An Asset or Achilles Heel?: Shadow in Systems

February 24, 2020 By Katherine Tyler Scott

Part I

Most of the literature on shadow is focused on individual psychological development. There are few books and articles addressing its existence in organizational life. From our research and experience, we believe that shadow is an element in every sphere of life and leaders ignore this at their own peril. 

This is the first in a series of blogs addressing shadow and why it must be part of the leadership field’s conversation. My thoughts have evolved since I wrote an article on this topic over a decade ago. I knew it addressed a need then when it was used  in a training with McKinsey/Dupont. I hope that this series will ignite a conversation that expands our collective knowledge, deepens our understanding and enlightens leadership practice that will bring about ethical leadership and positive systemic change and transformation.

The Formation of Shadow

According to Swiss Psychiatrist, Carl Jung, the shadow is that part of the psyche that is a natural part of the process of human development and socialization. We arrive in the world as unconscious undifferentiated creatures lacking any sense of an identity separate from our caregivers. 

As we emerge from this state and into increased consciousness what is simultaneously occurring is the process of becoming a person and  developing an individual identity. We develop a sense  of “I” ( Ego), and a project it in public (Persona – our public identity). As the sense of separate identity and independence grows, so does the exertion of our will – what we need, want and desire. When the will is expressed, caregivers and the external environment respond to it. How they respond affects how we become. If our basic needs are met and fulfilled, we can develop a strong core of self, a sense of security and trust that permits us to be self-differentiated. When the process of becoming is disrupted by arbitrary and autocratic behavior rather than genuine love, care and respect or when basic needs are not met the ways individuals cope is bases on feelings of fear, deprivation, threat to survival  and a loss of security and identity.

The mediation between the expression of individual will and the limits imposed on it by the external environment is life-long but early development is very influential. We learn around the age of two that we are not the whole of reality or the primary occupant in the universe and that we must consider the needs, wants and desires of others not just our own.  We begin to learn that some of our behavior is more likely to help us obtain what we want and some of the behavior will not. 

We learn what is unacceptable and we learn to adapt. In this dialectic between the internal and the external wants, needs and demands, our sense of self and character are formed and shaped. We learn what we can express of the self and what aspects of ourselves can be safely revealed, and what we think and feel are appropriate in certain circumstances and situations. Those aspects of the self that are not deemed acceptable or that have been ignored or denied become repressed. The repressed parts of ourselves become unconscious and form the shadow. 

The Next Blog will explore the reality, energy and power of the Shadow. Join the conversation!! 

Next Post: Part II »