The shadow side culture

This week I've been working with a leadership team on some design principles for office space that will help drive the business strategy. One of the principles that was suggested was 'no shadows', which reminded me to review a piece I wrote (in my second book on Organisation Design) on the shadow side culture. Here's a slightly adapted extract.

The shadow side culture, as defined by Gerry Egan, author of Working the Shadow Side. , is 'all the important activities and arrangements that do not get identified, discussed, and managed in decision-making forums that can made a difference. The shadow side deals with the covert, the undiscussed, the undiscussable, and the unmentionable. It includes arrangements not found in organisational manuals and company documents or on organizational charts'

Although it appears from this definition that there is something 'wrong' about the shadow side this is not necessarily the case. Think of the organisation's culture as being a brain with a left and right hemisphere: the left being the rational, logical side and the right being the intuitive, and creative. This analogy is used by the company Organisational Leadership who develop the concept by suggesting that the two sides manifest in organisations as follows:

Rational elements: left side of the 'brain'

• Directives
• Strategic plans
• Organisation charts
• Job titles
• Policies
• Training courses
• Budgets

Non-rational (shadow side) elements: right side of the 'brain'

• Trust
• Friendships
• Jealousy
• Fear and insecurity
• Power struggles
• Ambition
• Grapevine

Taking this brain analogy it is clear that having a shadow side is normal and further that organisations are likely to survive best by working with both parts of the 'brain' – in exactly the same way that human potential is realised through the whole brain and not through only one hemisphere. Unfortunately, organisation design projects tend to be initiated and planned using predominantly the rational (left side) of the cultural brain and this means that the mess, unpredictability, and chaos of implementation in the day to day creates anxiety and lack of confidence in project leaders. Those that have the skills to openly engage in the right side of the cultural brain as well as the left are more likely to adapt, innovate, and find creative solutions as the path to their design proceeds. (End of extract)

If you want to audit your organisation's shadow side take a look at The Organization Shadow-Side Audit I have not used this so cannot vouch for it, and I am generally sceptical of surveys used as a standalone assessment process. However this audit has a very full description and I am familiar with the work of Bill Tate and thus would give it a go if I needed to do a shadow side audit. (I can recommend the book mentioned earlier by Gerry Egan, G. (1994) Working the Shadow Side. Jossey Bass that I've read and found very useful.