A boggart, according to the Muggles’ Guide to Harry Potter, is “a shapeshifter that usually lurks in dark spaces. It has no definite form, taking the shape of that which is most feared by the person who encounters it. When not in the sight of a person, it is believed to look like a dark blob.”
For those true Harry Potter fans, you will no doubt remember the scene in which Professor Lupin teaches his Defense Against the Dark Arts class to fight the boggart. The students line up, and, in turn, the boggart pops out of an old dresser and transforms into the single thing most feared by each student at the front of the line: a giant spider, Professor Snape, a soul-sucking dementor, the moon. The students defend themselves by thinking happy thoughts and shouting the word “Ridikulus!” and the boggart transforms into a harmless version of itself – the spider, for example, suddenly has roller skates and falls onto the floor.
The scene that always intrigued me was the one in which the boggart had been beaten, and, nearly defeated, it keeps shifting shapes from one terrible-seeming form to another, in a last-gasp attempt to distract its foe from the fact that it is, indeed, quite harmless.
This happens so often in groups and in organizations: one person makes a challenging comment or creates an uncomfortable situation, and the system (the people, the values, the norms, and the beliefs that have been challenged by that action or assertion) puts up its defenses. A slew of true, but ultimately irrelevant, points are made in an attempt to avert focus from the original threatening statement or action.
These can take the form of attacks on the person creating the uncomfortable situation (“The way you’ve said that makes it clear that you don’t understand ______ about our culture.”). More often, it comes in the form of a subtle deflection (“What about this!?” “Yes, but here’s this other thing!” “Let’s talk about this thing that we love to get bogged down in and never resolve!”).
The boggart defense is any engaging-enough and true-enough statement that feels so real and important that it’s hard to notice what’s really going on: a form of cultural self-defense. It’s the organization’s immune systems fighting off threatening behaviors, where “threatening” means “if we don’t kick this back under the table it runs the risk of starting to shift the way we do things around here.”
The good news about a boggart is that it’s actually NOT a soul-sucking dementor or a giant killer spider. Instead, it’s a creature whose only power is to play on our fears (or, in this case, play on our willingness to be pulled away from an uncomfortable truth.)
Our job, in the face of the boggart defense, is to see and acknowledge the dementor, the terrifying giant spider, the full moon that turns us into a werewolf, and to realize: you are just a harmless shape-shifter that has no power over me.
The moment we can see this is the moment we can help shine light back on the original uncomfortable truth, and, if we’re feeling brave, stop hiding and engage with it fully.