Your organisation wears a mask. That’s it – a simple statement that carries big implications for leadership teams. We believe that most organisations are trying hard to be diverse and inclusive, but the lived experiences of team members tell a very different story.

Organisational culture is the ‘living’ part of an organisation that is embedded through the beliefs, behaviours, social environment and values that employees experience. In almost every instance, an organisation’s expressed culture (the one they think they have) is ‘complemented’ by a shadow culture - the behaviours and unexpressed assumptions that underpin what really goes on in the organisation. Aspects of the shadow culture are interrelated and may contribute to or exacerbate discrimination.

Ignorance of your complete cultural landscape means that employees are more vulnerable. No amount of box-ticking training or formal policy creation will mitigate micro-aggressions, unconscious biases, and hostile workplace conditions. Organisations with a poor approach to cultural caretaking are more likely to be involved in legal issues with staff or suffer reputational damage. We’ve all seen the headlines.

Are you ready to unmask and truly address what lies beneath? A simple question but, as a leader,

· do you know what lies beneath?

· are you bold enough to do something about it?

· are you selfless and resilient enough to accept the hit to your personal reputation?

Ignorance is the feeding ground for all ‘-isms’

Addressing the structural, process and behavioural problems that create poor organisational cultures requires leaders to acquire knowledge and understand the extent of the problems. Sometimes this knowledge has to come direct from the source rather than from the corporate reporting and monitoring mechanisms. Quantitative data is important and informative but qualitative data is powerful. Leaders need to understand how their organisation feels for team members who are gay, female, black, trans, Muslim or educated at the local comprehensive school.

Unmasking reveals organisational truths and, like the contents of Pandora’s jar, cannot be unheard or unseen – they demand and deserve action.

“Continue to be bold, courageous. Try to choose the wisest thing and, once you’ve chosen the wisest thing, go and try to achieve it. Be it.” Maya Angelou

There is no doubt that seeing your unmasked organisation will be daunting. There is much to be done to change the systems that have in-built biases, to change the processes that make it difficult for neurodivergent applicants to be successful in your recruitment processes, to support behavioural change in individuals to respect all team members regardless of sex, ethnicity, age or religion.

Unmasking needs bold and decisive action to address the challenges. Leaders need to fix the forest not deal with one infected tree. Change is not the sole responsibility of leaders but leaders set the tone and behavioural standards that define the culture of their organisations. Leaders need to challenge their mindset. They often have underlying assumptions that support and feed the shadow culture.

The guilt of leading a masked organisation

Unmasking an organisation and implementing changes to improve it requires leaders to be vulnerable, selfless and resilient. Feelings of guilt are common. How did this happen on my watch? Why didn’t I act earlier? Do I have the strength to push through the changes required? Anticipating that these feelings will emerge enables support to be put in place for leaders; both to effect changes in their personal behaviour and also to provide constructive challenge and accountability for the changes required across the organisation.

Unmasking requires significant work to retain and nurture the new organisational norms and culture. Leaders need to accept that unmasking once is forgivable, unmasking twice is not.

If you want to find out more about what lies beneath your organisation’s mask, please contact Julie Arbuthnott or Elisha Cooper.

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Julie Arbuthnott

Managing Consultant and Service Design Specialist

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