed at board level, the business will then convince you that it can’t manage this change at the moment, and that there are lots of reasons why you can’t do that today.
Inertia around marketing activity is another classic example. The senior team within a practice might agree that new business is a priority, and that investing in marketing is the way to tackle it. They may well have a meeting, agree on the priority, and agree to revisit progress in a month’s time. Predictably, when the next meeting rolls around, nothing has happened.
The reason is that despite those best intentions, the business, as an entity, resists the activity. Things are allowed to get in the way, like the business plan that hasn’t been updated, or the person handling Facebook being away for two weeks. Sourcing photography, signing off a new website, or scheduling time to work on copy – they’re all things that should be relatively painless, but often become held up.
Often, the problem is that activity is being endlessly deferred. This isn’t because people don’t want to do it, or don’t understand the reason behind it. Usually, it’s from a belief that ‘it will be better to do it next month, because…’ It definitely could have happened, but you’ve all found a lot of real reasons that the system has given you, to trick you into thinking it couldn’t.
In this, there’s an element of “perfect moment thinking” – the belief that it’s better to save an action for another, better time. For instance, you might agree to speak to a TCO about doing more face-to-face appointments, but then opt to speak to them at their appraisal in three weeks’ time. The snag is that by then, you’ll likely have forgotten why you wanted to do it, and you’ll have lost three weeks of progress, which could equate to tens of thousands of pounds. Although an appraisal would be a sensible time to have the conversation, if it’s a priority, there’s no good reason not to do it straight away.
A few years ago, marketing was the main locus of inertia that we saw. And typically, practices could get away with this, without causing too much damage (rather like a teenager eating nothing but McDonalds and seeing few side effects). It used to be that you could be beholden to your business and still earn decent money and have a reasonably happy team. Now, we’re all older, things are much tighter, and more practices are in crisis situations. Nobody can afford to move as slowly as they did four or five years ago, and we’re needing to consider far more areas within a business to root out and tackle issues.
The good news is that the more you become aware of bureaucratic gaslighting, the easier it is to vanquish. To begin, it’s helpful to bear in mind that everyone’s first answer is their worst answer; if asked to do something, we’ll typically reply that we can’t because of X,Y or Z. However, if we’re pushed a little more, we can often find a way to make it happen.
The key is to make challenging yourselves a cultural thing. Be aware of those voices listing all the reasons you can’t do things. If you’re convinced it’s a priority, then make it one. Or, to look at the reverse side of the coin, if you’re struggling to make something happen, you could accept that it’s not a team priority and simply choose not to do it. Instead of revisiting the same lack of progress month after month, there can be a strength in accepting that you’re not going to do it.
Above all, remember that you’re the one in control. You hold the power to progress, and it’s perfectly acceptable to challenge “the business” when things feel too difficult. So, if you feel like you can’t change, know that you can – and we’re here to help you do that. Often, our external appraisal can unequivocally identify what can be achieved. Just get in touch to start talking.