Governing culture is a board’s most challenging task. John Neil and Michelle Bloom of The Ethics Centre outline the dangers of “shadow values”. Here’s how to walk the talk.

This article was first published in the March 2021 edition of Company Director magazine for the Australian Institute of Company Directors.

While an organisation might be measured by its share price, profitability or reputation, it is defined by its culture. Culture matters because it influences everything an organisation does. It defines not only individual and team performance, it also influences how organisations manage, change and navigate complexity and uncertainty. While it is critical to an organisation’s performance and reputation, culture is notoriously difficult to identify, measure and evaluate. As a result, understanding and governing culture is a perennial challenge for boards. This is because it is comprised of implicit and explicit dimensions. It includes the shared values, principles and beliefs of people, how they work together and with each other. Many of these dimensions are visible, but many are not.

On the face of it, corporate values of excellence, respect, integrity and communication are admirable and worthy. Most organisations would be happy to identify with them. But Enron espoused these values only 12 months before declaring bankruptcy in 2001 — the largest in US history. The company had received plaudits for its 64-page code of ethics and Fortune magazine named it “America’s Most Innovative Company”. It had received numerous awards for its corporate citizenship and environmental policies.

Enron’s failings have been well documented as the prototypical case study of what can happen when an organisation decouples values from its behaviours. Less well-documented is how the implicit and unstated dimensions of an organisation’s culture shape and influence for better or worse. These aspects of culture determine what and how things get done in organisations and are driven by the implicit values/principles people hold.

“The biggest challenge for boards in governing culture is that while unspoken dimensions are difficult, but not impossible, to identify and measure, they are more powerful than the official ones because they operate below the surface.” – John Neil, The Ethics Centre

The dark side

The biggest challenge for boards in governing culture is that while unspoken dimensions are difficult, but not impossible, to identify and measure, they are more powerful than official ones because they operate below the surface. They are key to changing an organisation’s culture because they more closely reflect its actual operating culture — its “shadow” values and principles. In psychology, the alter ego is the dark side of human nature. Jung identified it as the “shadow” to describe the subterranean aspects of the psyche; those unpleasant traits we prefer to hide. As in the psyche, the shadow gains its power in an organisation by being repressed and unacknowledged, which manifests in unintended, often detrimental behaviours.

Shadow values are typically cultivated in environments where organisations are stressed by the complexity of changes occurring or a lack of focus on supporting cultural alignment with existing values and principles.

In our work with a financial services company, our evaluation revealed each of its official organisational values had powerful corollaries (shadow values) that served to shift the organisation off course significantly. One of these official values was excellence. While officially expressed in a tagline, it was experienced and evaluated in ways such as “having pride in our work”, “being willing to challenge”, and “continuous improvement”. We also found it manifested itself through a powerful shadow side driven by the unstated value of success — in behaviours such as “individualistic”, “maintain status”, and “hit targets at all cost”.

The key driver of this shadow value was an unwavering focus on “the numbers”. While the measurement of inputs, and outcomes was regarded as a management responsibility, in this individualistically success-oriented culture, hard metrics such as hitting the numbers came to serve as the sole measure of success. Individual behaviours became distorted in pursuit of that goal alone, obscuring non-financial costs and risks, which, when not easily calculable are not seen, let alone prioritised. Unintended consequences of not being aware of or managing shadow values were highlighted in the Banking Royal Commission.

Alternate shadows

The connotations of “shadow” overstate the negative effect of these values. While an organisation’s shadow values at their worst are less constructive mutations of the official ones and will always benefit from being exposed and dealt with, there are two other types, both potentially of great value for an organisation to identify and unlock.

The first is neutral in relation to the existing values/principles but offers significant potential for tipping into positive or negative manifestations. In our work with the Australian Olympic Committee (AOC), its value of excellence — with associated behaviours and traits of exemplary performance and achievement by elite Olympic athletes — was undermined by a powerful shadow cast by the implicit value of pragmatism.

The second type of alternate shadow values reinforce, amplify or supplement official values and principles. These were also present at the AOC (see breakout, right).

In our work with a large superannuation fund, a primary shadow value was that of harmony, operating below the stated value of excellence. The value of excellence was commonly expressed in behaviours such as “keeping costs low”, “continuous improvement” and “leading the industry”. The shadow value of harmony in its most positive expression meant people were respected and included. At its worst, it manifested in the avoidance of conflict, resulting in over-consultation, delaying and avoiding difficult decisions. As a result, excellence was hamstrung by a lack of agility and responsiveness to the changing environment and competitive pressures, with innovative ideas often deferred until unreasonably high standards of mitigation were in place.

Getting below the surface

Particularly for boards wanting a “true read” of a culture, a challenge is getting below the surface-level reporting facade. Because of its intangible nature, culture is not easily distilled into standard metrics. Complaints, grievance resolution time, staff turnover and engagement surveys provide a limited view of the dynamics underpinning the culture — but often, they are the board’s only sources of information. While they may identify a range of proxies for an explicit culture, they are of little use in identifying implicit beliefs, attitudes and behaviours that actually drive the operating culture.

A significant limitation is a reliance on self-reporting. One organisation we worked with displayed a widespread cultural practice in staff surveys and performance reviews. “Click five to stay alive” referred to the five-point Likert scales used to evaluate a leader’s performance — and to an expectation for subordinates to rate leaders as a “five” across all evaluation criteria to avoid recriminations. Not only did these reports give an inaccurate evaluation of performance, they also underlined a range of potential shadow values linked to inappropriate use of positional power, fear of reprisals and lack of trust.

Unless board members are particularly proactive through direct engagement with staff, having visibility of the actual operating culture beyond what management reports provide is difficult. While there is no substitute for direct engagement — in particular with how the executive team works — using tools that better uncover shadow values can help boards better see the risks and opportunities below the surface — and thereby govern more effectively.

John Neil is Director of Innovation and Michelle Bloom Director of Consulting and Leadership at The Ethics Centre. They offer Shadow Value Assessments, working directly with organisations to identify and remedy the alignment gap between the official values and the lived culture and behaviours. Find out more.