Podcast: the shadow side of organisations

Last week Annette Clancy Matt Moore and I had a conversation about the shadow side of organisations. Sometimes when people talk about the shadow it conjures up a scary idea of dark, unexplored nastiness. In fact, I think looking at the shadow often reveals stuff which can be very energising. The three of us kick this idea around and here is Part One. I’m uploading this now and will add show notes later. Part Two to follow.

Click to Listen Download the Podcast – 29m – MP3 (9.9 MB)

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UPDATE: 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 w
orth 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…

11 thoughts on “Podcast: the shadow side of organisations

  1. Chris Corrigan

    God this is a brilliant conversation…I resonate with that feeling of being lost. For me that is precisely the time to tell the truth. You have nothing to lose and it cracks open that shadow in a way that just lays it out. And once you have named it the only choice is to continue ignoring it or deal with it. If I can stay with a group while they do that, I can be useful.

    This is why I don’t do a lot of pre-interviews with an organization. I hear too many stories as people position themselves to shape the process. I’d rather just hold a space for needs to happen now.

    Thanks guys…this is great and I look forward to the next installment.

  2. Johnnie Moore

    Chris: Yes, I often think of scenes from The Simpsons where Marge is lecturing Bart, and we go inside Bart’s head and all we hear there is “blah bluh blah bluh blah”. That’s what lots of briefings end up sounding like to me!

  3. Lloyd Davis

    Nice one!

    My moment of clarity was seeing that discomfort in early conversations with clients as exactly the same as the discomfort with a blank page.

    My only niggle was the talk of “managing” anxiety – “knowledge management” is bad enough but I really think we’re fooling ourselves if we think we can manage anxiety. I prefer to talk about holding it, sitting with it, accepting it but please, not managing it 🙂

  4. Matt Moore

    Lloyd – I think it depends what you include under the heading of “management”. I don’t think we can control our own anxiety any more than we can control other people. And yet we still talk about managing them. I would say the same about knowledge – it resists our control.

    That said, I do take your point.

    We can manage our anxiety to the same extent that an oyster can manage a piece of grit in its shell.

    Actually, probably less so.

  5. Sam Deeks

    Hi Johnnie – long time no speak (we met through JB a few years ago!)

    I enjoyed the conversation (though I found myself skimming through the second half of it).

    I agree with Lloyd about the idea of managing our emotional reactions (the shadow self).. I find that my challenge is to ‘be present’ and open to what I’m feeling; to accept it as OK.

    Funny part is that the closer I get to that acceptance in the moment (of how stooopid or lost I might feel at any one moment) the simpler everything is. An anchor for me is to remember when I’m working with clients (re. feedback, change etc) that the’core competency’ I need for this work is the willingness to be open and risk vulnerability.

    That – conveniently 🙂 – reminds me that, far from being wrong, what I’m feeling actually connects me better and with more empathy with the people I’m working with.

    Anyway, look forward to reading / hearing more. BTW – we’re also podcasting down here in Devon – https://good2b.wordpress.com


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