Organizational Shadow Work

March 9, 2020 By Katherine Tyler Scott

Part II

Like individuals, organizations project an ideal image that includes the most positive aspects of themselves. What is perceived as unacceptable or negative is left as unacknowledged, denied, and repressed; forming shadow. The shadow is real; ignoring it only gives it more energy and power. It will inevitably build and erupt in unexpected and destructive ways. One example of this is a culture in which conflict is not acceptable or very poorly dealt with. Destructive, divisive behaviors, denial and avoidance of differences become normative in such cases. When this is the “way the organization behaves,” it cannot develop the skills needed to resolve conflict in more constructive ways. The culture may appear to be stable but there is a thin line between civility and hostility. Keeping the lid on differences takes an incredible amount of energy that when freed up can be channeled into more creative endeavors.

Sometimes the origin of tension and dis-ease in a culture has become so deeply buried it becomes historical amnesia. Amnesia is always debilitating and it puts any organization at risk of not performing and producing at its highest potential. Some of the behaviors that are indicative of this condition whether conscious or unconscious are fear of raising a concern, silence when conflict occurs; changing or minimizing the subject; group think; scapegoating or marginalizing the person who raises the issue, etc..

The chronic denial of shadow is debilitating. You can also observe it in leaders who constantly have an overcrowded agenda that leaves no room for real discussion; defensiveness; and unquestioned allegiance to the authority figure. The real problems cannot be identified in such circumstances, nor can the best solutions be entertained.

Millions of dollars are spent annually helping business and other organizations learn to resolve conflict. Why? Because of the high cost of turnover, decreased creativity, high turnover, underproductivity, and less than maximum profitability.

Leaders who think that skills training or management tools are the answer will continue to invest in solutions that will not produce the benefits they seek. What else is needed?

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