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Managing the 'Shadow Side' of Your Leadership Style

“Leadership shadows” are the negative patterns that represent the counterpart to positive leadership styles. Here's how to manage them.

Leading the HR function is the epitome of walking a tightrope. You are constantly driving innovation while also ensuring reliability in your internal functions. To execute consistently, you need a high-performing team that can both manage the various day-to-day HR functions but also pivot when necessary. At the heart of achieving that exceptional team performance is culture.

Culture is akin to the “personality” of your team: the patterns of communication, how decisions are made, the degree of engagement and accountability, and at the deepest level, trust. There are three general forces that create and sustain culture, as well as three different levels of team culture that emerge based on the unique underlying emotionality of a group.

So where does organizational culture come from?

  • First, the macro environment and the overall economic situation, both in general and in your industry in particular, impact your team’s culture. Is your business expanding or contracting?
  • Second, the individual styles of your team members impact your culture and performance. Are your teammates mostly relationship-oriented, or are they results-oriented?
  • The final and most important element is the leader’s style and “shadow,” which refers to how they perform under stress. Are you usually calm and resilient, or excitable and reactive?

There are three unique leadership styles, each with three corresponding shadows and team cultures. “Leadership shadows” are the patterns of negative behaviors grounded in fear that emerge under stress in a workplace setting, and they represent the counterpart to positive leadership styles.

The Achiever style (recognition-driven) is detail-oriented, organized and efficient. The corresponding shadow is a Fear of Failure, which often leads to micromanaging and the Detached culture, which is grounded in anger and apathy.

The Affirmer style (relationship-driven) is warm, friendly and collaborative. The corresponding shadow is a Fear of Rejection, which often leads to conflict avoidance and the Dramatic culture, which is grounded in frustration and passive-aggressive behavior.

Finally, the Asserter style (results-driven) is candid, decisive and competitive. The corresponding shadow is a Fear of Betrayal, which often leads to controlling behaviors and the Dependent culture, which is grounded in fear and anxiety.

Irrespective of your leadership style and culture, there are specific approaches you can take to help enhance team member engagement and improve performance.

1. Create a space for collegial candor. Collegial candor is at the heart of effective teamwork. Polite conversation doesn’t drive results, but neither do blunt or overly aggressive statements. Create a psychologically safe space where members can respectfully ask questions, voice concerns and challenge one another.

2. Intentionally focus on your team culture’s counterpart. If your team is Detached, focus on creating a more warm, social environment. If your team is Dramatic, focus more on analytics and data-driven problem-solving. And if your team is Dependent, focus on delegating tasks and allowing teammates to flourish in their own unique and creative ways.

3. Acknowledge your impact on the team. Perhaps the most challenging step for any leader to take, but ultimately the most effective, is to acknowledge the impact that your style and shadow have had on the team. Acknowledging past challenges and how things could have been managed differently while also committing to a better path forward is at the heart of team development and sustainable culture transformation.

William L. Sparks serves as professor of leadership at the McColl School of Business at Queens University of Charlotte in North Carolina. He is the author of the Amazon No. 1 bestselling book Actualized Leadership: Meeting Your Shadow & Maximizing Your Potential (2019) and the forthcoming book Actualized Teamwork: Unlocking the Culture Code for Optimal Performance (2024), both published by SHRM Books. 


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