The shadow side of organisations
October 2, 2007
Last week Johnnie Moore, Matt Moore and I had a conversation about the shadow side of organisations. Part one of this is available as a podcast (click here) – show notes will follow and thanks to Johnnie for all the technical work. I hope you find the discussion interesting and do leave comments and feedback.
Update: Johnnie has written up some extensive show notes from the podcast which I am republising here:
Here are the show notes. Warning: These are unreliable. The timings are approximate and this is my paraphrasing of what was said. Don’t take them it too literally. This was a conversation and not as linear as even these rough notes might suggest.
The elephant in the corner
0.00 Introductions and what this is about: the Elephant in the Corner and things that don’t get talked about
0.50 Annette asks Johnnie what prompted his focus on this? Why now? Johnnie describes a client conversation that may have pointed to his own shadow side… the “deep sense of ranklement” that suggests that there’s something for him to work on…
3.25 …and prompts Annette to look at how this might also be seen as a shadow on the client side “what job was your sense of shame doing for the organisation for which you worked?” Why does the shadow need to be hidden? Do we collude in scapegoating people inside organisations, or consultants that advise them?
“Difficult” people: scapegoats and clowns
4.40 Johnnie talks about how people in groups often take on a role as “difficult” person
5.35 Matt explores this further. If it’s somebody’s job to be difficult and that person leaves, often somebody else takes over that role…
6.15 Annette explores how this affects consultants who are brought in to deal with problems that are “located within individuals”… the risk of missing the learning to be had from the scapegoat or clown or whatever archetype is used to label someone.
7.35 Annette expands on this with reference to an organisation she worked with. How people there kept talking about incompetence, and how the location of this incompetence seemed to move around, being attributed to one person then the next. How Annette experienced a sense of her own incompetence around them, and tried to bring this “shadow” to attention… how this showed there were not formal ways to discuss what was working and not working in the organisation.
9.15 Johnnie moves on to talk about his own experiences of feeling incompetent in client briefings – thinking I don’t understand, why have they chosen me to do this? How he’s more accepting of that now and is willing to wait. He says Annette’s point encourages him to take that further: what if this isn’t about me but what’s going on here?
10.45 Annette: And sometimes we actually are incompetent and can’t simply blame this on others! So you need to confront whether it’s just your buttons being pushed. You have to be quite brave sometimes.
11.25 Matt talks about research showing that being creative is linked to the ability to cope with anxiety. How people fear the blank page and how they learn to deal with it, for instance.
12.35 Johnnie prompts Annette to talk more about a point she made in her blog about the difference between fear and anxiety. When we try to fix anxiety our solutions often don’t work. Managing anxiety/uncertainty as a mark of maturation: a spirit of I really don’t know what’s going on here but I will accompany you and together let’s try to figure out what this not knowing is about…
The perils of chicken soup
14.15 Johnnie: sometimes, as one writer put it, chicken soup is poison. Importance of managing my own anxiety and the “awkward silences” (Where is this awkwardness located – it’s not in the silence, it’s in us.)
15.35 Matt talks about people looking for quick fixes and the temptation to offer them. He links the theme of personal shadows to work on edges – our edges are shown by things that make us uncomfortable. Things that are in the half-light.
Not necessarily hell
16.50 Johnnie: the trouble with talking about “shadow” is it conjures up Daliesque, nightmarish ideas of a murky unconscious… whereas in fact looking at the unexamined part of life can be very rewarding.
17.25 Annette expands on that fear of the unknown that often surrounds the idea of any kind of personal change work such as coaching or therapy. What terrible thing about me is going to be exposed here? How that’s a very real fear and we have to acknowledge that.
Another way of framing shadow work is to see that you can’t have light without dark.. the shadow is an incredibly useful and creative part of ourselves. It’s not some terrible place we’re never going to come back from, but something we can peer into. There’s loads of potentially interesting, entertaining information in there about how we are in organisations.
18.55 Johnnie: Another way of framing our shadow: a place where we’ve kept some of our energy in reserve. Think of the laughter around comedy – it’s us tapping into that energy when something unspoken gets named.
It’s a control thing…
19.30 Matt: this is partly an issue of control. How organisations want to present a happy controlled picture to people inside and outside. Shadows are messy and indeterminate, they’re fuzzy and that’s part of the challenge.
20.20 Annette talks about how organisations privilege reason over feeling. But asking people to be organised, controlled rational people is, actually, a bit irrational. Organisations aren’t antiseptic environments, they’re human systems. Talking about shadow challenges an organisational discourse about control. “An enormous amount of energy and time goes into making the shadow go away, whether that’s coaching, whether it’s change processes…” There’s a lot of energy released when we can acknowledge it isn’t all happy all the time.
21.40 Johnnie says what Annette just said but maybe not quite so well. The moment in groups when the truth is named is not like opening Pandora’s box, more the opposite.
22.15 Annette: And it tells people you’re not mad. Johnnie expands on what happens when we acknowledge our fear of not belonging and discover this fear can actually connect us.
Power and politics
23.50 Annette: This is all very well but the thing we’re not talking about here is power, power and politics. Which make it difficult for people to talk about the shadow. Because there are repercussions. A lot of energy goes into keeping the conversation quiet because it’s potentially a threat.
24.40 Matt: The deeper you want to people to get, the less surveillance they need to feel. The phenomenon of how when a particular person comes into the room, everyone shuts up.
Who’s the client anyway?
25.30 Annette talks about who hires me? Who’s the client here? How this often gives a clear message about how we’re being allowed to operate. How we’re sort of invited to do something, and also invited not to succeed. Johnnie gives an example of a friend dealing with this. (It’s worth listening to and I’m not typing it all out here)
27.50 Johnnie talks about how his sense of who is the client changes when he works with groups.
28.40 A bland invitation to join us for part two of this…