Unveiling the Shadows – The Impact of Shadow Values in Organizational Culture

The Unseen Influences in Our Workplace

Imagine a scenario: Alex, an enthusiastic and experienced professional, recently joined the Fraternity and Sorority Life Department at a prestigious university as an Assistant Director. Brimming with ideas and a commitment to diversity and inclusion, Alex was eager to contribute to the department. However, Alex soon encountered an unexpected challenge – the prevalence of shadow values within the team.

Defining Organizational Culture and Shadow Values

A commonly accepted definition describes organizational culture as interconnecting shared values, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors that steer, and inform the actions of all members within an organization. This culture embodies a set of guiding assumptions and patterns of collective behavior, imparted to new members as they join. It significantly influences how people within the organization interact amongst themselves, with clients, and stakeholders. This interaction extends to how individuals make decisions, process emotions, and act in response to the various opportunities and challenges the organization faces. Essentially, an organization’s culture, shaped by shared beliefs and values established by its leaders (Sherrington, 2007; Watkins, 2013), dictates the appropriate conduct within its confines.

It is important to recognize that the definition of organizational culture is inherently neutral. A common misstep is to infer a positive connotation when interpreting mission statements, values, and organizational cultures. This interpretation may not always align with reality.

Organizational cultures are precisely what the definitions suggest: a fusion of “shared values, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors that guide and inform the actions of all team members.” The number of individuals within an organization that share similar experiences and values, along with their levels of formal and informal power, significantly shapes its organizational values. This dynamic becomes clearer when considering evidence that indicates new hires frequently emerge from the professional networks of existing employees

A common observation made by employees is the misalignment of their personal values and beliefs with those of the organization, especially after joining or during periods of internal or external change. This discrepancy often stems from a contrast between the organization’s professed values and behaviors (as portrayed on websites and in promotional materials) and the realities experienced in everyday operations (Sheedy, 2022). These covert values, which become apparent only after one becomes part of an organization, are known as Shadow Values.

Shadow Values are the individual or collective unarticulated beliefs and attitudes held by some employees within an organization, elusive to traditional detection methods like surveys or reviews (Stapleton, 2021). These implicit values, whether they manifest positively, neutrally, or negatively, play a pivotal role in molding the organization’s culture and influencing behavior. Although there is no uniform method to uncover shadow values, fostering an open, safe, and inclusive environment where employees feel comfortable expressing themselves is key. This approach helps reveal the underlying principles that significantly impact an organization’s culture and operations. Ultimately, shadow values are the drivers of an organization’s culture, which are worthy of exploration to unlock their potential for fostering positive change.

Alex’s Encounter with Shadow Values

In Alex’s case, the department’s commitment to diversity was more of a stated value than a practiced reality. Alex noticed a trend of favoritism, where certain fraternity and sorority groups received more support and resources than others. This practice, a shadow value of the department, was influencing hiring decisions, project allocations, and even the daily interactions within the team.

Diversity is just one aspect of an organization’s shadow values that can significantly impact its culture and operations. These hidden values can manifest in various ways, affecting not only diversity initiatives but also leadership styles, communication dynamics, and decision-making processes. In Alex’s experience, the favoritism towards specific groups highlighted how shadow values can undermine genuine diversity efforts, creating divisions and hindering collaboration among team members.

Furthermore, shadow values can extend beyond the realm of diversity. They can encompass a wide range of beliefs and principles that shape an organization’s identity. For instance, some organizations may hold a shadow value of prioritizing short-term profits over long-term sustainability, which can lead to decisions that prioritize immediate gains but have negative consequences in the long run. Identifying these implicit values is essential for fostering a more inclusive, ethical, and effective work environment.

The Importance of Identifying Shadow Values

Recognizing shadow values is vital for HR professionals and leaders to understand employee motivations and improve decision-making (Stapleton, 2021). Identifying these hidden drivers requires creating an open and safe environment for employees to express themselves, thereby revealing these underlying principles.

To address shadow values effectively, organizations must promote transparency, encourage open dialogue, and actively work to align their stated values with their actual practices. Only by bringing these hidden values to light and acknowledging their impact can organizations truly create a culture that reflects their ideals and supports the well-being of their employees and stakeholders. Alex’s experience serves as a reminder that recognizing and addressing shadow values is a critical step towards building a more equitable and successful organization. In hindsight, shedding light on these hidden beliefs and attitudes could have saved Alex a lot of time, confusion, possible disappointment, and guilt, allowing for a more authentic and inclusive workplace where diversity is genuinely embraced and practiced.

Thoughts and Tips

As for employees like Alex, who find themselves grappling with the impact of shadow values, here are three practical tips:

  1. Engage in Open Dialogues: Initiate conversations about discrepancies between stated and observed values within your organization.
  2. Seek Clarity: Request clear guidelines and expectations from leaders to navigate the actual organizational culture.
  3. Foster Transparency: Encourage a culture of honesty and openness, where shadow values can be discussed and addressed.
Reflective Questions
  1. Have you ever encountered shadow values in your workplace? How did they impact your professional experience?
  2. What steps can you take to identify and address shadow values within your organization?

Understanding and addressing shadow values is crucial for aligning an organization’s culture with its stated mission and values. It is through this alignment that organizations can truly thrive and foster a positive, inclusive environment for all employees. ?


Minbaeva, D., Rabbiosi, L., & Stahl, G. K. (2018). Not walking the talk? How host country cultural orientations may buffer the damage of corporate values’ misalignment in multinational corporations. Journal of World Business, 53(6), 880-895.

Sheedy, C. (2022, March 17). What to do when your company values don’t align with reality – HRM online. HRM Online. https://www.hrmonline.com.au/section/featured/company-values-misaligned-reality/

Sherringham, S. J. (2007). In ConnectED: International Conference on Design Education. University of New South Wales.

Stapleton, D. F. (2021, August 9). What are shadow values and why do they matter? – HRM online. HRM Online. https://www.hrmonline.com.au/culture/shadow-values/#:~:text=These%20shadow%20values%20are%20ideas,are%20implicit%2C%E2%80%9D%20says%20Neil.

Watkins, M. D. (2014, August 7). What is organizational culture? and why should we care? Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2013/05/what-is-organizational-culture.

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