Skip to Main Content
Printer Friendly

Shadows: The Dark Side of Strength

August 1, 2006

Author: Anne Erickson


 Note: I wrote this for internal purposes as we were planning our recent staff retreat. We all found it helpful and I thought I would share it more widely since it impacts so many of us “in the struggle.”

So many of us have been so overwhelmed lately.  We’ve taken on so much; we’re not sure where to draw lines; we’re desperately trying to deliver so many services to so many constituencies.  We need to figure out how to re-group; how to breathe.

I recently attended the ABA’s Equal Justice conference and, as is usually the case, scooped up lots of reading materials, including an interesting article on trauma in mission-driven organizations.  I found a strange comfort in it.

“An organization is a living human institution,” they write.  An organization’s “real existence is expressed through the hearts, minds, and hands of its employees, members and volunteers.”

In mission-driven organizations, "individuals who recognize societal issues or human needs, join forces to address them.”  This sense of "mission" shapes the culture of the organization.  The overwhelming nature of the mission can also induce a sense – a culture – of trauma.

Trauma caused by --

A constant exposure to unmet needs - not all of which we can meet

Attacks from outside forces over which we have little or no control

Constantly working against the grain, often without the support of others

"The nature of the work names the struggles or challenges and creates expectations about individual identification with the work."  Often we merge ourselves, our lives with the life of the organization, not knowing where one ends and the other begins.

Sound familiar?  This is what I shared with our staff:  Think about our vision and mission:

At Empire Justice our Vision is to be a statewide leader working to achieve social and economic justice in New York State.

Our mission?

To protect and strengthen the legal rights of people in New York State who are poor, disabled or disenfranchised.  We do this through systems change advocacy, training and support to other advocates and organizations, and high quality legal representation

We are out to make the world a better place for those who struggle against mighty odds.  Are we "there" yet?  Can we ever be "there"?

In this very mission-driven organization of ours, as with so many of our colleagues,

"The work is perceived to be a higher calling"

and so it can consume every fiber, every moment of our being.

The highly mission-driven work creates an intense emotional culture, as we deal with the stress, guilt and exhaustion of striving to mission and never quite getting there.

Impact on Us, on Our Organization

The culture of Mission drives internal dynamics that are both functional and dysfunctional.  And this is where the authors lead us – to recognize the shadows thrown on us by our strengths.




Commitment to the work.  Over promising, over functioning
Stress: external forces don't care or work against us.
Expertise-based success.

Rigid in approach, (it works; we've always done it this way)

Exceed Capacity, (we're the only ones and it has to be done right).

Interdependence; caring deeply about relationships (internal & external).   Conflict avoidance, Unclear boundaries, (supervision, leadership, interpersonal relations).
Shared power and decision-making Lack of decisions, no clear responsibility, (Who's in charge?).
Client-centered No permission to not care, to step away, to say no; guilt → stress.
Social change Mandate/Mission Sense of guilt and failure, we haven't ended poverty, things are worse not better, We/I'm failing.
Empathic, caring response to clients and to each other. Over functioning, over worked, guilt/stress about not meeting all needs; no permission to say "No".
Autonomous; independent work (staff and organization). Isolating/Isolation.
Mission-driven (all are one in the mission). Loss of identity, disagreements become personalized or politicized, (you're not "with mission").

The authors found that organizations that are this mission-driven risk falling into one of two patterns:


  1. They focus on Strengths only with little criticism allowed; they overuse and over emphasize their strengths.  They are driven by a need to affirm themselves, their work, and their mission within the greater struggle.
  2. They focus on Shadows only.  Their dysfunction becomes so intense that their strengths have been forgotten; cynicism and apathy become the norm.  They are overworked, underappreciated and exhausted, so why bother?

So Now What?

“The task is not to eliminate the Shadows, but to recognize them as a starting point for systemic analysis and insight.”

I don’t think we are so traumatized as to be dysfunctional, but we are extremely mission-driven and this framework really helped me put things in a new light.

I think for us the challenge is a healthy balance of recognizing and using our strengths, while at the same time recognizing and responding to our shadows.

As we begin to think about the next phase in our growth and development – and as we launch the next phase of our strategic planning – we need to work towards striking that balance.

Here are some tips from the article that might help us shape an approach:

Shine a Light on the Shadows

  • Explore our experiences through the framework of Shadows and Strengths
  • Encourage discussion of the inherent tensions without assigning blame to individuals or to specific roles; recognize that these are organizational issues, organizational dynamics
  • Remember our creation stories, the source of our inspiration, and our current strengths -- rekindle hope

Reduce Stress

  • Work to surface and change the norms that lead to stress
  • Encourage boundary-setting that says “no” to over-functioning, over-promising
  • Encourage organization-wide conversations about capacity and limits
  • Support realistic priority setting

Embrace Organizational Strengths and Shadows

  • Develop awareness of strengths and shadows --“notice and name them”
  • Convene and facilitate conversations – open and non-confrontational
  • Actively work to shape our organizational culture and change dysfunctional dynamics

Reflect and Learn

  • Fully understand and embrace our strengths
  • Create change strategies in alignment with those strengths and values
  • From a sense of strength, open boundaries, increase information flow
  • Move from protecting ourselves to embracing collaborations – internally and externally

“Understanding the work-culture connection is the first step an organization can take to free itself from dysfunctional dynamics and heal from trauma.”  Let’s think it through and work on our Strengths and Shadows before we become “traumatized.”

Trauma and Healing in Organizations, Pat Vivian and Shane Hormann OD Practitioner, Vol. 34, No.4, 2002


Copyright © Empire Justice Center. All rights reserved. Articles may be reprinted only with permission of the authors.