How might your employees display their darker personality traits with drinks and merriment flowing at the office Christmas party?
You may be familiar with the concept of the shadow side of personality. These are the characteristics we normally keep hidden but which emerge when we’re too stressed, tired, drunk or complacent to keep up a polite façade any longer.
So, in this festive season, let’s see how these characteristics play out at the office Christmas party of a company which has had a bad year and is facing an uncertain future...
Dillie Diligent can be relied upon to do a really thorough job, so she was asked to organise the Christmas party. Nothing has been left to chance and she’s really nailed the details – even the serviettes are the colour of the company logo.
Things fall apart for Dillie when some people don’t stick to the seating plan and her strict timetable starts to go awry. Completely losing sight of the fact that people are already having fun in their own way, she doggedly insists that it’s 9pm so people should start playing charades right now.
Julian Dutiful is a loyal company man who doesn’t like to upset anyone, particularly not someone in authority. He was looking forward to relaxing with his team at the party but yesterday his boss asked him if he’d drive the MD home afterwards as “you live in the same neck of the woods”.
Actually, it’s a 30-minute detour and he wasn’t planning on driving, but he didn’t feel he could say no. He’s anticipating a tense drive home, nodding politely while the MD pontificates about the state of the business.
Estelle Excitable was one of the first people to get enthusiastic about the Christmas party way back in August and was instrumental in getting it off the ground. After it was given to uptight Dillie to organise, she lost interest but as the day approached, she got quite excited again.
She really throws herself into the party spirit but by midnight she’s tired and emotional. Something has upset her and she’s crying on the shoulder of her new best friend – someone she’ll probably have forgotten by Monday.
Sean Shrewd is a smart guy. No one pulls the wool over his eyes and he won’t be taken advantage of. He still hasn’t forgotten the 2015 Christmas do when, in front of the MD, Bob Bold took the credit for that deal Sean had brokered.
With all the uncertainty this year, he’s on high alert. So now he’s wondering why he’s been put on this table. What does that signify? Did Michelle just look at him and laugh? What does she know that he doesn’t? Just what the hell is going on here?
Rose Reserved is very independent and likes to do her own thing. She doesn’t really see the need for all this work socialising. If she could have got out of it, she wouldn’t be there, but with things so uncertain, she felt she had to put in an appearance.
When some of her team express concern about the future she just says she doesn’t know anything – empathy is not her strong point. She eats her meal, making awkward small talk, revealing as little about her private life as possible, then quietly slips away without saying goodbye.
Keith Cautious never puts a foot wrong or at least not if he can help it. He is terribly sensitive to criticism. He wasn’t sure about the dress code and, unlike some of his female colleagues, he didn’t feel he could ask what the other guys were wearing. He’s relieved that he seems to have judged it right, but he still can’t really relax. There’s a lot of talk about the future of the business and he’s worried someone might ask what he thinks. He’d hate to say anything that might be seen as controversial.
Laura Leisurely always seems like a co-operative team mate. Actually, she’s very focused, concentrating on her own priorities. But she hates to appear rude, so she nods and seems to agree to things until the person asking goes away.
This is what happened when Dillie asked her to sell raffle tickets at the party. And yeah, OK, she will do it. Really, she doesn’t need all these reminders and hard stares. She’ll get round to it in her own sweet time.
Bob Bold has had a good year and the Christmas party is the place to celebrate. OK he didn’t actually meet all his targets but, as anyone who properly understands the market will tell you, that was due to circumstances outside his control.
Bob freely – and sometimes forcefully – gives his interpretation of what’s going on (or, as he sees it, ‘the facts’) to anyone who’s interested – and quite a few who aren’t. After a couple of drinks, he has a quiet word with Dillie. She doesn’t seem to have recognised his status and has not put him on the top table. He believes he’s being perfectly reasonable. She finds him very intimidating.
Michelle Mischievous really has the gift of the gab and seems able to talk people into anything. She doesn’t normally spend much time with Dillie but weeks ago she made a point of telling her what a truly fantastic job she was doing with the organisation of the party.
She took a real interest, even acting as a sounding board over the seating plan. Which is why she is now laughing twinkly-eyed at the MD’s jokes, while Bob, her arch rival (mischievous types always have rivals), is on that far table over there near the loos with the IT team.
Colin Colourful is in his element at the Christmas party. Dressed to impress, he’s entertaining company, delivering a stream of humorous anecdotes. Confident in the limelight, he likes the fact that people notice him and knows how to hold their attention.
Later he’s planning on taking to the dancefloor to showcase his Michael Jackson moonwalk routine, it’s always a crowd pleaser. But please don’t even think about joining in – in Colin’s world, your role is to be the audience.
Imogen Imaginative is a powerhouse of creativity. She came up with masses of ideas for Christmas, some good, some less so. The ‘Pimp My Christmas Tree’ contest was a roaring success, but that improvised ice bar left some nasty stains in the basement.
Imogen has some fresh ideas on how to revive the company, which she’s hoping to run past the MD later. She thinks they’re bold and imaginative, while others have suggested ‘weird and irrelevant’ might be more accurate.
The shadow side of personality
Remember that the shadow side is not just for Christmas. These characteristics are on display in the workplace all year round.
Most people have at least one shadow side characteristic, many have quite a few. They’re usually strengths taken too far. You really can have too much of a good thing.
About Caroline Gourlay
Caroline Gourlay is an independent business psychologist based in Bath who writes about the application of psychology in the workplace, including its risks and limitations.