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Owning your organisational shadow

by | Nov 28, 2023

Owning your organisational shadow


Carl Jung, one of the fathers of modern western psychology, spoke of the ‘shadow’ in relation to our capacity to hide from ourselves and deny our own behaviours, thoughts, feelings and beliefs. We keep them in the shadow of our mind through defence mechanisms such as numbing, denying, blaming and justifying, instead of bringing them into the light of our awareness. Our psychological ‘shadow’ represents the parts of ourselves that we disown and repress because we are subconsciously afraid to admit the parts of ourselves that we find inferior or unacceptable. 

Shadows don’t exist only in individuals. They also exist in every organisation. Your organisational shadow is what really drives your organisation beneath your nice-sounding mission statement. For example, your mission statement may say that you exist to serve customers, yet your primary motivator is profit at all costs. Just as it does on a personal level, the organisational shadow sabotages our published values. 


Real-life Examples of Organisational Shadows

I once sat with the HR Director of a new client as she walked me through their organisational issues. In short, their eight organisational values were simply not impacting the organisational behaviour at all. No surprises there! But I was struck when she even teared up.  It was clearly important to her. 

I asked why it was so important to her to change the culture. She said, ‘If you could sit in a meeting with me for one day and listen to the complaints I get about management behaviour, it would shock you. I can’t bear seeing how much pain and fear this organisation is generating in people. It breaks my heart, and we have to do something about it.’ 

The incredible irony, of course, was that this organisation’s mission was to help its customers with life-changing services, even while it was damaging its own people. Even more ironically, it prided itself on being a fun culture, with regular get-togethers and adventures. 

This is the organisational shadow in action. There were myriad issues. One of the organisational values was collaboration. Interestingly enough, the management team even had a large shared desk at which they all worked together. They had gone so far as to create this striking symbol of collaboration, and it was the story they were sticking to. 

But behind their image management, the reality was utterly different. The level of distrust and outright dishonesty across the entire group was destroying innovation, morale and wellbeing, but it was hidden behind a veneer of smiles and collaboration. In some departments, we even saw a form of Stockholm syndrome: leaders who were clearly abusing their staff were getting exceptional 360° assessment scores when we evaluated their leadership. 


Bringing Shadow Behavior to Light

As we’ve learned, the only way to stop shadow behaviour is to bring the shadow to light and deal with it. We can’t be avoidant — we have to face issues directly. Until we can see the shadow objectively, we are subject to it. Seeing it clearly makes it object to us, which means we have the ability to choose a different path from where the shadow would lead.

When we began a leadership development journey, the executive team requested we start with middle management. Once again, the executive team was in complete denial of its shadow and viewed the cultural issues as a middle management problem. Fortunately, the HR Director, and eventually the CEO herself, got the issue, and soon enough we were working with the executive team. 

Among many others, one issue we identified was competitive behaviour. Leaders would discuss things in meetings, challenges would be raised and solutions discussed. If a certain team member’s ideas were not chosen as a solution, he or she would say intelligent but passive-aggressive things along the lines of, ‘Okay, I fully support the team’s decision and direction, but I just want to say for the record, that if it doesn’t work, it will be because my idea wasn’t chosen.’

I remember on one such occasion the CEO being simply stumped as to how to respond. She asked, ‘Are you supporting this idea or not? What exactly are you saying?’ 

The person replied, ‘Of course I’m supporting it. We’re a unified team, aren’t we?’

Passive-aggressive behaviour went beyond loaded comments in meetings. Dissenters would also subtly poison their direct reports against the departments whose idea had been chosen, then attempt to ensure failure. The aim, of course, would be a glorious image management triumph where another’s failure would result in an ‘I told you so’ moment. (Of course it was a lot subtler than this, but the intent was the same.)

The hardest part of getting to the bottom of organisational shadow behaviours like this is developing the ability to get very clear on labelling behaviour objectively. In other words, if we are to name the quadrant 3 behaviours, we need to name them very accurately and objectively. 

Slowly but surely, we helped the HR Director and CEO precisely label the actions, statements and messages that were being used to create competitive dissonance in the organisation — the quadrant 3 behaviours. Here are a few key ones:


  • When asked to attend voluntary collaboration meetings, x people have declined +85 per cent of the time.
  • When asked to allocate people from their department to shared projects, x people have declined, using staff shortages as the reason, +90 per cent of the time.
  • Collaborative projects whose ideas belong in a certain department end up being staffed at an average 75 per cent level by that department.

The Role of Rewards

There were many others, but we will spare you the details. Once that was done, we also looked at the fears, attachments and assumptions held collectively by the group. The number one fear was being outshone by others and becoming invisible, thereby missing out on career opportunities. Just having that spoken out loud by members in the group was an important moment for shadow transformation. The assumption included that only those who won at all costs would be successful in the long term. This resulted in all the attachment-to-winning, outshining, passive-aggressive behaviour. 

We then looked at how the reward system might possibly be supporting bad behaviour. To our astonishment, we discovered that the bonus system in the organisation was literally like a golf tournament prizemoney pool. It did not matter how well you performed collectively as a group, nor did it matter what your actual results were in isolation from others’. All that mattered was your relative performance against your peers and how you individually were ranked. This determined your bonus. This is an example of an embedded reward and accountability system working directly against the value of collaboration. 


Resolving Organisational Shadows

We completed a multilayered resolution for this client’s organisational shadow, which took us three years to accomplish. The work included, among other things:

  • a dramatic simplification of the organisational values
  • alignment of the reward and accountability systems
  • a lot of individual vertical growth work at senior and mid-level leadership levels
  • establishing new rituals for embedding the growth values in the organisation 


Eventually, over the course of three years, staff turnover was halved, engagement increased from ‘red flag’ to ‘best employer’ level, and profitability dramatically increased in the midst of a challenging market. And there were no more tears of despair from our HR Director.

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