What are ‘Shadow Values’? And what can we do about them?

Shadow values are the secret values that underpin your business. They can be positive or negative. Either way, it pays to bring them to light.

Shadow values are the values that lie beneath the surface of a business — and they can be positive or negative.

  • Positive These are the great aspects of your workplace which are not represented in your employer brand. If you have positive shadow values, you’re missing an opportunity to understand your culture, expand on your employer brand and leverage your culture.

If you have positive shadow values, you’re missing an opportunity to understand your culture

Negative Shadow Values

So to give you some examples, you may remember in 2021, Sony Music announced that they had parted ways with their longtime CEO. If you look at the Sony Music website, their values are listed as:

  • dream and curiosity

But according to media reports, including a Four Corners investigation, the CEO’s, behaviour went unchecked and was allowed for decades. And so as an employee, when I’m looking at those corporate values, and seeing the behaviour of my CEO, I start to wonder about whether those values are actually true or not.

In case you missed the media storm about this last year, it was reported that for decades, this CEO ruled with fear and intimidation, and that there were so many people that were too scared to talk about it. And then when they did talk about it, they said that they felt targeted, manipulated, and even abused.

Going back to those stated values, assuming that Four Corners investigation was correct, if I was an employee, would I feel I could ‘dream and be curious’? That the company valued ‘diversity, integrity and sincerity’? Probably not. So you can only assume that through that period, there was some serious shadow values going on. So it was a great step that Sony went ahead and did that very high-profile departure. But it will also take some time to heal the wounds and the reputation.

Another recent example is Volkswagen. They reportedly deliberately programmed over half a million diesel powered vehicles to show false readings during their emissions testing. Now, Volkswagen’s values include:

  • excellence

Yet you have this unethical behaviour going on in the organisation, at the same time, that you have those stated values.

Positive Shadow Values

Positive shadow values don’t usually make the media, but I have seen them while working with clients, particularly when we do focus groups with employees. Or when we do engagement and satisfaction surveys. We ask:

  • Why do you work here?

And that can bring up some surprises to some owners about the reasons why people work with them. And those surprises are nuggets of gold, because that’s your culture, those are the positive shadow values of your organisation. Maybe they’re not your stated values, but they should be.

How to Uncover Positive Shadow Values

How do we know if we have positive shadow values? Really, the only way is to talk to your team members.

  • Ask for stories about when they’ve been most proud to work for the organisation

Ask for stories about when they’ve been most proud to work for the organisation

There are lots of resources on Google’s Rework website to help team members bring up ideas and issues, problems and mistakes. Of course, this all takes time. In the meantime, while we’re working through those processes, how can we encourage conversations about values and behaviours? The way to approach this is to show by doing. Behaviour speaks much louder than words.

Although you should be speaking about the positive shadow values and acknowledging any negative issues, you must gain commitment from the leadership of the business to change behaviours.

Dealing with Negative Shadow Values

If you have a larger organisation you may embark on an internal campaign, or in smaller organisations it may be the Founder or CEO speaking to all the employees at a team meeting. Either way, the purpose is to explain that the behaviour that was occurring is not acceptable. It should say, we’ve taken this action to send a really strong signal that we’re not that kind of business anymore. And this is what we value, this is how you go ahead with whistleblowing.

However, if the management of the organisation, the leadership teams, are not demonstrating the behaviours that they’re talking about in those comms, no one’s going to believe it.

Leadership

Behaviour is very important. And it’s important to get all of the leadership team and all the managers in your organisation on board to demonstrate that behaviour.

Language

We need to listen when people are speaking, and we need to encourage them to speak up. I once overheard a manager say to an employee, ‘but what did you do that for?’. Using that kind of language i’s immediately judgmental, it puts the person on the defensive.

It’s far better to say, ‘can you tell me a bit more about that? I didn’t know that that was occurring.’ It’s quite different. Sometimes it is really just about being aware of our language, as well as a way to encourage people to speak up.

Action

It’s important not to walk past unacceptable behaviour. If we see something, then we do something about it, if it doesn’t match with our company values. And often in workplace behaviour investigations such as around bullying, the person who’s been complained about is completely blindsided.

In many cases, this is because the behaviour has been left unchecked. People will just say, ‘Oh, it’s only so and so, it’s just the way that they are’. And the person has no idea that their behaviour isn’t acceptable. Until one day, someone says, ‘enough is enough’ and puts a complaint in.

Dealing with Positive Shadow Values

When our shadow values are positive, we need to sing them from the rafters. Let’s say that you do a focus group, and people say, ‘the one thing that is so different about working here is that we all really care about each other’. And if you don’t have that reflected somewhere in your values, then there’s a golden opportunity to put that into your job ads to start talking about it at your meetings.

Take a Second Look

No matter whether your shadow values turn out to be positive or negative, they require action.

No matter whether your shadow values turn out to be positive or negative, they require action.

I invite you to go back and have a look at your company values. And think about when you decided on them. When did you put them together? How has your business changed since then? Because values do change over time.

If it’s been a couple of years, or if you’ve made a change in the organisation, maybe now is the time to revisit them. Hold some focus groups with your team members or do some anonymous surveys. Start asking the question — how well do we live these values? Do people’s behaviours match what we say they are?

If you don’t yet have organisational values, this is also an opportunity to create them. One of the things we like to use as a resource on Brene Brown’s website. It’s a list of values and it’s very simple. You can just print that out and ask people to start putting a tick next to the values that they see demonstrated in the organisation.

And then you have meetings and workshops to whittle down the list. Aim for a list of three to five, that’s perfect.

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Karen Kirton

Founder of Amplify HR — a consulting company in Australia that specialises in enabling businesses to find, grow and keep great people. www.amplifyhr.com.au