Like a lot of children born in the 1970s I grew up loving the Star Wars films. It’s a classic tale of good versus evil and overcoming adversity. In the films the good side is known as ‘the Force’ and the baddies are identified as the Dark Side. In the trilogy that came out when I was a child the story was for the young Jedi hero Luke Skywalker to overthrow Darth Vader who turned out to be Luke’s father who had defected to the Dark Side. Luke is convinced that Darth Vader can’t be all bad, and he’s proven right when Darth Vader sacrifices himself to save his son.
What has that got to do with leadership?
In my opinion we’ve all got a Dark Side. As leaders and managers we need to learn about our dark side in order to adapt our behaviour and not let it overshadow our good intentions.
What is the Dark Side?
In 2007 I started learning about occupational positive psychology and the importance of utilizing your strengths or energisers at work. In 2010 I was introduced to a powerful tool called Strengthscope® which diagnoses and assesses occupational strengths. A key part of an individual’s strengths profile is about ‘strengths in overdrive’. This is when a strength is being applied incorrectly or inappropriately and is creating an unintended negative impact for the individual or those around them.
Let me give you an example: the strength of efficiency at its best could be described as taking a well ordered and methodical approach to tasks. If it goes into overdrive it could become an excessive emphasis on organization that leaves little scope to incorporate new information. I’m sure we’ve all encountered people who are so focused on the process of their role or task that they seem to carry on regardless of more urgent and pressing information. Where I’m from we’d call that person a ‘jobsworth’ – they can’t go against the rules because in their own words ‘it’s more than my job’s worth’.
The Dark Side is effectively the jobsworth and all the other negative judgmental critical terms we use to describe people that annoy and frustrate us: nit-picky, negative, cocky, arrogant, pushy, domineering, controlling, lazy, crazy, loudmouth, indecisive, argumentative, flaky, cold, aloof and the list goes on.
Why do we have a Dark Side?
The Dark Side shows it’s face when we’re under pressure.
An example I use a lot with my coaching clients is to imagine you’re in a foreign country and can’t speak the language and you start to get frustrated. The more frustrated you get the louder you talk in your own language. Does it help you become understood and get your message across? Of course not.
The same happens at work. If we’re under pressure it’s often easier to let instinct kick in than to sit back and consider alternative courses of action. And pressure comes in many forms: hunger, anger, tiredness, running late, volume of work, complexity of work, bureaucracy, conflicting priorities etc.
Unfortunately instinct can lead into the negative territory of the Dark Side. Perhaps you possess the strength of self-confidence and you attend an interview and you’re nervous (pressure) it can be easy for that self-confidence to come across as arrogance.
The Dark Side is within all of us, the key is to become the master of it and not let it affect you and those around you.
How do we control the Dark Side?
As Luke Skywalker found out it’s hard to keep your Dark Side in check. We can’t remove the pressures from our lives. What we can do is change the way we deal with them.
The first step is to understand and acknowledge your own Dark Side. What does it look like, when does it happen, who are the people most likely to instigate it, who are the people most likely to be affected by it, what are some examples from the past where it’s shown itself?
Once you’ve looked back you need to apply some hindsight, learning and feedback. What could you have done differently, could you do that again next time, were there any internal or external cues that the dark side was surfacing? Perhaps you physically felt an emotion, or you saw people eye rolling whilst you were talking in a meeting.
One of my strengths is enthusiasm, I get very passionate when talking about certain subjects. This translates as a lot of extravagant arm gestures and louder, faster speech. For years I wore a jangly bracelet that would act as an audible cue for me to be conscious of my wildly waving arms, when the jangle started that was the point for me to take a breath and reconsider how my behaviour was impacting those around me.
How do we control the Dark Side of others?
The short answer is that you can’t.
The longer answer is that you can use your knowledge about the Dark Side to identify why the other person is behaving in that way. Think about what they are doing that is frustrating you. Perhaps they are quick to dismiss your ideas because they think it will never work in practice. This could be an example where the person is using their strength of common sense which is about being practical. You can then adapt your message by showing them the practical side of your idea, or you could let them know that you’re ‘thinking out loud’ and haven’t thought about the practicalities yet and you welcome their suggestions.
Stephen Covey in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People lists habit 5 as ‘seek first to understand, then to be understood’. This really applies when you have a feeling you could be working in the Dark Side.
If you’d like to learn more about the Dark Side for individuals, teams and organisations and how to create a more inclusive working environment then contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org