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Organizational Shadow and Conflict Management

What is “Organisational Shadow”?

“Organisational” Shadow is a term I’ve developed to describe aspects of an organisation that it doesn’t admit to having. Because they are hidden, they stop the organisation functioning in a healthy and productive way. One important objective of conflict coaching is to bring them to light so the organisation can be more honest with itself and more functional. 

Using Carl Jung’s Idea of “Shadow”

I’m using “Organisational Shadow” in a similar way to how Carl Jung used the term “shadow” in relation to individuals. Jung’s shadow describes all the aspects of a person that he or she can’t face up to. As a result, the person represses them and then projects them on to others (angry people see anger everywhere, victims see injustice everywhere). I believe that organisations behave in the same way. Below I’ll give some examples. 

Jung said that, to be psychologically healthy, the person has to bring these features to light and integrate them into their conscious life. The same is the case for organisations. Skillful conflict management can help them face up to their shadow and to change for the better. 

Three Examples of “Organisational Shadow”: Education, Terrorism and Politics

The Toronto District School Board is the largest school board in North America. As someone with two children in it, I know it has developed many anti-bullying campaigns. Letters home are full of talk about diversity, inclusion and equality. But it was also recently audited due to accusations of managerial dysfunction and harassment. The audit found a culture of bullying and intimidation at the very top, directly at odds with its public pronouncements: Organisational shadow.  

ISIS, we are told, is the new threat to Western security. And who can’t be appalled by their stage-managed cruelty? Military strategists and many politicians insist that we must annihilate them and their hateful ideology, or all will be lost. The rhetoric of these Western analysts is very similar to the rhetoric of those they wish to destroy: Apocalyptic, us-or-them, clash of civilisations: Organisational Shadow. 

Donald Trump is the front runner in the Republican race for the Presidential nomination. The Republican Party sees itself as an unapologetic voice for wealth generation and “The American Way”. Trump is self-funding his campaign. Many Republicans like him, but a good number dislike his supposed maverick approach. Though these Republicans advocate unchecked wealth creation, they aren’t always crazy about its results: Organisational Shadow.    

How do we Tackle “Organisational Shadow”?

1.       Think Past the Individual “Problem”

There’s a saying in AA that alcoholism is a family illness – when the alcoholic starts to get healthy so does their family unit. The same goes for conflict management coaching – when one individual in an organisation is sent for coaching or training in conflict management, then their bosses and managers, and to some extent the whole organisation, is in coaching too. It may be that the individual is being blamed or asked to carry the weight for more systemic challenges. So, as a coach, when looking at the supposed individual problem, ask if it’s really a representation of an institutional malaise.   

2.       Be the “Intelligent Victim”

Another way to tackle “Organisational Shadow” is to be what the philosopher Rene Girard calls “The Intelligent Victim”. This means that as an outsider you may be scapegoated or blamed by the powers-that-be for bringing up what’s wrong with the organisation. But if you know this is going to happen, it won’t harm you the way scapegoating usually does. 

 In practical terms, we have to “speak the truth to power”, that is, we need to tell decision makers what’s wrong with the organisation and how you see their role in the problem. Perhaps they enable bad behaviour by not challenging it. Perhaps they label one individual as the problem rather than addressing systemic problems. Perhaps they hire an outsider in order to outsource responsibility if proposed challenges don’t work. Regardless, good conflict consulting has to address these by saying them out loud.

 3.       Identify Patterns

In my experience, decision makers respond constructively to unflattering descriptions of their workplace if you can identify patterns that link to the problem. Maybe the receptionist is stand-offish because he or she doesn’t get properly acknowledged by staff and this extends to how staff feel about their managers. Perhaps there is disrespectful treatment by staff of company property (a real tell-tale sign in my experience). Is it because staff don’t feel respected? If discourteous emails are the norm, does this happen because there is a culture of not challenging unprofessional behaviour? 

Conclusion: Conflict Management is Applied Psychology

We can talk about “Organisational Shadow” when we see the connection between what psychologists (in this case Carl Jung) say about individual behaviour and how organisations as a whole operate and behave. We must keep the lines of communication open between ourselves as mediators, facilitators and conflict coaches and the wider conversation of what makes a person do what they do. We are in an applied field. What we apply and how we apply it is what counts.  


Donal O’Reardon

Originally from Ireland, Donal O'Reardon is a mediator, coach, author and founder of O’Reardon Consulting. He holds graduate degrees in theology and philosophy and specialises in communication and conflict management skills with an emotional intelligence foundation. He is the author of “Introducing Philosophy: Questions and Readings” (Emond Montgomery, 2014) as well as… MORE >

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