The “shadow” is a Jungian term applied to those parts of the self that are disowned and disavowed. Groups also have a shadow side. The “shadow group” has been defined as the collection of all the shadow parts of the various members of a work group or other group. “The shadow group is no phantasm, but rather a hidden reality that parallels the normal functioning of work groups and which takes over their interaction when one or more individual members are engulfed by their shadow selves during emotionally-based interpersonal conflict” (p.25) . Jung pointed out that no one can become conscious of their own shadow self without considerable moral effort. The same can be said of the shadow-group – looking at the way we behave in a group setting and how much that may contradict the way we see ourselves consciously is disturbing. Instead of doing this difficult emotional and relational labor, we are more likely to stay in chronic conflict with whoever has become the embodiment of our shadow self and if we are in positions of leadership, we may do our best – and be successful – at extruding that person from the workplace entirely.
One author who has written about the shadow group has identified six main triggers for the emotional reactivity that can cause members of a group to be engulfed by their shadow side and these triggers are particularly pertinent to social service and mental health settings:
- Commonly called ‘having one’s buttons pushed’, this occurs when things about another person cannot be tolerated – the result of seeing in another the qualities one unconsciously despises about oneself
- One group member reminds another of someone responsible for a previously abusive or otherwise traumatic event in their past
- Threat of any kind – to status, to integrity, to power
- Verbal abuse
- Frustration as when ideas or values are rejected or blocked by another group member
- Shame and guilt – when someone draws attention to another’s mistakes or failings
These authors propose that in organizations, people tend to seek out the one person who most resembles their own opposite. This is the person they are most likely to have interpersonal conflicts with and these are likely to manifest as strong and apparently “unreasonable” dislikes that are not based on what the person has actually done to them. It is easy to imagine how in this kind of a scenario, a self-fulfilling prophecy could easily emerge .
Other authors have looked at the ways in which a group unconsciously selects a
“troublemaker” who then performs a function on behalf of other members of the group as well as themselves. This is the person who always challenges administration, who constantly argues, who gives off nonverbal signs of frustration in meetings but never does anything positive, who is always tardy, who bullies other people .
“Many groups and organizations have a ‘difficult’, ‘disturbed’, or ‘impossible’ member whose behavior is regarded as getting in the way of the others’ good work. There may be a widely shared belief that if only that person would leave, then everything would be fine. This view is very attractive, hard to resist and tempting to act upon…. As happens very often, no sooner had one troublesome person left, than another one appeared. … this unconscious suction of individuals into performing a function on behalf of others as well as themselves happens in all institutions (pp.130-131) .
The “shadow organization” is the organization that grows up informally alongside or perhaps more accurately, within the overt organization to provide services and benefits not provided by the overt organization. These arrangements can parallel, complement or even replace formal organization structures and processes . Of all the explanations of conflict in organizations, it is these shadowy, largely unconscious sources of conflict that are likely to be the most problematic in caregiving organizations. We may be relatively good at solving many task conflicts and even resolving overt interpersonal conflicts and misunderstandings, but we get blindsided by the unconscious group forces of which we are only minimally aware.
We often only observe in retrospect, the damage that has been left in the wake of these shadow experiences. The destructive parallel processes that we describe in this volume - collective disturbance, traumatic reenactment, groupthink, the Abilene paradox – all are part of this shadowy world of group interactive dynamics, the “social defense systems” that rarely get discussed in the social service and mental health world of today. That lack of discussion, of course, makes the influence of the unconscious conflicts at the individual and at the group level, much more powerful.
1. Hede, A., The shadow group: Towards an explanation of intepersonal conflict in work groups. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 2007. 22(1): p. 25-39.
2. Obholzer, A. and V.Z. Roberts, The troublesome individual and the troubled institution., in The Uconscious at Work: Individual and Organizational Stress in the Human Services, A. Obholzer and V.Z. Roberts, Editors. 1994, Routledge: London. p. 129-138.
3. Egan, G., Working the Shadow Side: A Guide to Positive Behind-the-Scenes Management. 1994, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.