The iceberg model of culture or cultural iceberg is used as a common metaphor, but how well do you know it? Before we deep dive into its layers and their significance in an organization, let's understand it on a high level.
People often perceive culture as the various observable characteristics of a specific company that they *see* with their eyes—perks, benefits, dress code, office environment, amenities, location, and people.
However, the reality is that they are just an external manifestation of broader and deeper components of culture: the intricate ideas, deeply ingrained priorities and preferences known as values and attitudes.
Deep below the 'water line' lies an enormous, invisible mass, which holds every ingrained cultural assumption that's too difficult to affect. Simply put, it’s an organization’s ideologies or core values.
These are majorly learned ideas of what's good, bad, right, wrong, desirable, undesirable, acceptable, and unacceptable. Ultimately, these become visible only through the way people act, the words they use, the laws they enact, and how they communicate.
No wonder an organization's culture is a common denominator that differentiates the best-performing organizations from the rest.
Now that you have a clearer picture of the iceberg theory of culture, let's understand how it can help drive organizational success.
What is Organizational Culture and How Can it Drive Organizational Success
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.
Culture, as a word, describes the way people live in a particular place, but there are different ways to look at it. Let's understand it from an organizational perspective and how the iceberg model of culture influences people at work.
What is the Iceberg Model of Culture
In 1976, Edward T Hall developed the ‘Iceberg Model of Culture’ and explained that organizational culture is like an iceberg found in polar seas. Like an iceberg, company culture has the characteristic of being highly disproportionate in its actual visibility.
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 "deeper culture."
Aspects like workplace ambience, dress code, systems, policies, and processes are visible on the surface but elements like shared values and beliefs, attitudes towards authority, competition, and underlying assumptions 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 deeper — and understand how it helps achieve organizational goals.
Whenever you ask someone, "What's the work culture like?" you’re 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 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 toward 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.
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 become an outdated concept.
Today, most companies are loosening up their dress codes to encourage employees to be casually dressed and to feel comfortable in their shoes (pun intended) to increase productivity.
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.
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?), and choice of words (clean, squeaky, or arrogant?).
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 communication platform.
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, its values, and its beliefs.
Who in the organization gets rewarded/recognized and why—represents an unequivocal statement of the organization's actual values and culture.
Rewards and recognition reinforce 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.
We all tend to break down complex information and generalize what we see and hear to derive more straightforward conclusions. Surface culture is that aspect of culture that gets reflected by 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.
Every organization is built on 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 well-being, 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, and conversations with various people within the organization, 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 organization's underlying beliefs and values that form 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.
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 significantly impacts organizational culture.
Employees feel extremely valued when their views are heard and encouraged to participate in decision-making. 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.
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 well-being plays in engaging employees and cultivating a strong workplace culture. Be it physical, emotional, mental, or financial health, they significantly impact employee engagement and culture.
Happy and healthy employees have proven to drive better productivity and reduce healthcare costs and churn rates. An employee well-being program is crucial to building a happier workforce, ultimately improving your bottom line.
However, simply having a program or initiative won't magically improve well-being. Organizations must make it a part of organizational culture and regularly assess its impact to move the needle and deliver results.
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.
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.
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 to the organization.
When organizations proactively take employee feedback and take the path of open communication to proactively convey important 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.
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.
7. Collaboration and teamwork
Do you encourage your employees to work cross-functionally, across teams? Are there clear definitions of ownership 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, and decision making happen better when done collectively rather than individually.
Making collaboration and teamwork a part of your organization's culture requires buy-in from all employees. Implementing a plan that lays out the various dynamics of collaboration, ownership, teamwork, and regularly encouraging and rewarding teamwork can help make the concept part of your company's culture.
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.
By understanding the iceberg theory of culture, we can get to the root causes of problems in the company and transform human behaviour 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 behaviour, 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.