360 reviews, ‘culture pulses’ and staff surveys are the go-to tools for leadership evaluation and understanding company culture, but ‘shadow values and principles’ stop them from revealing the full picture. Here are three steps to identify and address shadow values to better understand you company’s culture.

Strong culture is integral to the smooth functioning of companies, but most organisations are only getting half the picture, says John Neil, Director of Innovation and member of the Consulting and Leadership team at The Ethics Centre.

360-degree reviews and staff engagement surveys provide a glimpse of company culture, but what they don’t reveal are the deeper, endemic aspects of culture that are ingrained and influential – the ‘shadow values and principles’.

Shadow values and principles are often invisible when culture is seen only through the lens of traditional staff surveys and reviews. However, all companies have their version of them and they need to be brought to light, acknowledged and addressed to truly gauge what’s in play in the culture. In doing so, Neil says “we can significantly improve outcomes both for individuals and for organisations.”

Below are three steps to identifying and addressing shadow values and principles.

1. Identify what shadow values are

“There are really two fundamental aspects to an organisation’s culture,” Neil says. “There are ‘above the line’ elements: the visible, the identifiable, the self-evident. And then there are ‘below the line’ elements, which are less visible, more implicit, and not so easy to identify. The latter are shadow values and principles.”

In other words, they are the unspoken rules, attitudes and behaviours of a company’s culture that aren’t immediately apparent but influence every aspect of the business.

While they can be positive, neutral or negative, “being aware of them is a really key part of better understanding what drives individual employees and the organisation’s culture as a whole,” Neil says.

2. Understand how they operate

Shadow values and principles can operate in numerous ways. One organisation, which commissioned The Ethics Centre to review its culture, had the positive shadow principle of “putting members first”.

“If staff had no clear information or instructions about how to respond to a situation, they would apply this principle and act in the member’s best interest,” Neil says.

“‘Putting members first’ was not codified as one of the organisation’s corporate principles, but it was widely held throughout the organisation. It’s an incredibly powerful and positive shadow principle.”

Another organisation was challenged with becoming more agile but was hampered by the shadow value of ‘harmony.’ Again, while not being formally one of the organisation’s official values, it had a central place in driving behaviours, some of which were positive, but others were detrimental.

“Being harmonious and keeping the peace was something that everyone held to, and while it could be positive, it had negative dimensions as well,” Neil says. “People tended to over-consult, often to keep the peace as there tended to be a culture of avoiding conflict.”

“The decision-making model was a consensus based one and tended to include everyone. As a result, people would defer accountability for making decisions, and therefore decision making was unwieldy and bureaucratic. The shadow value was a major impediment to building a culture in which people expressed their actual views.”

Critically, the organisation’s strategy involved increasing its agility, responsiveness and a focus on innovation – cultural traits that needed to be consciously developed. However, the shadow value of harmony and its negative effect of conflict avoidance meant innovation and agility was more difficult to achieve.

3. Learn how to name and address shadow values

So how can organisations bring their shadow values into the light and begin to remedy the negatives?

“We need to recognise the limitations of the existing approaches to understanding culture, such as staff engagement surveys,” Neil says. “Those methodologies are only as good as the psychological safety in an organisation and the employees’ belief that their contributions to those surveys are going to make a difference.”

This is where a review that focuses on shadow values and principles can identify the unstated operating culture and make recommendations to realign purpose and reaffirm strategic ambitions.

“There also remains a need to recognise the strategic significance of culture,” Neil says. “Culture is integral to the success of a company. It’s the backbone of delivering on an organisation’s strategy.

“There is still, I think, a general lack of recognition of how important culture is in achieving and delivering on strategy. Culture goes much deeper than ‘engagement’.”

Want to find out more about shadow values and principles? Head here.

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