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Illuminating Shadow Intentions: Understanding Unconscious Motives in the Workplace

How Unconscious Motives Affect Workplace Relationships

Often, we believe our decisions and actions are made with good intentions. However, there’s another side to that coin: shadow intentions.

Shadow intentions are those unconscious, potentially uncomfortable behaviors that come from a place of self-protection. They can show up in many ways: violent politeness, passive-aggressive behavior, guilt-tripping, and more.

Often, it is difficult to acknowledge these parts of our personalities. They don’t match our perception of ourselves.

But understanding and managing your unconscious motives, what we here at SNoWCo call “shadow intentions,” can be critical for developing self-awareness.

How Shadow Intentions and Unconscious Motives Show Up in the Workplace

There are many ways that shadow intentions and unconscious motives can show up as behaviors in the workplace. Some of the more common examples we see in our work include the following:

  1. Inauthenticity: When someone has an unconscious desire for approval or a fear of rejection, they may behave in ways that don’t align with their values. This can lead to workplace conflicts or misunderstandings and create an uncomfortable work environment.
  2. Avoidance of responsibility: When an unconscious fear of failure is present, team members may avoid taking on novel challenges or tasks, which can limit their growth and development.
  3. Power struggles: A colleague may have an unconscious desire for power or recognition, which could influence their actions and decision-making in a way that does not align with the organization’s goals. This can lead to power struggles with coworkers or superiors.
  4. Sabotaging others: Someone may have an unconscious desire to feel superior to others, which could lead them to engage in behaviors that undermine or damage the success of others.
  5. Procrastination: Someone may have an unconscious fear of success or fear of failure, which could lead to procrastination or avoidance of critical tasks.
  6. Disruptive behavior: Someone may have an unconscious desire for attention or a fear of being ignored, which could lead to disruptive or inappropriate behavior in the workplace.

When team members put in the work to become aware of these behaviors and the potential unconscious motives that may be driving them, individuals can be more authentic and productive and have healthier interpersonal relationships with coworkers.

Shadow intentions can have a variety of adverse effects on workplace relationships. Here are three we see as the most damaging:

  • Relationships that are badly damaged or strained
  • Decreased trust and collaboration between people and departments
  • An adverse effect on the morale and productivity of an organization

How to Manage Your Shadow Intentions

Several strategies can help manage shadow intentions and unconscious motives at work:

  1. Increase self-awareness: One of the key ways to manage shadow intentions and unconscious motives is to become more aware of them. Practicing self-awareness techniques, like mindfulness or self-reflection, can help individuals recognize when unconscious motives drive their actions or behaviors.
  2. Conduct a Courageous Audit: It can be helpful to practice honest self-reflection on your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors and be frank about the unconscious motives that may be driving them. This can help you identify patterns or themes that may be holding you back or causing conflicts with others. Your unconscious voice may even appear as a quiet inner voice we call a “saboteur.” Those shadows might be degrading your performance instead of affecting others.
  3. Seek feedback from trusted colleagues: Another effective strategy is to seek input from trusted colleagues or mentors. More profound psychological safety and a culture of continuous feedback can help you and your team members better understand how your unconscious motives impact your behavior and relationships at work. And remember – the way you receive this feedback will move the needle on how safe your colleague feels with you.
  4. Seek support from an executive or leadership coach: Working with a leadership coach can be a helpful way to gain insight into your unconscious motives and develop strategies for managing them. Leadership coaches can help you deepen your self-awareness, identify potential blind spots, and help you shape the impact you want to make at work by aligning your actions with your intentions.
  5. Identify and challenge negative beliefs: Shadow intentions and unconscious motives often stem from negative thoughts about ourselves or others. Identifying and challenging these beliefs can effectively manage unconscious motives and deepen your workplace impact as both a leader and an individual contributor.
  6. Develop healthy coping strategies: Finally, it can be helpful to develop healthy coping strategies for managing stress or difficult emotions, as these can often be triggers for unconscious motives. Techniques like mindfulness or self-care can help you constructively manage your feelings. And never underestimate the importance of rest rituals.

Shadow intentions can impact our behavior and decision-making without awareness, leading to conflicts, a negative work environment, and reduced productivity. By understanding and managing these behaviors, we can improve our authenticity, interpersonal relationships with others, and overall productivity by simply increasing self-awareness, self-reflection, continuously seeking feedback, asking for and building network support, challenging those negative beliefs (“saboteurs”), and developing a rhythm of healthy coping strategies.

Investing in your self-awareness and communication skills can seem challenging (and it will likely feel uncomfortable when you first begin to unpack these thoughts and motives), but it will ultimately be rewarding. 

Building a self-awareness practice allows us to understand our strengths and weaknesses better and show up with more authenticity in our interactions with others. As a bonus, it will likely result in improved communication and collaboration, leading to better outcomes and a more positive work experience for ourselves and those we work with.

I want to reassure you that you will make mistakes as you dip your toes in the shadow intention waters. It’s okay to make mistakes as we learn and grow in these areas; continuous improvement is worth the effort. And remember: celebrate the catch.

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Sarah Noll Wilson is on a mission to help leaders build and rebuild teams. She aims to empower leaders to understand and honor the beautiful complexity of the humans they serve. Through her work as an Executive Coach, an in-demand Keynote Speaker, Researcher, Contributor to Harvard Business Review, and Bestselling Author of “Don’t Feed the Elephants”, Sarah helps leaders close the gap between what they intend to do and the actual impact they make. She hosts the podcast “Conversations on Conversations”, is certified in Co-Active Coaching and Conversational Intelligence, and is a frequent guest lecturer at universities. In addition to her work with organizations, Sarah is a passionate advocate for mental health.

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