The Blog

Women Leaders: Are You Showing Too Much Shadow?

Unconscious bias is often (rightly) blamed for its part in holding women back at work. But what about our own blind spots? Evidence suggests that people are often poor judges of themselves. Most of us like to strive for authenticity in what we do. But are we really being 'real'?

Unconscious bias is often (rightly) blamed for its part in holding women back at work.

But what about our own blind spots? Evidence suggests that people are often poor judges of themselves. Most of us like to strive for authenticity in what we do. But are we really being 'real'? Self-deception can very easily prevent us from seeing the mistakes we're making as leaders.

These 'shadows' are aspects of ourselves of which we're unaware, but they can profoundly influence how others respond to us. They may be the reason we fail to make the impression we'd hoped to or engage with our team as we'd expected. They can also ruin relationships if people believe that your shadow is the 'real you' coming out.

Shadow sides are often what people bring into the room when they want to talk to me as individuals. But they are usually most visible in group settings.

Take the senior female executive with whom I've been working. A potential role model, she wants to change the culture of the financial services firm where she works, and to make people accountable. We've worked individually on her strategy, her vision and overcoming any sense that she's an imposter in her new role. But when I watched her interaction with her team, I saw a glaring discrepancy between her values and her behaviour.

She has no problem making herself accountable -- in fact she takes on too much responsibility. Therein lies her 'shadow'. She won't let go and allow others to become accountable. She wants to empower, yet she immediately puts herself forward for key roles. Even more surprising, when the team pushed back, she got a bit petulant.

She also seemed to have a bias against a male team member, while allowing a woman from the same group to come into her office and cry. That is inconsistent leadership and breeds a sense of unfairness that, again, flies in the face of her own values.

What it came down to was that she was allowing impatience with herself to adversely affect the way she treated others. When I pointed it out, she initially blamed the process and would not, ironically, take responsibility for her actions.

It made me wonder how often this other persona came up elsewhere -- in board meetings or with business partners. Was this preventing her from advancing as quickly as she wanted?

In another organisation, I've started working with a woman who has just become the company secretary. I wonder how she got the role, because she's so mousy and worried. In her case, she's inadvertently instilling a lack of confidence in others. She makes people nervous without knowing exactly why. To the outside world she looks like an achiever, but she doesn't feel it herself, so she's exhausted by having to put up a front.

These two women may seem like opposites, but they face the same dilemma: how do you become self-aware enough to stop being self conscious? How do you sublimate your ego and bring out your true self?

Ego vs true self

Our ego likes to be praised; it can result in a desire to control others, to behave in a superior, defensive or alienating way. It can make us rude, aggressive, and frankly a bit ridiculous.

The true self brings different energy. It's less 'I'm better than you', more 'this is me'. It's imperceptible at a superficial level, but people respond more receptively and listen more intently to your true self. They will be more engaged if they can relate to you as a 'real' person, rather than just an authority figure or a set of achievements.

We all do the 'ego' thing. Sometimes it's more extreme for women, especially if you've been told you need to make a stand for yourself. So we need to face up to it with compassion and lightness.

Become mindful: It's easy to lose connection with yourself, or to forget the impact you may be having on others. Work on developing self-awareness. Think about how you describe yourself: is it by achievements and accolades, or what you do and what you're interested in? Conscious leadership begins here, and it's a lifelong process of learning.

Go dark: It's often the stuff you dislike in others that you're guilty of yourself. This post offers some tips on unearthing your 'dark side' or shadow.

Take ownership: There's often a big gap between our vaunted beliefs and what we actually do. The Conscious Leadership Group talks about these as our hidden icebergs -- what we say is above the water, but what we actually do is below. Taking 'radical responsibility' for the below-the-water results will start to shift your thinking and help you walk your talk.

Determine the payoff: Your less admirable traits may have an upside, they may not. But they probably give you some payoff or you wouldn't persist in behaving that way. How are you benefiting from particular attitudes or actions?

Don't rely on the mirror: Being real means embracing your individuality and allowing it to shape your behaviour, but it also means asking for feedback on how others see you. Don't let yourself off the hook (or find someone else who'll hold you accountable). Don't blame the process or other people for what's exposed.

(Photo: Creative Commons,