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3 Ways to Bring Your Shadow Culture to Light

Shadow Culture should be a focus at leadership strategy tables going into 2022.

In 1994, Gerard Egan published a book called “Working the Shadow Side”. The concept is really fascinating. He described it as the ‘messiness’ of a company — the myths, sagas and stories that create a lens on the employee experience that often escapes strategy creators and leadership. Shadow Cultures don’t get airtime at executive tables or organizational manuals, but they can govern the most important interactions and subtly undercut strategic and repetitional levers that are critical to attracting and retaining talent as well as organizational performance.

Here’s an example of a Shadow Culture using fictional Company A to illustrate:

Company A is known for its encouragement of volunteerism and community involvement. The company narrative is hinged on the founders love of giving back. A major pillar of their EVP framework and employer branding activity is dedicated to the importance of employee volunteerism. In interviews and throughout the candidate experience, it is reinforced that this value is mission-critical. The commitment leads to a lot of positive press and leaders who are true evangelists for community giving.

Below the surface, employees feel tremendous pressure to meet volunteer hours and find creative ways to share their community involvement. Certain performance metrics are tied to it and weekly sharing sessions create a lot of anxiety if employees haven’t had the opportunity to give back in ways that are considered ‘meaningful.’ Many employees feel restricted by the list of ‘approved groups’ that are endorsed by the company. When employees pitch a new volunteer opportunity or charity, most often they are shut down or told to pick a similar group from the list. This creates resentment and a general feeling like employees’ voices don’t matter.

Leadership is so invested in the cultural importance of ‘giving back’ that they’ve lost sight of the pressure it’s putting on their employees. Instead of taking pride in their company values, many employees feel disconnected from them. The Shadow Culture has taken hold. Employees are so bound by the founder’s vision, vocalizing concerns now feels like ‘complaining’ and is viewed as potentially career-damaging.

The interesting thing is, we have made major headway in this area, but in a cultural microcosm — Inclusion. Unconscious Bias training has swept the corporate world with the incredible mission of bringing biases to light and encouraging open conversation about things that were previously widely considered unmentionable in a professional environment. There is a long way to go, but the uptake of Unconscious Bias is an indicator that, in the HR strategic community, we are grasping the importance of having tough conversations and owning our individual “Shadow Sides”. We need to bring this mindset to the collective.

So, what could Company A do to right the ship? These are clear-cut tactical initiatives your employee experience team can lead to illuminate your culture and encourage the type of openness that is essential to cultivating a culture that is impactful and consistent.

  1. Involve employees in culture creation — You may need a cultural re-vamp after the pandemic. Lots of companies do. You can bring in external help in the form of a culture consultant to help you define what your culture looks like in the new world of work. But the most important thing in this process is to ask your employees their opinion. Your employees create the experience, each and every day. You need their honest input to chart the course toward creating the type of culture you need to achieve your vision and realize your organizational purpose.

  2. Invest in “Profound Transparency” — Profound Transparency means providing your employees full psychological safety to speak up and talk about the things they are afraid will damage their career. This is going to take time and commitment, especially if your Shadow Culture has been around for a while. For Company A, it could start with senior executives expressing some reservations about the way community involvement is positioned and sharing some new ideas for improvement. Then, it could evolve into employees providing some of their own ideas and expressing their own frustrations. But again, this is a long-game.

  3. Make all decisions with purpose — as companies grow, evolve and scramble to respond to the changing marketplace, it’s not uncommon to lose sight of who you are and what you stand for. Shadow Cultures take root when we stop making strategic decisions that are tied to company ethos or purpose. For Company A, above, at some point decisions around community initiatives stopped being made with the greater good in mind and became solely a PR play, internally and externally. When we make decisions without intention or purpose, we lose the meaning and connection to identity.

Creating culture strategy as we move into a post-pandemic work is going to require and employee-focus across all elements of the employee experience. The only way to drive real engagement and performance through culture is to open the door for employees to be honest and open about the elements of culture that exist in a liminal way — ‘off the grid’. These are the nuances that dictate how optimized and mature an organization’s culture really is.

Moving into the new world of work, negotiating inconsistencies in what you communicate about your culture and what really exists inside your organization is critical in keeping your employees engaged and attracting incredible talent to your organization.

If you want to discuss creating your employer brand & culture strategy for the new world of work, reach out to

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