Friday, 14 March 2014

Wisdom of the Shadows

I've been reading a fascinating book called 'Working the Shadow Side' by Gerard Egan, a professor of psychology and business management at Loyola University, Chicago. Like people, all organisations have their shadow side. The book shows that you ignore the shadows of your organisation at your peril. To get to know these shadows will not only enable you to weed out the negatives but allow you to be more creative and productive by utilising the positive energy that lurks in the informal, unacknowledged, maybe even unmentionable areas of your organisation's life.

What are the unspoken rules in your workplace? What are the taboos, the elephants in the room, the unmentionables? It may be as simple as two people not getting along with each other who 'can't' be put on the rota together, causing inconvenience and resentment for everyone who has to work round this. Or it may be as fundamental as the whole management style of the organisation preventing people from accomplishing things they believe they need to accomplish for the good of the organisation and its mission. I guess, in the health care world, there's something around the handful of conditions we each secretly know we most fear contracting ourselves. These probably have a subconscious effect on what and who we avoid and what we say in clinical team meetings. Then, what are the protest behaviours in your organisation? People taking longer lunch breaks or not turning up for meetings? Putting off essential long term planning? Coming up with every excuse under the sun to avoid required changes in working patterns? Egan explores what goes on in the shadows of an organisation, looking at the covet, undiscussed and undiscussable things which may be driving the organisation as much as, or more than, publicly acknowledged mission and policy. He shows how these often deeply buried things lead to loss in terms of human and economic resources. A good manager will get to know the shadow side of their organisation as well as the faces that are presented to the world and will learn to handle shadow behaviours with tact, caution and purposefulness.

You find obvious examples of this kind of thing in churches, too, where the 'official line' is so tightly controlled that various groups have either rebelled or gone underground. These groups then instigate all kinds of subversive and creative activities  -  unofficial Friends groups, Bible studies in pubs, liaison with local tourism groups, slightly wacky prayer groups, teas for the elderly that clash with important meetings. Vicars  (who are not managers but sometimes need or are forced unwillingly to behave like managers) fall broadly into two camps - those who feel threatened by such behaviour and those who recognise in such behaviours creative potential and so learn to work with eruptions of the shadow in church life. That's not to say that such things don't sometimes need to be controlled or stopped when they undermine the central values of a faith community. 

The message of the book is don't fear such things, don't bury your head in the sand and deny them but learn to be fascinated -  observe and take sound judgements about the shadow side of your community. Root around behind the scenes and learn what the unwelcome behaviours of your church community are telling you. Without such knowledge, true wisdom about what is needed to grow and sustain the mission of your organisation or your church will not emerge. What will emerge are superficial and ultimately damaging activities and relationships that have in them the seeds of their own undermining. The aim is to know and acknowledge the hidden parts of a community's life so that they can be named, pruned and brought into the service of the whole. The book is full of practical examples drawn from the world management but illuminating for more organic organisations too.

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