Shadow Working in Project Management

Towards new levels of consciousness in groups


Advances in Project Management Series


By Joana Bértholo, PhD




 ‘I have yet to meet the famous Rational Economic Man theorists describe. Real people have always done inexplicable things from time to time, and they show no sign of stopping.

— Charles Sanford Jr., US business executive, quoted in Ket De Vries, M. (2003; p. 1)

The book Shadow Working in Project Management (Bértholo, 2017) is the result of a research project undertaken from 2009 to 2014. It tells the story of an experiential autoethnography, the Learning Journey, which sought methods to address unconscious and subconscious traits as they manifest in groups/projects. After this Journey, the author was equipped to return to the literature in project management and explore the implications of the Shadow, to try to answer the main research question – What are the most prevailing Shadows in project management culture? For that, some auxiliary questions had to be addressed, namely

  • What is the Shadow and how does it play out in the life of projects?
  • To what extent and in what way is project management influenced by unconscious factors in its practice and culture?
  • To what extent is the manager’s role the fulfilment of a psychological projection or an archetype?
  • In what ways is the Shadow related to personal development and organizational change?

The varied answers draw a map of the dominant Shadow-issues in project management practice and culture.  In the forward to the book Resonant Leadership, Goleman (2005; p. x) writes that: ‘The first task in management has nothing to do with leading others; step one poses the challenge of knowing and managing oneself’.

Management is not limited to outer circumstances and resources. Fundamental processes are happening within. Through internal management, the experience of the manager is less an outcome and more a process. Any situation becomes: ‘an encounter with the grander, more complex system described by the new sciences and the organizational systems literature. It also demystifies the relationship to this vast unknown, depotentiates the need for willful control over the environment and over other people in other roles.’ (Jones, 2004). These quotes illustrate some guidelines to the research. In addition, important premises were:

–        The existence of an unconscious realm;

–        The project manager as someone who participates in a shared psychological structure wherein unconscious factors play a significant role;

–        Individuals deny traits that belong to them, but which stand as a threat to their sense of self or ego identity;

–        These denied traits appear projected in the external environment and create conflict and tension;

–        The collective in itself as a source of tension between individual and collective needs;

The consequences are manifold. The way a project manager handles a situation cannot be solely attributed to personality, nor is it merely a result of acquired competencies and learned conduct. These rational aspects, although they are ever present, are in fact in relation to a larger totality. The Shadow is a permanent part of that larger totality, and it comes up generally through conflict or emotionally charged situations; in lack of drive or motivation; addictive and compulsive behaviour occurs, sensations of strong instability; somatic bodily symptoms, diseases, nervous ticks, allergies, and all sorts of bodily manifestations, among other forms the Shadow has to show itself.

What is outside of awareness plays out in our everyday lives (see Freud, Jung, Wilber, Zweig). Projection and transference mechanisms are the central mechanisms by which the Shadow manifests. These terms have been retrieved from the somewhat obscure jargon of the analyst or the psychologist and are being integrated in popular discourse, as well as in PM theory. Bowles defined the Organization Shadow as the ‘facts which organizations wish to deny about themselves, due to the threat posed to self-image and self-understanding and, more generally, the need to be viewed in a favourable light by others.’ (Bowles, 1991; p. 387). It is a useful extrapolation of the definition of the individual Shadow. When we speak about the Shadow of a project we are speaking about the Shadow of that project’s active culture at play, in the sense of its values, norms, etc. Different projects carry different Shadows, and the quest for a Shadow-free project is fruitless, as is the quest for a Shadow-free human being.

We all carry Shadows, they change through time, but they are not something we can get rid off, they are something we can be aware of and that can lead us to a more mindful life. According to Jung (1966; pp. 284-5) ‘[The Shadow is] the thing a person has no wish to be. It is everything that the subject refuses to acknowledge about himself and yet is always thrusting itself upon him – for instance inferior traits of character and other incompatible tendencies.’ The Shadow is that about ourselves we find unpleasant or unbearable. It contains aspects that appear contrary to the ego ideal or to the ego identity. Therefore, it becomes a reservoir of untapped potential, rich in raw emotions and primal drives, the disavowed, poorly developed and undervalued contents of the individual psyche – but also our highest morality, creativity, and power (the Light Shadow). When the disliked qualities are removed from view (positive or negative traits) they are also removed from supervision. They do not stop existing. Instead, they play out in unpredictable ways, usually erupting unexpectedly, potentially in hurtful forms to self or others. Afterwards, a deep sense of humiliation, shame, or guilt can be experienced. These are clear Shadow-pointers. “Confrontation with the shadow produces at first a dead balance, a standstill that hampers moral decisions and makes convictions ineffective or even impossible. Everything becomes doubtful.” (Jung, 1963; para 708).


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Editor’s note: The Advances in Project Management series includes articles by authors of program and project management books previously published by Gower in UK and now by Routledge worldwide. Information about Routledge project management books can be found here.

About the Author

Joana Bértholo, PhD





Joana Bértholo is a researcher, novelist and playwright. She first attended the Fine-Arts in Portugal, with a focus on Communication Design, and later obtained a PhD in Cultural Studies in Germany. Art processes are her preferred mode of research, using writing as a platform to investigate a wide scope of interests, such as technology, ecology, sustainability and the darker aspects of groups and communities.

Joana Bértholo is the author of Shadow Working in Project Management: Understanding and Addressing the Irrational and Unconscious in Groups, published by Routledge, ©2018