Shining a Light on the Shadowside of Organisations
by Byron Kalies

In times of Organisational Change it is estimated that 80% of a manager's time is spent dealing with non-strategic 'stuff'. This 'stuff' is what Gerry Egan calls 'The Shadowside of Organisations'. Gerry Johnson and Kevan Scholes call it 'The Cultural Web', but it's basically the same 'stuff'. It's the culture of an Organisation.

Even in times of relative calm a great amount of a manager's time is spent dealing with the dark side of the Organisation. This comprises everything that is not written down. You won't find it on an Organisation chart, or a business plan. It's 'how we do things around here'. It's the glue that holds an Organisation together. It's not always negative though. For instance if you have an Organisation 'working to rule' as frequently happened in the 1980s logically, you could think it would make no difference. We know differently. It's those little things people do for each other that make things work - that teacher covering another class, the manager helping out on the shop floor, the sudden request for overtime met.

However, a great deal of the shadow side can be negative and time consuming. These models (the Shadowside and Cultural Web) force managers to look at their Organisations, find the shadow side practices and deal with them. For instance those pointless weekly meetings; when challenged about why they are held I have frequently been told "because we've always had them."

Frequently these practices say more about the Organisation than any mission statement does. A major retail Organisation I once worked for had a very clear, but unwritten, attitude to managers and money. One manager was taking money to the bank at lunchtime and was attacked by youths with baseball bats and the money was taken from him. After he left the hospital he was at the police station for a long time. The Organisation's first thought was always that the managers are involved unless they can prove otherwise. This was told to me on my first day.

One dry cleaning company a colleague recently visited would like to pride itself on its delegation of authority to shop managers. The colleague wanted to have a jacket dry cleaned. The cost was 10. She then spotted this week's offer - Any 2 items cleaned for 8.

"Does this include jackets?" she asked.
"Yes " replied the manager.
"So can I have the jacket cleaned for 8 then?"
"No. It says any two items and you've only got one."

Amazed my colleague took a sock from her two year old baby and handed that and the jacket to the manager.

"That'll be 8 please".

Compare that with Ritz-Carlton who have a policy to never lose a customer. Whoever receives a complaint has to own it, resolve it to the guest's satisfaction and record it. All their staff are allowed to spend up to $2000 without referring to their supervisors to resolve customer problems on the spot.

In a similar vein Stew Leonard staff are empowered to reject anything that isn't perfect. If the employee unloading a delivery doesn't like the look of the strawberries they can reject them without referring to anyone else. They have a sign "If it's not good enough for your grandmother, don't put it out for the customer".

There are a great many Organisations out there that have written values about equality - "all our staff are equal", "everyone's a person in this workplace". Yet how often have I seen different rules for different people. Senior mangers get to travel first class, executives get to stay at more expensive hotels, car parking spaces are reserved. These shadow side models give people the right to challenge these practices. I'm not advocating the abolition of differences (well I am really, but that's another story), but rather the honesty of the espoused values. If you're not going to treat people equally don't say you are. Once these inconsistencies have been identified you can make a great change to the culture. Get rid of reserved parking spaces for senior managers, allow everyone to travel first class. These symbolic gestures will make a big difference.

The culture of an organisation can have a big impact on all aspects of the business. Many organisations say they have an open culture but how many have the culture of an Organisation like Hewlett-Packard? Here they really do have an "open corporate culture". At the end of the day projects are not locked away in desks but left out for others to look at, pick up and work on. This ego-free attitude seems to work as they have a $72 billion turnover and need to be innovative - 60% of their sales are from products developed within the last two years.

It's not always the Organisation chart that shows where the power lies in an Organisation. Many years ago I was training to be a teacher. One of the lecturers was incredibly astute. Unusually for our lecturers he had real experience of teaching in secondary schools. He has spent the majority of his career as a teacher, then a headmaster in a variety of schools. The last lecture from him before we went out on teaching practice for the first time went as follows;

"Who is the most important person in the school you're going to work at?" he asked.
"The headmaster or headmistress", we sang in unison.
"Not usually, " he replied "Listen carefully".
We leaned forward.
"The key people in schools tend to be the caretakers. They have a lot of control, a lot of power. If the caretaker doesn't want it to happen it rarely happens. Secretaries are also important, as are Deputy Headteachers. Keep on the good side of all these."

This principle holds true for most Organizations. On another level altogether I can only quote verbatim from Nelson Mandela's autobiography dealing with his time in prison on Robben Island;

"The most important person in any prisoner's life is not the minister of justice, not the commissioner of prisons, not even the head of prison, but the warder in one's section. If you are cold and want an extra blanket, you might petition the minister of justice, but you will get no response. If you go to the commissioner of prisons, he will say, "Sorry, it is against regulations." The head of prison will say, "If I give you an extra blanket, I must give one to everyone." But if you approach the warder in your corridor, and you are on good terms with him, he will simply go to the stockroom and fetch a blanket."

It's a similar, if less dramatic, story in most Organisations. Personal Assistants are a very powerful band of people. They can get you that ten minute interview with their boss, or they can stop you seeing her for weeks. Be aware of the important people in your Organisation. Smoking rooms used to be essential places for finding information in large Organisations. You'd often get a wide range of people, at all grades who knew little bits of the jigsaw; someone would know of a new post, someone else would have to set up a new p.c. and suddenly pieces fit. I'm not advocating being a gossip and pretending to smoke to find out what's happening. I'm saying be aware of what's going on around you.

Byron Kalies is a Liverpool-based writer with 12 years' international experience as a management consultant. Recent publications include Across The Board (U.S.A.), Career Times (Hong Kong), CEO Refresher (Canada) of course, Guardian (U.K.), Sydney Morning Herald (Australia), MIS (U.K.), Management First (U.K.), Lifelong Learning (U.S.A.), Business Day (South Africa), Business Plus (Ireland). Book "25 Management Techniques in 90 Minutes" (Management Books 2000) published April 2005. He can be contacted through his web site at or emailed at .

Many more articles in Creative Leadership in The CEO Refresher Archives


Copyright 2005 by Byron Kalies. All rights reserved.

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