2 min read

Warm Take: Shadow Values. October 24, 2021

Are shadow values about how power works in an organization?
Long shadows of 4 people, reflected on a tree-lined-gravel country road
Shadows by darkroomillusions, CC BY 2.0

Over the years, people have shared insider knowledge about their workplaces with me.

  • “Meetings always really start ten minutes after the scheduled time.”
  • “We don’t give people feedback; we snipe about them behind their backs and hope they’ll change.”
  • “Important decisions actually happen in the meetings before the meeting.”

I remember sort of giggling with a client some years back; I had asked if their organization would paint a similar phase on the lobby wall. Of course not.

And yet, these unspoken values form culture, operating alongside the anodyne phrases you’ll find on the Values page of an organization's website

In a conversation the other day, I called them “shadow values.” Now, I’m thinking about whether, and when, shadow values are more potent than an organization’s stated values.

  • Do meetings always start late because the senior person — who convened the meeting — doesn’t value the time of those who assembled on time, ready to start?
  • Is everyone subject to being sniped about behind their back, or are in-group members being coached by bosses and mentors? Is anyone ever fired because they never got the memo about something they would have readily changed?
  • Are stakeholders in a decision aware of the “meetings before the meeting?” Do they know how to give input to influence outcomes?

Are shadow values about how power works in an organization?

Early in my career, when I worked in banking, I remember being surprised by a client who was very forthcoming — and good humored — about how things really worked in his organization. It was okay for him, in his organization, to share one of their unspoken values with someone who didn’t even work there.

At the time it struck me as a sign of a healthy culture. Today, I’m less certain about how to assess cultural health than Brash Young Banker me thought she was. Today, I’d view willingness to discuss an organization’s shadow values as a sign of someone who would be good to work with.

What are your organization's shadow values?  Is it safe to discuss them, openly?


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Lol in my recent conversation about shadow values, I said, I'm not a genius. Pretty sure I didn't "invent" this concept, and when I do a quick web search I'll find someone else who has more to say.  

Indeed, Jim Collins, of Good To Great fame, has used the term. Collins recently talked about shadow values in a 2-hour (!) podcast with Brené Brown. There is a transcript, which I can't quote here; Brown has very specific rules about who's allowed to quote from her podcast. Respect.


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Anne Libby

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