Does your workplace have a ‘shadow’ culture?

‘Senior executives, CHROs, heads of HR, heads of learning, they’re usually oblivious and they don’t know’

Does your workplace have a ‘shadow’ culture?

Have you taken a deep look at your workplace culture lately?

No matter how hard senior executives work at it, things can end up differently from what they expect. And, more often than not, that’s because of issues that are happening right under their noses, that they know nothing about.

That’s “shadow corporate culture,” says Dan Pontefract, leadership strategist and author, in an interview with Canadian HR Reporter.

“The senior executives, the head of HR, they say, ‘This is our culture’ and usually it’s pretty fake. It’s one where they haven’t really involved the employees in the creation of strategy, values, purpose,” he says.

“And then teams or a leader in a team looks at it and says, ‘Forget that, that is not how we operate’. And that leader and that team work together to create a culture that is usually open or honest, or just their own kind of culture.”

This tends to happen a lot, says Pontefract.

“Senior executives, CHROs, heads of HR, heads of learning ― they’re usually oblivious and they don’t know that the shadow corporate culture is happening because… the team that’s doing their own thing manages up. And what they say is… ‘Oh yeah, yeah, we’ll do that. No problem’. And they kind of do it but they’re not really doing it. Because behind the scenes, they’re working together on their kind of own culture.”

Negative impacts

Obviously, this creates a few problems, says Pontefract.

“You don’t have the entire organization rowing in the same boat, if you will. You create an ‘us versus them’ kind of mentality. You create situations where people are laughing at the senior executives… And what you just create are factions or camps, separate identities. And at the end of the day, when you think about what an organization stands for, that’s not good.”

Even if a team is performing well under a shadow culture, there could be problems, he says.

“If you have a shadow corporate culture team that’s knocking it out of the park, really engaged... and doing great things, one would argue, ‘Oh, fantastic,’ right? But, similarly, what you have are problems because you now have other teams that are wondering why their leader doesn’t act like that leader. You have other teams and other team members that then say, ‘I want to go work for them’. So, they get disengaged and disenfranchised to do the right thing because the leader won’t let them or the senior team has said, ‘No, this is our culture,’ and they let the special people over there who’ve got a great culture, they let them be.”

Dan Pontefract

That creates an us-versus-them culture, says Pontefract.

“And if you want an organization that’s really operating on all cylinders, you want every organization team to be operating within the same rules of engagement, the same kind of team norms, the ways in which people feel good, that if they are to transfer from one business unit to another, that it’s, generally speaking, a similar feeling of trust, openness, collaboration.”

How to spot shadow corporate culture

There are two areas to look at to identify potential shadow corporate culture, says Pontefract. The first one is customers.

“If you’re a service company or a product company, an innovation company... you’re trying to serve customers. And if customers get wind of or feel, ‘Oh, one group acts like this and the other like this’, the customer starts to question the integrity, the ethics, the overall sanity of the organization. And that’s where you can really get into issues, particularly if you’re an organization spending millions of dollars on that service,” he says.

“Customers can be a good arbiter of what your culture actually stands for.”

Employees are a second good indicator, says Pontefract.

“Organizations believe that the annual employee engagement survey is the be-all and end-all... Why do we do it once a year? It’s insane. Even if you do do that once a year, you’re going to find out between both potentially the number but certainly the anecdotal feedback of what people are saying, because it’s anonymous, right?” he says.

“Imagine, however, if you’re doing that four times a year, once a quarter, at a minimum. At least you have more timely feedback that’s telling you what’s going on. But again, that’s anonymous.”

With the rise of flexwork, many people are asking if this setup damages or dilutes company culture.

Combatting the issue

If an employer suspects that there’s a shadow culture going on, Pontefract suggests they do a "culture assessment". This can be done by engaging in conversation.

“If you have a hunch or you know specifically that there is a shadow corporate culture going on in your organization, you’ve got to do something about it. And that means you need to involve the organization in a conversation. If you’re comfortable as an organization having those open, transparent dialogue, conversations, then the organization should do it,” he says.

“If you’re not… you can bring in an external firm to help you. And they can facilitate those conversations and to summarily posit what’s going on in the organization.”

What’s required is openness, relationships, transparent conversation and the willingness to listen inside the organization, says Pontefract.

“Otherwise, you just got a hierarchical senior leadership team that [is] telling the organization how the culture should be, as opposed to it being a fluid, open ‘How do we create our culture and what should it be as an entity?’ organization,” he says.

“Senior leaders truly need to ask, look themselves in the mirror and say, ‘Do I really know what the corporate culture is?’, ‘Have I spent the time having meetings and focus groups and frontline forums?’, ‘Have I spent the time with frontline team members in different units to ask them ‘What’s going on around here, how is it?’” says Pontefract.

"And it’s not to out the vice president of that business unit or to out the leader of that business unit ― it’s to actually find out what’s really going on. And I know from firsthand experience that far too many, and the majority of senior leaders, don’t do that, and I think they should.”

Jobber, Carfax and CWB were among the top corporate cultures for 2020, according to Waterstone Human Capital.

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