top of page
  • Writer's pictureDave Veale

Leaders, beware of the shadow you cast

Updated: Jan 29

Leaders: Are you aware of the direct relationship between your behaviour and your employees’ mental health?

Think about a leader who is routinely moody, loud, judgmental, aggressive, blaming and unapproachable to those who report to them, or another who says things like: “You can’t trust what you’re told here”; or “It really doesn’t matter what we think.”

Consider the impact that constant negative behaviours and words have on employees’ stress level and mental health. Think back on your career experience to see if you had a leader who displayed any of these kinds of negative behaviours and their impact on you.

Leaders in positions of authority who are not aware of or don’t care about how their actions impact their employees are blind to the shadow they’re casting and its impact on employees’ health, engagement and productivity.

Larry Senn and Jim Hart explored how cultures over time are shaped by what they refer to as the Shadow of the Leader. One key point in their book is that every leader casts a shadow that becomes the key message received by employees. Culture is influenced by how leaders collectively behave. Their shadow can have both a positive and negative impact on employees.

With the growing conversation around mental health in Canada’s workplaces, besides increased awareness and decreasing stigma there may be no more powerful remedy to reduce mental health risk than effective leaders. Leaders who understand and accept the role their shadow plays in creating a psychologically safe workplace are positioned to prevent mental injuries and workplace-related mental health issues.

Canada is evolving with the changing legal landscape with respect to tort law, OHS legislation, human rights and organizational policies. It appears that our society is drawing a line in the sand for leaders with respect to their role of protecting employees from harm that can negatively impact them psychologically or physically.

Try to process the following statistic: Across the globe, mental health has a $2.5-trillion impact on productivity and health-care costs, which is more than all cancers and heart diseases combined. This number is expected to rise to $6 trillion by 2030.

As a leader, besides the above reasons and the philosophical reason that protecting employees’ mental health is the right thing to do, there’s also a clear business motive. Mental health issues have a $51-billion impact on productivity in Canada.

Do you know what the impact is on your organization? If not, why? While it can be difficult to relate to these massive numbers, ignoring them doesn’t change the fact that mental illness is having a negative impact in most organizations.

To put a dent into the negative impact of mental illness on a workplace, all leaders need to catch up and get involved in this conversation. This isn’t a question of whether mental health is a problem in the workplace. The facts and research are clear: It is. And it’s not going anywhere soon, nor will it become a fad or flavour-of-the-month. Just because any one leader doesn’t understand or believe, such ignorance alone is not enough evidence to suggest that it’s not real.

Tips for managing your shadow

Education — If you’re not aware of what mental health is, or have not been trained in understanding the difference between stress, mental health and mental illness and the role of a leader, the first step is to take some training. It would also be helpful to get some foundational education on the role of resiliency and coping skills in curbing mental health risk. Leaders will never be expected to be mental health professionals. The purpose of this kind of education is to increase awareness of the mental health continuum, signs, symptoms and stigma, and the role of leaders to prevent, protect and support.

Shadow — Be interested in knowing the kind of shadow you cast and its impact, good or bad. It’s not what you think it is; it’s what your employees believe it is. If you’re not sure and not clear on how to ask or discover this information in a non-threatening way, consider using an approach where you open yourself up to a 360-degree process by a trained coach. They can help you turn this into a growing process, not just a pass-or-fail course.

Own — Every leader who owns their behaviour and accepts that words matter can be more aware and accountable, and do no harm to employees’ psychological health. This kind of leader is positioned to display more empathy and receive more trust. In the end, they will cast a positive shadow that will have better results over the long term with respect to employee productivity, retention and costs.

Bill Howatt is chief research & development officer, workforce productivity, for Morneau Shepell and co-founder of V1 Coaching.

Originally published January 29, 2018 in the Halifax Chronicle Herald.

37 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page