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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.

10 Min read
Last Updated on
June 21, 2021

Strategy, leadership, and culture are the three fundamental pillars that define the success of any organization. Only when the organizational culture is aligned with the growth strategy will the employees act and behave in ways 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 in turn aids the execution of the organizational strategy. 

Read on to understand the iceberg model of culture and leadership in a way to drive organizational success. However, if there is one common denominator that flexibles apart the best performing organizations from the rest - that’s organizational culture.

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

Organizational culture is nothing but the characteristic set of beliefs and values that drive what people within an organization do and how they do it.  Culture is the implicit norm that defines what employee behavior is accepted, rejected, encouraged, or discouraged within the organization. 

While the policies and handbooks put together by HR can guide employee’s outward behaviors, changing organizational culture to make it positive - is what determines how employees treat each other, communicate with each other, get things done, etc.

What is the Iceberg Model of Culture?

In the year 1976, Edward T Hall developed what is called the Iceberg Model of Culture – where he explains organizational culture to be mostly like an iceberg which is found in polar seas. In an iceberg near about 10% of the iceberg is visible above the water surface, the majority of the iceberg is hidden below the waterline. The same is with Organizational Culture, it is like an iceberg, which has the characteristic of being highly disproportionate in its actual visibility. 

While some aspects of the 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”. While aspects like workplace ambiance, dress code, systems, policies, processes, etc. can be visible on the surface, the aspects like shared values and beliefs, attitudes towards authority, competition, underlying assumptions, etc. form a deeper culture.

Layers of Iceberg Model Of Culture

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

Surface Culture

Whenever you ask someone “How’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., 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 any such things. These are basically the perceptions that are formed by people based on what they see, hear, or feel about the organizational culture and leadership.  Such visible aspects of an organization’s culture usually serve the purpose of providing clues about what the organization believes is important, and the organization is run.

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

1. Perks & Benefits

Do you as an organization promote work-life balance? Do you promote the culture of flexible hours? Do you encourage employees to take a step forward towards their personal wellbeing?

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. Be it the option to work from home, taking regular company/team retreats, or flexible work hours, perks and benefits have a huge impact on employee behaviors and engagement. So much so that, a study showed that 48% of the people who are switching jobs would weigh perks as an important part of their decision-making – even if the perk is as small as a free snack bar. 

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

2. Dress & 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 huge impact on how organizational culture is perceived. It has almost been a couple of decades now since the formal dress code has almost become an outdated concept. Most companies today are loosening up in their dress codes to encourage employees to be casually dressed, encouraging them to feel comfortable in their shoes (pun intended) – in the hope to increase productivity.

Tip: It is important to lay out some ground rules and tends to communicate what is acceptable and what is not. Customer-facing roles are highly exposed 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 an important 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 important tool to reinforce the culture amongst employees. It reflects and shapes the values and assumptions while keeping the organization relevant to the next line of the 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 have a huge impact on how the organizational culture comes across to people. Therefore, choosing the right set of words, the right platform, the right gestures, and tone, etc. to communicate becomes crucial.

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

5. Rewards and Recognition

Rewards and recognitions have an immense impact on organizational culture. They create a perception amongst people as to 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 recognitions reinforce the fact that the work is done is meaningful and valuable to the organization. Not just that, 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 not only helps in creating a strong organizational culture but also creates a highly engaged and motivated workforce. Xoxoday Empuls is a well-established product in this space, that is helping build a culture of rewards and appreciation in organizations across the globe.

As human beings, we all have a tendency 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 by an outsider – providing shortcuts to identify how things get done within an organization. However, what we see on the surface is just a reflection of 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 are very particular to them. Though not visible to the outside world, these characteristics have the power to make or break the organization. These are nothing but the aspects of deeper culture that is 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 thorough research about 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 ever spoke about. 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 the 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. This has a huge impact on organizational culture. Employees feel extremely valued when their opinions are heard and are encouraged to take part in the decision-making process. A sense of authority is experienced while being involved in discussions and tasks that have an impact on the organization’s growth, in turn 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 to make important organizational decisions.   

2. Health & Wellbeing

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

Organizations across the globe are increasingly recognizing the crucial role employee wellbeing plays in engaging employees and cultivating a strong culture in the workplace. Be it physical, emotional, mental, or financial – health and wellbeing have a tremendous impact on employee engagement as well as the culture. Happy and healthy employees not only have proven to drive better productivity, but also reduce healthcare costs and churn rate. Having a wellness program is hence crucial to building a happier workforce, which will ultimately improve your company's bottom line. However, simply having a program or initiative in place won’t magically improve wellbeing. For programs to move the needle and deliver results, organizations must make it a part of organizational culture and assess them regularly. 

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. 

Using an all-in-one employee engagement platform like Xoxoday Empuls can help drive the objectives of employee wellbeing and improved engagement. Be it physical, emotional, or financial wellbeing - you can the platform to nudge employees to make healthier choices each day. Want to know more? Why don't you try it on your own? Start a 30 day trial for free.

3. Purpose & Meaning

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

Purpose and meaning are part of the iceberg of organizational culture that has gained a lot of 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 important for every organization. When employees understand why they are doing what they are doing, it can drive phenomenal results in terms of engagement, motivation, and business outcome.

Tip: Organize training and performance management programs, that will reinforce the organization 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 important part of any organizational culture. An organization that adopts open, transparent, positive, and strong communication will not only foster healthy work relationships but also reaps the benefits of fewer conflicts and negativity. However, a  healthy communication culture is one in which the channels are opened on both ends (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 empathize with organizations that are honest

5.   Employee Engagement

Do you value your workforce to be key contributors to organizational success? Do you really 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 culture that is positive and open can create trust and loyalty among employees – driving passion and dedication towards the organization. When organizations proactively take employee feedbacks and take the path of open communication to openly convey essential messages pertaining to layoffs, hikes, restructure, etc., succinctly, it reassures the 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 & 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, then it is prioritizing learning and development among employees. This not only promotes innovative thinking and creativity but also improves the agility of the business to sustain 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 program should not only be highly personalized, but also be aligned with the individual’s growth plan, career progression path, and interests.

7.   Collaboration & 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 cultures that value 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 clearly lays out the various dynamics of collaboration, ownership, teamwork, etc. and encouraging and rewarding teamwork regularly can help make the concept part of your company’s culture.

Tip: Form a cross-functional team to solve real work issues, Make recognition to teamwork a part of your strategic recognition programs, Celebrate team success openly to encourage teamwork and collaboration. Xoxoday 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 the organizational culture. Understanding and improvising the culture within your organization can be vital to drive success.  

Final Thoughts

By understanding the iceberg theory of culture we can get to the root causes of problems that arise 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 small part of the culture is reflected above the surface for people to perceive it, the deeper values and beliefs can have a profound effect on driving the organization towards success. 

Leadership behavior, beliefs, and actions play a key 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 truly believe that the expected response is the right approach, and
  • Employees are sure they will be appreciated for demonstrating organizational values and beliefs.

A guide to building and maintaining your culture garden

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Blog posts allow you and your business to publish insights, thoughts, and stories on your website about any topic. They can help you boost traffic, brand awareness, credibility, conversions, and revenue.
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