You are here: Undercover Work: Robert J. Marshak Discusses Organizations' Hidden Forces

Contact Us

Phone: (202) 885-2940 Graduate programs: Undergraduate programs:

Kerwin Hall

Public Affairs, School of 4400 Massachusetts Avenue NW Washington, DC 20016 United States

Back to top

Faculty Success Story

Undercover Work: Robert J. Marshak Discusses Organizations' Hidden Forces

By  | 


A colleague from Oxford calls Robert J. Marshak a “grandmaster of OD.” Marshak (SPA/MPA ’73, SPA/PhD ’77) demurs but admits he occupies a unique niche in the growing field of organizational development. The scholar-in-residence at SPA’s AU/NTL program is both an accomplished practitioner as well as a renowned academic. Marshak is the recipient of his field’s Oscar—the Organization Development Network's Lifetime Achievement Award—and a busy consultant with Fortune 500 companies, government agencies, and nonprofits. His first book, Covert Processes at Work: Managing the Five Hidden Dimensions of Organizational Change (Berrett-Koehler, 2006), addresses the concealed forces at play in offices around the world.

Q. How did you become interested in this topic?

A. As a boy I was interested in the secrets of magic: misdirection, slight-of-hand, gimmicks, and ruses. I was also interested in how the carnival games were rigged to make it look like you had a fair chance when in actuality you had no chance. I think the proper answer is that I have always been curious about what is really going on versus what is purportedly happening. Professionally, it struck me from my first job on that what people said to each other wasn’t very often what was really going on. Or that there was something that was not being discussed that had much more impact on what was happening, or not happening, than what was being talked about. And, I suppose having been inducted into the Army during the Vietnam War and serving as a military intelligence special agent may have also had some influence, at least in terminology.

Q. What are some of the most recognizable covert processes?

A. Typically people immediately think of secret deals, under-the-table arrangements, misleading or false statements. If, however, we expand our thinking about “covert” to mean anything that is hidden or concealed or out of our awareness, then there are many more things that are covert in organizations that can block our efforts. These include blind spots and conceptual blocks, the workings of our unconscious, tacit cultural beliefs, unexamined assumptions, as well as actions taken to protect oneself against anything considered too risky or dangerous psychologically, emotionally, or physically.

Q. Are covert processes always a bad thing?

A. The typical reaction is that they are bad, but that is also related to the typical way they are thought about as secret, undercover dealings. Early meanings of the word “covert” included to be protected or sheltered, coming from the root “to cover.” So, in organizations there are lots of covert processes that people and teams employ to protect themselves against perceived threats. Then, of course, there are also covert processes associated with unconscious or out-of-awareness factors. So, I would prefer to say that covert processes simply are. Some things will not be routinely out in the open, and sometimes that is a good thing. What is important is that things that are critical to the success of an individual, team, or organization need to be openly available and engaged.

Q. How about organizational politics?

A. When I first started working on covert processes I did not include organizational politics in my thinking. To me organizational politics were just the way things are, and they were, to me, clearly out in the open in all the organizations I worked in. I discovered that most people did not see things the same way I did. Time after time one of the first covert processes people would mention is “organizational politics.” Often what they meant was that organizational politics were going on, and they shouldn’t be. The combination of something going on that shouldn’t be and an unwillingness to engage in political thinking in organizations somehow made politics something covert for many people. To me, most politics are pretty overt in organizations; we just talk about them like they shouldn’t be happening.

Q. What are a few tools for people dealing with covert processes that may be having an effect on change in their organization?

A. I think it is an orientation more than anything else. First, you have to start with a more neutral orientation toward things that are hidden or covert. They are not always something to be caught and exposed. A stance of curiosity mixed with a healthy dose of respect for the fact that one of the primary reasons things may be covert is that the person or group doesn’t think it is safe enough to be open and forthright will go a long way. Working to create a safe, sincere, and trusting work environment is also helpful. Picking up on unspoken assumptions that are keeping things the way they are and then addressing them in an open and exploratory manner is also useful. But, creating psychological safety is the prime directive for covert processes at work. How can I help make this situation safe enough—not perfectly safe, but safe enough—for this person, team, work unit, or organization to set aside defensive or evasive behaviors and seriously engage new and possibly riskier possibilities?