6. Why the Rules Need to be Challenged
In his book on the ways things really get done – in the ‘shadows’ of organisational life – Gerard Egan says:
“Essentially the shadow side consists of all the important activities and arrangements that do not get identified, discussed and managed in decision-making forums that can make a difference. The shadow side deals with the covert, the undiscussed and the undiscussable, and the unmentionable. It includes arrangements not found in organizational manuals and company documents or on organizational charts.” (Gerard Egan, Working the Shadows  Josey Bass Publishers)
By allowing change programmes to become overly concerned with the careful orchestration of image and perception, we actively foster the development of ‘shadow programmes’.
The public face of the programme – its governance, control, delivery processes etc. – purport to be the whole story. But actually, the key debates happen and key decisions are taken in private, in the shadows.
Not a very edifying prospect, especially in the public sector, with its drive for increased accountability against the backdrop of expensive and high-profile change programme failures.
7. What Should Be Done?
Egan advises that disclosure is generally the best policy:
“Dealing with the shadow-side effectively means getting attuned to the way it works – being able to identify important shadow-side issues and bring them into the open… not every shadow-side arrangement, once identified, should be brought into a public forum. On the other hand, critical shadow-side issues that should be discussed in some decision making forum often stay buried.”
But does not disclosure do great harm, as those in authority would have us believe? Fundamentally, disclosure of political positions and manoeuvres rarely harms anything important. It will be somewhere between awkward and eye-wateringly embarrassing for the parties involved, but is not truly harmful. And I don’t just mean from an ethical perspective, I’m also considering practical utility.
Playing by the rules means joining a tacit conspiracy to keep real opinions and issues off the table. If the primary motivation for doing so is a desire to avoid difficult conversations, then we need to challenge ourselves hard.
As a consultant I have seen many instances of difficult (i.e. negative) performance management conversations being endlessly deferred by clients. Sometimes this has allowed a person to stay in post for years without having to deal with serious performance issues – issues that bosses and colleagues alike are very happy to discuss at length in private, but that are never brought to the table with the person concerned.
Why is this the case? All sorts of reasons are given but fundamentally this is a failure of leadership. Leadership demands the ability to confront incompetence, and much more unpalatable issues such as personal animosity, and deal with them in a firm, balanced but resolute way.
In the absence of leadership a change programme’s facade becomes an obstacle: we cannot say this or that because, when we’ve had the opportunity to say so before, we’ve concocted some ‘weasel words’ to get us out of the situation and minimise adverse stakeholder reaction.