Iceberg Model of Culture

Understanding The Iceberg Model of Culture to Drive Organizational Success

Understand the iceberg model of culture more clearly and learn every aspect of the surface culture and the larger deep culture to drive organizational success.

Rashmi Singanamalli
Rashmi Singanamalli

Table of Contents

Strategy, leadership, and culture are the three fundamental pillars that define the success of any organization.

Employees will act and behave in the desired manner when organizational culture aligns with the growth strategy to achieve the desired business outcome.

And the fundamental duty of leadership is to uphold organizational values and beliefs through their everyday actions and decisions, which aids the execution of the organizational strategy.

Read on to understand how the iceberg model of culture and leadership can drive organizational success. However, if one common denominator differentiates the best performing organizations from the rest - that’s organizational culture.

What is Organizational Culture and How can it Drive Organizational Success?

Organizational culture is the characteristic set of beliefs and values that drive what people do and how they do it.

Culture is the implicit norm that defines the type of employee behavior that is accepted, rejected, encouraged, or discouraged within the organization.

While the policies and employee handbooks put together by HR can guide employees' outward behaviors, changing organizational culture positively can influence how employees treat each other, communicate with each other, get things done, etc.

What is the Iceberg Model of Culture?

In 1976, Edward T Hall developed the "Iceberg Model of Culture" – where he explains that organizational culture is like an iceberg found in polar seas. In an iceberg, nearly 10% of the iceberg is visible above the water surface, while most of the iceberg is hidden below the waterline. The same applies to Organizational Culture, which like an iceberg, has the characteristic of being highly disproportionate in its actual visibility.

Iceberg Model of Culture

While some aspects of culture are easily perceived from the outside, often called the “surface culture,” what forms the foundation of a strong culture is often submerged deeper in the values and beliefs of the organization, called the underlying “deeper culture.”

Aspects like workplace ambiance, dress code, systems, policies, processes, etc., are visible on the surface, and elements like shared values and beliefs, attitudes towards authority, competition, underlying assumptions, etc., form the deeper culture.

Layers of the Iceberg Model of Culture

Let’s now deep dive into these various layers of culture - both surface and deep aspects - and understand how it helps achieve organizational goals.

Surface culture

Whenever you ask someone, "What's the work culture like?" you are most likely to hear answers like "Oh, it's cool, we have an amazing game room, loaded snack counters, free pizzas, etc." or "I love it! There is no dress code, I love wearing my shorts to the office and the flexible work hours are just a bliss!" or similar things. These are the perceptions formed by people based on what they see, hear, or feel about organizational culture and leadership. Such visible aspects of an organization's culture usually provide clues about what the organization believes is crucial and how the organization is run.

Now, let’s explore the aspects of surface culture:

1. Perks and benefits

As an organization, do you promote work-life balance? Do you promote the culture of flexible hours? Do you encourage employees to take a step forward towards their well-being?

Most successful organizations strive to create a culture that ensures their employees feel comfortable in all aspects of their life. Employee perks and benefits play a huge role in making this possible. Whether working from home, taking regular company/team retreats, or flexible work arrangements, perks and benefits significantly impact employee behaviors and engagement. A study showed that 48% of people switching jobs would weigh perks as an essential part of their decision-making – even if the perk is as small as a free snack bar.

Tip: Genuinely care for your employees’ well-being. Understand what your employees want and devise a benefits plan that will motivate them. Investing in a platform like Empuls that delivers meaningful perks, benefits on daily expenses, learning, health, wellness, etc., can help inculcate a wellbeing culture that will further drive your organization towards success.

2. Dress and appearance

How does your workforce come to the office – are they in formal wear all the time or jeans/t-shirts or do you all wear uniforms to the office? How do you expect your employees to appear?

Employee dressing style and appearance can have a massive impact on how organizational culture is perceived. It has almost been a couple of decades since the formal dress code has practically become an outdated concept. Most companies today are loosening up their dress codes to encourage employees to be casually dressed, to feel comfortable in their shoes (pun intended) – in the hope of increasing productivity.

Tip: It is essential to lay out some ground rules and communicate what is acceptable and what is not. Customer-facing roles are required to portray a brand image, and communicating how you want to show yourself as a brand can be helpful.

3. Technology

Are the technologies you use aligned with company goals and strategies? Do you also use technology to reinforce organizational culture?

Technologies used in an organization play a critical part in defining an organization’s culture. They can either make an organization look ‘cool and savvy’ or ‘old-fashioned and rigid.’ Though technology single-handedly cannot create or change organizational culture, it acts as an essential tool to reinforce the culture amongst employees. It reflects and shapes the values and assumptions while keeping the organization relevant for the future workforce.

Tip: Have a clear understanding of what you are trying to accomplish before choosing a technology. The technology you choose should align with your organizational goals and strategies while aligning employees to organizational values and beliefs.

4. Language

What cues are you using to communicate about your organization? What is the tone or pitch of your messaging? How does your organization come across to others?

Language gives away culture through mannerisms of speaking (polite or crude?), behavior (formal or casual?), delivery (direct or indirect?), choice of words(clean, squeaky, arrogant, etc.), etc. How we choose to communicate with others can significantly impact how organizational culture comes across to people. Therefore, choose the right set of words, gestures, tone, and the right platform to communicate.

Tip: Document a clear set of guidelines on acceptable language, tone, etc., and how it needs to be used, and share them with everyone in the organization. Also, wherever possible, make a catalog of communication templates for various situations (email templates for birthday/anniversary, bereavement, onboarding, retirement, etc. ) to ensure there is a consistent tone of language.

5. Rewards and recognition

Rewards and recognitions have an immense impact on employee experience and organizational culture. They create a perception amongst people about what an organization stands for and what its values and beliefs are. Who in the organization gets rewarded/recognized and why - represents an unequivocal statement of the organization's true values and culture. Rewards and recognition reinforce the fact that the work is meaningful and valuable to the organization. It helps employees find focus and purpose in their day-to-day activities - thus increasing employee motivation.

Tip: Using technology to implement systematic rewards and recognition programs helps create a strong organizational culture and creates a highly engaged and motivated workforce. Empuls is a well-established product in this space that is helping build a culture of rewards and recognition in organizations across the globe.

As human beings, we all tend to break down complex information and generalize what we see and hear to derive simpler conclusions. Surface culture is that aspect of culture that gets reflected to an outsider – providing shortcuts to identify how things get done within an organization. However, what we see on the surface reflects what organizations are built on deep-down – values, beliefs, and underlying assumptions that drive employee behaviors.

Deeper culture

Every organization is built on a set of distinctive rules and characteristics that define them. Though not visible to the outside world, these characteristics can make or break the organization. These are the aspects of a deeper culture built on beliefs and values, bias and coercion, authority and competition, health and wellbeing, and various other factors that cannot be easily perceived or evaluated as external factors.

For example, when you take up a new job after thoroughly researching a company, multiple rounds of interviews, conversations with various people within the organization, etc., you tend to form certain expectations about the organization. However, once inside, things may not always be as you expected. You may notice rules and quirks that no one mentioned. That is because of the underlying beliefs and values of the organization that forms the deeper culture. The leadership of an organization has a profound impact on disseminating the deeper culture through their actions, decisions, beliefs, and behavior.

Here, we discuss some of the aspects of deeper culture that drive an organization.

1. Authority

Do employees in your organization feel they have appropriate decision-making authority? Do your employees feel their opinion was heard in the decision-making process?

Most successful organizations involve employees in the decision-making process. They are open to hearing employee opinions and feedback, which has a significant impact on organizational culture. Employees feel extremely valued when their views are heard and encouraged to participate in the decision-making process. A sense of authority is experienced when they are involved in discussions and tasks that impact the organization’s growth, leading to higher levels of job satisfaction.

Tip: Use the organization’s intranet to create discussion boards on various topics. This can be used as a platform to collect employee opinions and their inputs when making important organizational decisions.

2. Health and wellbeing

What is your organization’s philosophy about health and wellbeing? Do you encourage your employees to make healthier choices? Do you support them in their choices?

Organizations across the globe increasingly recognize the crucial role employee wellbeing plays in engaging employees and cultivating a strong workplace culture. Whether physical, emotional, mental, or financial – health and wellbeing have a tremendous impact on employee engagement and culture. Happy and healthy employees have proven to drive better productivity and reduce healthcare costs and churn rates. Having an employee wellbeing program is crucial to building a happier workforce, ultimately improving your bottom line. However, simply having a program or initiative in place won’t magically improve wellbeing. Organizations must make it a part of organizational culture and regularly assess its impact to move the needle and deliver results.

Tip: Setting up an in-house gym, presenting healthier snacks like fruits and nuts in the snack bar (instead of chocolates and cookies), investing in standing desks, setting up meditation rooms, etc., in the workplace can show your commitment towards employees' physical wellbeing. At the same time, providing financial assistance in times of need or guidance to make investments can be a step forward towards building a culture of financial wellbeing among employees.

3. Purpose and meaning

Do your employees understand the importance of your organization’s vision and mission? Do they know how their job roles contribute to the greater good?

Purpose and meaning are part of the iceberg of organizational culture that has gained much importance in recent times, thanks to the increasing number of millennials in organizations. Helping employees understand the organization’s mission, helping them engage, and making them realize they are a part of something bigger is vital for every organization. When employees know why they are doing what they are doing, it can drive phenomenal engagement, motivation, and business outcomes.

Tip: Organize training and performance management programs to reinforce the organization's culture and core values among the employees.

4. Communication

Do you frequently and consistently communicate with your team about what’s going on? How transparent is your communication? Do you listen to your team enough?

Communication is an integral part of organizational culture. An organization that adopts open, transparent, positive, and strong communication fosters healthy work relationships resulting in fewer conflicts and negativity. A healthy and effective communication culture opens the channels (between employees and management) for a healthy exchange of ideas, suggestions, and feedback.

Tip: Communicate openly - be it about success or failure, challenges or roadblocks - with the entire team. Employees appreciate transparency and honest organizations.

5. Employee engagement

Do you value your workforce as key contributors to organizational success? Do you understand the pulse of your employees? Do you provide employees with a conducive atmosphere to engage?

Organizational culture has a powerful impact on employees. A positive and open culture can create trust and loyalty among employees, driving passion and dedication towards the organization. When organizations proactively take employee feedback and take the path of open communication to proactively convey essential messages about layoffs, hikes, restructuring, etc., briefly, it reassures employees and increases engagement. Research says that employees feel engaged when they are invested in their company’s future and culture, feel like their jobs give them a sense of purpose, and have great relationships with their co-workers.

Tip: Taking the support of technology platforms to collect employee feedback, assess employee moods, and measure employee engagement in real-time can help build a strong organization.

6. Learning and development

Do you emphasize learning and development in your organization? Do you provide enough learning and growth opportunities to your employees? Are your employees challenged with new and exciting projects?

If there is one cultural trait that every successful leader will vouch for, it’s prioritizing learning and development among employees. This not only promotes innovative thinking and creativity but also improves the agility of the business to sustain itself in today’s increasingly complex and constantly changing business environment.

Tip: You can inculcate the culture of learning in your organization by introducing your employees to a well-detailed and sought-after learning program. The learning and development program should be highly personalized and be aligned with the individual’s growth plan, career progression path, and interests.

7. Collaboration and teamwork

Do you encourage your employees to work cross-functionally, across teams? Are there clear definitions of ownership laid out to work in a cross-functional environment?

Nurturing teamwork, team morale, and collaboration is a part of organizational culture that values employees working together to achieve organizational goals. Organizations that build a culture of teamwork believe that planning, thinking, decision making, etc., happens better when done collectively rather than individually. Making collaboration and teamwork a part of your organization’s culture requires buy-in from all levels of employees. Implementing a plan that lays out the various dynamics of collaboration, ownership, teamwork, etc., and regularly encouraging and rewarding teamwork can help make the concept part of your company’s culture.

Tip: Form a cross-functional team to solve real work issues, Recognize teamwork as part of your strategic recognition programs, and celebrate team success openly to encourage teamwork and collaboration. Empuls lets people connect seamlessly across the organization, collaborate on work, and celebrate socially.

These are only some of the indicative aspects of what forms organizational culture. Understanding and improvising the culture within your organization can be vital to driving success.

Final Thoughts

By understanding the iceberg theory of culture, we can get to the root causes of problems in the company and transform human behavior on a large scale. Organizational culture has an immense impact on employee engagement, productivity, performance, and overall experience.

Understanding the nuances of organizational culture can empower you to improve overall organizational performance. Though only a tiny part of the culture is reflected above the surface for people to perceive it, the deeper values and beliefs can profoundly drive the organization towards success.

Leadership behavior, beliefs, and actions play a crucial role in influencing culture within the organization and driving the organizational strategies.

When strategy-culture-leadership are in sync, we see organizations where:

  • Employees understand how the leadership expects them to respond to a particular situation,
  • Employees genuinely believe that the expected response is the right approach, and
  • Employees are sure they will be appreciated for demonstrating organizational values and beliefs.

Discover how to build and maintain a culture garden at your firm

Rashmi Singanamalli

Rashmi Singanamalli LinkedIn

Rashmi is a Content Marketing Specialist at Xoxoday. She is a passionate, result-oriented, seasoned marketing professional with overall experience of 7+ years in IT industry.