How to Use The Iceberg Model of Organisational Culture

the iceberg model of culture
An iceberg – pixabay

Revealing the culture and values that hide below the surface of every organisation

Have you ever asked for directions in Nepal? You could get confused or frustrated if you are not aware of the cultural differences that affect this simple interaction. For example, if you ask how far it is to the next village it is unlikely that the person will point or give you a numerical estimate of the time or distance. In remote areas, it is more common to hear something along the lines of ‘not far’ and have the friendly local indicate the direction with a slight jutting of the chin. Half a day later, when you still have not arrived at the village, you might get annoyed.

But here the behaviour displayed reflects certain cultural differences. In areas where it might take several days to get to the nearest road – let alone the next town – it is a true belief that less than a day’s walk is not far. Also, because of the social rules, they would not want to be rude by pointing with a finger. And due to the values of hospitality and honour, they would not want to be discouraging (or assume that you cannot walk far) by saying it was a long way. 

What is the cultural iceberg model?

So, as in the example above, behaviour can point towards deeper cultural meaning. The iceberg helps to visualise this. The iceberg model is a simple metaphor for describing organisational culture. An iceberg has less mass above the water (this visible part) as compared to the greater mass that lies below the surface (which is generally unseen). The main idea behind the iceberg model is that, in the same way as a physical iceberg, with any culture, there are obvious things such as behaviours that are visible, but there are lots of things hidden below the surface within a group or organisation driving these behaviours.

Who came up with the iceberg model? 

The iceberg analogy is first accredited to Edward T. Hall, an American anthropologist who specialised in intercultural communication and is best known for his book Beyond Culture published in 1976.

Gary R. Weaver, a professor of management, further developed the concept and started to apply this to corporate culture, ethics and values.

Why is culture described as an iceberg?

As mentioned previously, the iceberg analogy is useful as it helps us to remember that any behaviour we observe, can be due to various hidden factors. Within any team, the visible behaviours of individuals are driven by unseen beliefs, values, and mindsets. 

The iceberg cultural model
The Iceberg Model

What is culture?

In a larger, social context, Ting-Toomey (1999) defines culture as: 

“A complex frame of reference that consists of patterns or traditions, beliefs, values, norms, and meanings that are shared in varying degrees by interacting members of a community.” 

Or by Haggett (1975):

“Culture describes patterns of behaviour that form a durable template by which ideas and images can be transferred from one generation to another, or from one group to another.”

What is organisational culture?

Even though the definitions above are rooted in social geography they can be easily translated into the corporate world. Any group of people, even one that gathers for work, becomes a community. This vocational tribe will develop its own unique culture and that is what we generally mean by organisational culture.

One useful model of organisational culture is the Cultural Web. The Cultural Web (Johnson and Scholes 2001) incorporates aspects that have particular significance within the business and describes culture as being made up of storiessymbolsrituals and routinesorganisational structurespower structures, and controls.

Cultures within cultures and cultural change

It is worth pointing out though that there be cultures within cultures. Not only does a specific company reflect the culture of its host country (and the makeup of its workforce), but even within a single organisation, there can be various sub-cultures.  For example, anyone who has experienced the divides between the front-of-house functions (e.g. sales, marketing, communications) and the more operational and less customer-facing areas (such as logistics, I.T. or finance) will know that there can be considerable differences (and rivalries) between these different teams. 

Furthermore, culture is fluid. As with Haggett’s definition, culture is used to pass down ideas and norms between people, but with each generation or team, the culture evolves. One simple example of this is language, particularly the English language. Language is one of the most useful tools to understand a culture, but it constantly changes. There are about 800-1000 new words added to English dictionaries a year – that is about 15 new words every day. Suffice to say, no culture is static.

What is an example of organisational culture?

Whichever model or definition we use, we can see that culture becomes manifest in the visible and the tangible, namely language and behaviour. Every company, business or team demonstrates these, some in more obvious ways than others.

One culture I have a lot of experience with is the British Army. Militaries can be insightful examples of organisational culture. That is not to say that these cultures are necessarily good but that they are often obvious because militaries often have long histories and have developed aspects of their cultures in very visible ways. 

Just take one aspect of the Cultural Web – symbols – by way of example.  Militaries love symbols! Few other organisations have such a love for flags, badges, uniforms, logos, and other symbology. And all of these symbols have some deeper story or meaning that is not necessarily obvious to the casual observer. Historically symbols have been highly visible as military symbols are used to project the idea of strength and power, as well as having other more subtle connections. 

But every group has symbols to some degree, even if they are to portray different values. Even not having a uniform becomes a uniform. For example, I have worked with start-ups where if you are not wearing something ultra-casual you would be seen as ab-normal! This counter-cultural statement can start to reveal something about the beliefs of the organisation. Not wearing a uniform might communicate wanting to be seen as relaxed, non-corporate, cool, or cutting edge. It is only by exploring the other aspects of culture that you can reveal what these hidden values are.

Why does the iceberg model of culture matter?

This is why the iceberg model matters. The iceberg analogy helps us keep in mind that there are hidden beliefs and values below the surface and that what we experience on the surface – the behaviours, symbols, or language – all have some deeper meaning.

For leaders and managers, this knowledge is particularly useful when it comes to change management. Leading a team through any change programme will inevitably impact, or be affected by, the culture of an organisation. 

Mergers fail when cultures are not integrated. I have even seen a new I.T. initiative fail – something as simple as introducing new software – because people underestimated (or ignored) the impacts of culture on the changes that people were expected to make. People need to understand why change is good or necessary. The why question is addressed primarily by the hidden aspects of culture: beliefs, values, and principles.

What is below the surface in your organisation?

So, to put the iceberg model into practice think about the team that you are in. Even if you work on your own, as a freelancer or self-employed, think about the organisation(s) you work with, your network, or even your own family; they all have their own culture. Ask yourself: 

  • What are the beliefs that drive visible behaviours? 
  • Which values inform decision-making?
  • What are the principles that define how people lead, manage, or work together?

Understanding your own culture is the first step in effective cross-cultural communication. In other words, if you want to work with other organisations, or bring change within your own, then this self-examination and awareness are key. And if you want to find out more, there is more on this topic in the post: How to stop culture eating your strategy for breakfast.

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