Shadow Culture: The dark side of cultural inconsistencies - Fisher Leadership

Shadow Culture: The dark side of cultural inconsistencies

Dr Amanda Bell AM, Advisor at Future Leadership, discusses the dark side of cultural inconsistencies for schools. 

Culture is often cited as more important than strategy, but what sort of culture? During COVID lockdowns, when many people were working at home, organisations − including schools and colleges − noticed that their values and cultural expectations were difficult to reinforce with a remote workforce. It was even harder to ensure a uniform purpose or track cultural efficacy.

Dan Pontefract, leadership strategist and author, explained in an interview with the ‘Canadian HR Reporter’,

… if you want an organisation that’s really operating on all cylinders, you want every team to be operating within the same rules of engagement, the same kind of team norms, … a similar feeling of trust, openness, collaboration.[1]

Culture should reflect the core values of an organisation and the lived experience of its people. If the culture is not developed collaboratively, nourished, communicated regularly and protected, satellite cultures can form – shadow cultures.

Shadow cultures can occur in schools and colleges when different faculties or departments begin to operate under their own rules and expectations; in other words exclusively, and in isolation. Separate campuses can often drift from the core principles operating within the main campus. The English department may develop different ways of managing parent input to the Maths department; this causes issues with parents. The History department may have different rules for students around due dates to the Languages department; this causes issues with students.

Staff, student and parent satisfaction surveys are one measure to gauge whether there is a shadow culture operating. But principals and boards must be diligent in asking the right questions and constantly checking what is being stated publicly versus what actually happens within the organisation. Is what’s being espoused on websites and in annual reports consistent with what is happening on a daily basis with all stakeholders?

At the AISNSW Governance Seminar in April this year, John Neil from the Ethics Centre [2], summed up culture as “the way things are done around here”. Its foundations are in purpose, values and principles. In turn, these inform mindsets and behaviours.

When shadow cultures are left to operate as undercurrents to the stated culture, catastrophic consequences can occur. The example Neil cites is Enron, where its published values in 2000 were Excellence, Respect, Integrity and Communication; then in 2001 it declared bankruptcy. Despite having received awards for its corporate citizenry.

PwC and Cricket Australia had similar issues with stating “feel good values” which were not the lived experience of some senior members of the company or teams. The shadow cultures in play valued rain makers and winners – at all costs, rather than ethical business behaviours and fair play.

In all organisations, it remains a constant challenge to check cultural lead indicators rather than lag indicators. Ensure psychological safety, check behaviours match the stated values and align regularly with stakeholders. It is important that the agreed values are measured as behavioural expectations, and professional wellbeing and development are genuinely supported. Schools and colleges, like commercial organisations, should establish cultural indicators and feedback channels – including anonymous avenues – to enable staff, students, parents and the community to express both positive and negative sentiments. In this way, there are means to monitor how cultural performance is seen, heard, enacted and experienced.

Boards, in particular, have a responsibility along with their principal and senior leadership team to monitor key performance indicators and feedback channels. For boards, this means ensuring the lived culture sits alongside responsibilities such as reputational management, financial oversight and organisational stewardship.

Future Leadership is well-positioned to assist schools and university colleges in assessing cultural efficacy, including the identification of shadow cultures operating within their communities. We can partner with boards and the principal to devise ways to monitor cultural consistency strategically. Contact me to arrange a conversation.

Dr Amanda Bell AM

Advisor, Fisher Leadership

No, thank you.