Beware the 'Boss Shadow Effect'

Loads of leaders have a blind spot when it comes to underestimating the shadow they cast.

I call it the Boss Shadow Effect.

Many of us assume our teams are open and honest with us. About what they’re really thinking about our latest idea, how we ran that Monday morning meeting or what they think our strengths and weaknesses are as a leader. We like to consider ourselves approachable, open to feedback and self aware when it comes to our teams and how they view us, right?

Well I hate to break it to you, but your team is probably holding back a bit more than you think they are.

You’re likely missing chances to get their feedback on how you’re leading them. And if the research is anything to go by, you’re not as self aware as you think you are. Especially when it comes to how your direct reports view you and your leadership practice.

Positional power is alive and well in today’s organisations, but it's often underestimated. People are ALWAYS acutely aware of the hierarchy within the group. Titles and who does the performance appraisal matters a heck of a lot to most people.

But when we put our leader hat on, we can forget this dynamic.

We underestimate the shadow we cast as a manager.

It's only when we think of ourselves as a direct report and consider how we interact with our own manager, that the Boss Shadow effect comes into the limelight again.

What does the Boss Shadow Effect mean for you and your team?

  • You underestimate how hard it is for people to challenge and give feedback upwards. And so you might be inadvertently leading in a manner that’s not only holding you back, but potentially your team too.
  • The more aware you are of the Boss Shadow Effect and how it plays out in your team, the more you’ll be able to counteract its limitations - and improve trust and performance within your team.
  • When you whisper, it comes out as a shout to those you lead. Your opinion carries more weight within the group, just because of your title. Add in a powerful or dominant personality - and you can be downright overwhelming for others. The ‘boss in the room’ factor will be at play any time you get together as a group.
  • Actively seeking feedback from your direct reports on your leadership (and making it a pleasant experience for them to give it to you) will have a positive, palpable influence on the trust within your team - and on your own leadership game.
  • Sharing your weaknesses and ‘work-ons’ with your team takes courage and means being a bit vulnerable. Do it anyway. It will go a long way to mitigating the negative impacts of the Boss Shadow Effect. The best leaders have the courage to be vulnerable, as Dr Brene Brown points out in her book, Dare to Lead

Here are four things you can do to reduce the negative impacts of the Boss Shadow Effect:

Actively seek feedback. Ask your direct reports, on a regular basis, “what can I start doing, do more of or change which will help you to perform better?”  or "if there was one thing I could do to improve in terms of my leadership, what could I do?" They are likely to mumble something along the lines of, “nothing, you’re great….” Don’t let them off the hook until they reply with at least one thing. Look for patterns in your team's answers. If there’s a common theme, act on it.

Handy hint: Don’t put your direct reports on the spot with this request. Give them context by telling them it's because you want to get better at leading them and you can't do that unless they give you honest feedback. Send them the question out in advance, so they have time to prepare their answers. This is especially useful for introverts or Analyticals in the Social Styles.

And if you have the opportunity to participate in any form of 360 degree feedback, do so and be open to what the results tell you, no matter how confronting they can be.

Search out opposition to your ideas. Encourage your team to regularly challenge you and your ideas. Avoid being defensive or attacking them when they do. Questions for starters include, “What’s wrong with my idea?” “Can someone play Devil’s Advocate to the idea I just came up with?” “Who has a completely different idea to mine which we should consider?” Once again, don’t think deathly silence necessarily means agreement. Make this approach a regular communication strategy in your leadership repertoire.

Hold off sprouting your opinion. Go last with your idea. Let your team contribute first when having discussions. The moment you voice your opinion, especially if you go first with it, you change the dynamics of creativity and people sharing their thoughts. Instead, listen more deeply. Ask more open, curious questions. Build on others’ ideas.

Be aware of your own ego. We all have egos and we need our egos to survive. Egos are not bad, unless we unaware of when they are trying to rule the show and when we let them run amok. Be aware of when you feel the need to be right, clever, an expert or in control. Practicing mindfulness of your own drivers and tendencies will enable you to ‘respond’ rather than ‘react’ to your ego. And that’s a good thing in leadership. The Boss Shadow Effect is always at play. You can’t get rid of it. That’s not the idea.

But if you can be more aware of it within your team and adopt leadership practices to counteract its limiting effects, then you - and your team - will be better off.


Craig Wedge
November 18, 2019 AT 9:56PM

I like a lot of what is said, especially the bit about having the courage to be vulnerable, and less dominating. When my previous boss softened her approach and became more gentle (in my view more her real self), then the atmosphere in the team meetings was more relaxed, more fun. I would also like to suggest that it's up to the employees to play their part too. Our bosses are human, they don't get it right every time, and if approached in the right way, may be more open to feedback than one realises. That may also require to us to develop our confidence and self-esteem before we can make the approach. I value my bosses as much as my colleagues and clients, which in turn pays rich dividends in our working relationship.

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