Night and Day: Dealing With Shadow During Organizational Change

Your organization has a shadow – whether you want it or not. That shadow is always there; it is part of a natural process. However, the shadow is most likely to interfere with your ambitions and strategies during phases of organizational change, and often in unexpected ways.


What is a shadow?


Building on the extremely complex shadow concept described by Carl Jung, the shadow in organizational behavior often refers to features organizations wish to hide about themselves, features they are unaware of or that they seek to gain control over as the result of a perceived threat to the organization’s self-image and self-understanding. As a consequence, the shadow is repressed, while the content is often unconsciously projected onto others (see, for example, “The Organization Shadow by Bowles).

The shadow is not necessarily the dark side or the Mr. Hyde personality of Dr. Jekyll. Rather, it represents what you wish wasn’t quite so true about your organization. To give an example: If you aim to innovate and internationalize your organization while there is a local and preservative mindset at play, you will most likely find yourself in the position of trying to underplay those tendencies in your organization. Ironically, it is this very tendency of denial and suppression that can lead to such extreme change resistance that it literally overshadows your entire change initiative. It is not necessarily the behavior or mindset itself that fuels the resistance.


“Everything that we see is a shadow cast by that which we do not see.” Martin Luther King, Jr.


Shadow, Change and Control


What change initiators are usually unaware of is that oftentimes the driving force behind planned intervention is to gain control over the undesired shadow. Current events are often prematurely linked to undesired sentiments or behavior without clearly identifying a direct relationship or evaluating the extent to which the organization and its management might have fueled the undesired behavior with their own participation.

To go back to the example of international, flexible mindsets: How frequently do you hear or think in your organization that you would do better, if only the company and its people displayed a more flexible and open mindset? Even if you only hear or think this once, it indicates that there are control issues in regard to your shadow at play. While the shadow is as normal as the night following the day, it cannot be controlled. However you can gain a lot by utilizing it wisely.


7 Tips for Understanding and Working with the Shadow


To understand your shadow, you need to accept it and address your pre-conceptions in regards to it.


  1. Deeply analyze why you are seeking change in your organization: What behaviors and procedures do you think need to change? Where do you think the behavior stems from? Before you jump to conclusions ask yourself which role do you/the organization play in the way things currently are.

  2. Understand your “so that”: When people want to see things change, they usually have a “so that” in mind: an expectation that is often not fully articulated. Ask yourself what the letters of the alphabet signify in your case when you say: “Behavior A,B,C needs to change so that X,Y,Z can happen.” What is your X,Y,Z? What is your A,B,C? Once you know, ask yourself: “Is this really true?” Can you actually identify a direct relation between the two?

  3. Get feedback on what you think you know: Regardless, whether your answer to the questions in number 2 is “yes” or “no”, get feedback from multiple people who work at various levels of the organization. You cannot afford to initiate change based on only one perspective!

  4. Don’t fool yourself: If you collect feedback from various people and all feedback confirms your assumptions, you haven’t looked deep enough or wide enough. Again, you cannot afford to initiate change with only one perspective, even if this one perspective is backed up by a variety of people.

  5. Rethink your change initiative: Use the collected insights to redesign your change initiative from scratch. If nothing else, the collected input will help you understand that the desired results can be brought about in various ways. In other words, it helps you develop a flexible mindset – which to go back to our example – is what you are expecting from others.

  6. Understand your own role and that of the organization in what you are trying to change – We often hear a very one-sided story along the lines of: a) “Things are so great, let’s make them even greater” or b) “Things are really bad around here, we need to change”. Diversify this image, analyze your part in how things are and include the results in your change strategy and communication.

  7. Start by initiating active corrections: Once you know your role in the current situation, you can begin taking active counter-measures. Additionally, you might use reverse psychology by actively emphasizing positive behavior. Discussing what is and what is not productive in regards to the desired behavior can make a big difference when you pro-actively deal with your shadow during change.


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About the author:

Erika Jacobi is the President of LC GLOBAL Consulting Inc. and Editor of CHANGE TALK. LC GLOBAL® is a change and innovation consulting firm with offices in New York City and Munich, Germany. For more information visit or follow us on Twitter at


Topics: Change Management, Organizational Change, Change Leadership, corporate culture

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