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Shadow Versus Substance: Creating Real Change

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Thomas E. Poulin
June 26, 2023

Service demand in the public sector is constantly evolving as the communities themselves evolve. The changing needs and expectations of each community, and the priorities necessary to achieve them, require public agencies to evolve as well. All successful public sector leaders are constantly striving to achieve real change in themselves, their agencies and in the communities they serve. However, sometimes the change they create may be illusory, as if crafted out of shadows, instead of change which is concrete.

Vitruvius, a 1st century Roman architect, wrote poor designers were those grasping for the shadows of strength, utility and beauty, not the substance of achieving the reality of these concepts. This message has been mirrored in the writings of many over the centuries, often encapsulated in the simple term “shadow over substance.” How might we increase the probability we are achieving substantive change?

We might consider how to recognize shadow or substance. The differences are often subtle. We see it when the leadership of an organization is shocked at some outcome, noting ineffective, inefficient, unethical or illegal activities should never have occurred because they had a policy which should have prevented it. We see it when the informal organizational culture is more powerful than the formal culture, enabling dysfunctional behaviors to become the accepted norm. In these situations, the reality of life in the workplace differs from the formal documents and directives designed to frame the workplace environment. The workplace is the reality, while the policies become partial, inaccurate shadows of it.

There are times when the difference between shadow and substance is immediately evident to many internally and externally, but the leadership of the organization is blind to it. During this era of quiet quitting, we see leaders seeking to create a sense of ownership by having employee recognition days, offering symbolic rewards such as coffee cups or figurines (often with the organizational logos) for employee desks. Instead of providing suitable compensation or workplace conditions, they offer the occasional pizza or ice cream party, often restricting these only to break times. These leaders act under the faulty presumption that the mottos and slogans they embrace will be sufficient to generate a collaborative, high-performing team. These leaders act under the faulty presumption that any token reward offered will obscure all other concerns. They are casting shadow solutions to substantive challenges, and find these shadows are of limited value, if any.

During this age of quiet firing, we see some leaders marginalize employees based on their interpersonal relationships. Workplace bullying has become endemic in some environments, where individuals are professionally and socially marginalized, if not outright abused, by their leadership, but the leadership believes this is not an issue. Instead, the leaders provide reward and recognition to those close to them—their favored peers and subordinates—but exclude most employees from their tight-knit group. These groups may be more characteristic of a dysfunctional high school clique than a collaborative, service oriented, professional, public-sector workplace. These leaders provide a shadow of employee empowerment and recognition, but the limited nature of their efforts being directed at only a small group, and the often concurrent bullying of other employees, prevents any substantive change in maintaining, let alone increasing, workplace morale, motivation, productivity or quality.

We cannot shelter ourselves in homes of shadow. We cannot work with shadow tools. We must find the means to make our efforts substantial. How might this be done?

Remain Mission Oriented: All efforts should be clearly directed to achieving the organizational mission, goals and objectives. If all our resources, including the vast talent pool of our employees, are used optimally to achieve success, we are dealing with substance, not shadows.

Objective Metrics: All organizational efforts and decisions should be framed on relevant, objective metrics. If decisions are based solely on personal values, personal interpretations and the interpersonal relationships with favored co-workers, any change is likely to be no more than shadows.  

These two elements acting in concert can be a powerful approach to creating substantive change. We can paint and install new carpeting in a house with rotting wood, poor wiring and leaking plumbing. It will look much better, but the rotting wood, poor wiring and leaking plumbing remain. To truly renovate a house, we must pull off the coverings, examine everything closely and rehabilitate or replace that which is damaged or dysfunctional. The same goes for organizational change.

We can create new policies, new slogans, hang banners proclaiming success and hold events to recognize our employees. However, if we have not closely examined our organization from all perspectives, if we have not tested ourselves to see if we are making optimal use of our resources to become more effective, more efficient and more responsive to community needs, it is quite possible we are fooling ourselves, essentially making shadow hand puppets of wild beasts on the wall, then claiming we are lions. We might fool ourselves, but not our employees, our peers or the communities we serve.

Author: Thomas E. Poulin, PhD, SHRM-CP, IPMA-CP is a training and development consultant and serves as Senior Doctoral Adjunct Faculty at Grand Canyon University. He is Past President of the Hampton Roads Chapter of ASPA. Prior to this, he served over 30 years in local government and 10 years as a university professor. He may be reached at [email protected]

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