Owning your organisational shadow | Leadership Development Blog

Carl Jung spoke of the ‘shadow’ in relation to our capacity to hide from ourselves and deny our own behaviours, thoughts, feelings and beliefs. 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. Just as it does on a personal level, the organisational shadow sabotages our published values.

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.

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 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.

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.’

Next, we 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. 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’.

The resolution for this client’s organisational shadow was multilayered and took us three years to complete. The work included:

  • 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
  • ensuring the principles outlined in this book were applied in order to build and sustain challenger safety (as is described in the next chapter on psychological safety).

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.