Holacracy Community of Practice Archive, 2015-2019 Community Holacracy Web Site

Shadow Power - Resources

Folks - 

Do you know of any articles, videos, etc on shadow power, its manifestations, and solutions to reduce/eliminate? 

I've got some great notes from the Coach Training but seeking more...



7 Replies
Chris Cowan

Hey Keith, 

I have some notes gathered on that, but nothing published. I would love to get some resources out on that. Could you provide a few FAQ-style questions which I could use to structure the content? Things like, "What is the shadow power structure?", "How does it show up?", etc. are pretty obvious, but anything more specific or nuanced? 


Keith Jarvis

Hmm yeah - looking at my note set and thinking about conversations in our rooms since that training...

  • What are some costs / impacts of unchecked shadow power?
    • on organizations
    • on circle/role relationships
    • on interpersonal levels
  • What are some ways for me to confront shadow power in others in the least confrontational energy?
  • How can I check to see if I'm exercising shadow power unconsciously?
    • What steps could I take to re-orient myself away from these behaviors?
Fritz von Allmen

Is there a common agreement or a suitable definition what shadow powers are?

I'm asking because in my role (or person) I feel several influences / forces; example: the owner of the company works in operative roles in the company, but since I know he could pull the plug on holacracy (or the whole company!) this gives him "an undocumented, but real power" he can execute. 

On the other hand, I feel influenced by some people that were mid or high level management in the old organization. I still feel I should act after what they want, although they have no more real power. This is probably more like a "habit of mine" because I was used to obey to their will

Third example: there are some seniors and experts with way more knowledge and experience and I have seen many times that their decisions were better than mine. So I tend to prioritize "their" work or support their projects rather than trusting my own agenda.

This leads me back to my question what shadow powers really are. I also doubt that shadow powers are malicious by default (because often they don't raise tensions in me).

Keith Jarvis

I look forward to H1's response to your follow-up question, Fritz.

Here's a couple of my thoughts from what I've observed in 3+ years and my recall from the trainings.

Use of shadow power does not imply malevolent intent WHEN UNCONSCIOUS. When someone circumvents the rules, or governance that was created through the rules, they may be doing so out of ignorance.  Relying on previously learned behaviors or habits in those instances may simply require some wake-up calls and re-education.

But when there is intentional deviation from the rules of the game - even if someone does not mean to cause harm to persons, teams, or the organization - then I'd argue that it is, in fact, destructive.

This type of deviation can come from different angles and with energies. A former manager/CEO or simply someone who is used to bossing others may bring a dictatorial style that asserts authorities they do not have. Others may be so inured to a hierarchy of power that they seek permission/approval or 'buy-in' constantly - especially from those like that CEO type whose influences far exceeds their role definitions.

Artem Serdyuk

Hi [@mention:454478741268114544]

I came across something that sounds like "Shadow powers" in this article:

They refer to French and Raven's six bases of power. Maybe it will be useful somehow in your search: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/...n%27s_bases_of_power

Chris Cowan

[@mention:454478741268114544] Thanks. That's really helpful. 

[@mention:567217983804388642] I resonate with Keith's balanced response. There is a big difference between unconsciously wielding one's power and consciously using levers available to you. The unconsciousness is one way to interpret the word "Shadow." 

More specifically, when it comes to practicing Holacracy, the rules govern the way we interact to achieve the purpose of the organization, but as [@mention:499799321313210508] referenced (and we all know), there are obviously sources of power other than the "official" source.  

So, the use of the word "shadow," in this context, with its negative denotation,  doesn't necessarily mean a source of power other than the rules; I think it means an inappropriate use of other sources/forms of power, which somehow push against, violate, or contradict the rules. 


Great topic. Thanks for posting about it [@mention:454478741268114544]

For [@mention:455886150941203371] , I would confirm that publishing something that simply defines what a "shadow power structure" is would be very helpful. The topic has come up in our holacracy, and what I thought was an intuitively obvious term--shadow power structure--gets a lot of blank stares.

We had an initiative recently to discover and define what our company culture is. In a face to face survey we asked (among other things), "Name some behaviors that get punished...". One of the top responses was basically "crossing the shadow power structure". People said things like, "Taking authorized action that crosses perceived power-holder desires" and "Disagreeing with former power holders". I have personally spoken with people that are making decisions that they correctly believe are within their authority in Holacracy, yet they feel pressure from a former power holder to make a different decision.

We're in the early stages of figuring out how best to address this, so I'm definitely interested in ideas others have.

Thanks for the links [@mention:499799321313210508].  Definitely going to read those.