Uncovering Covert Processes: Revealing What is Under the Table

Covert processes exist in all organizations. Although they are not always inherently bad, they can limit choices, block creativity, and can trap people in repetitive and self-defeating behavior.


A covert process is one that is hidden or under the table. According to Bob Marshak’s seminal work, it can be hidden from just you, a group of people, or an entire organization. Because all significant change involves covert processes, it is critical to consider what is covert and who it is hidden from. When you are aware of what is hidden, you can better understand the intentions before you become surprised. If you understand the nature of covert processes and recognize them, you can plan and act appropriately – especially before it might be too late.

If you understand what is hidden, Then you will be able to react more appropriately and improve the effectiveness of your actions.


A topic, thought, or behavior may be hidden for good, bad, or unknown reasons. Even if someone puts it on-the-table it can be quickly knocked off or ignored. It does not, however, go away. Instead it continues to exist and is often expressed covertly. For example, if individuals in a work group feel that open discussion of emotions is unacceptable, then most feelings will be disguised, denied, not expressed at all, or expressed through passive-aggressive behavior.


Covert processes are not easily identified unless you know where to look. Start with your gut feelings or intuition and ask yourself these questions:

  • What am I missing? (I feel like something is being left out)
  • What is under the table? (Do they know something they are not disclosing?)
  • What are they saying vs. What is their actual behavior? (Do I see & hear 2 different things?)
  • Where do I need to investigate deeper? (Is there competitiveness, a hidden alliance, a hidden agenda?)
  • What assumptions should I test? (Is Tom really aligned with Dick?)
Map Your Awareness

Gather data through observation. After a meeting or encounter, answer these questions:

Analyze Your Observations

Look at your answers to the above questions. Ask yourself:

  • How much of the behaviors I saw/heard impacted what happened at the meeting?
  • How much of what was going on did I create or have a part in?
  • Did my positive/negative thoughts/feelings play a role in what happened in the meeting?
  • What did I not see or hear that I expected to?
  • What assumptions do I need to test?
  • Do I need to follow up with anyone?
Questions to Deepen Thinking

How aware are you of covert processes at your work?
What will happen if you ignore things that you suspect are under the table?
Can you explore your gut feelings differently?

Marshak, R. (2006). Covert processes at work: Managing the five hidden dimensions of organizational change. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
Heifetz, M. &. (2002). Leadership on the line: Staying alive through the dangers of leading. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

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