Navigating the Organizational Culture Iceberg

How often have you heard someone say how important, even urgent, it is for you to create a strong culture for your organization?

Organizational Culture Model by

Edgar Schein

An organization’s culture exists at three levels:

1.       Visible artifacts:  Artifacts include any tangible, overt or verbally identifiable elements in any organization. Architecture, furniture, dress code, office jokes, all exemplify organizational artifacts. Artifacts are the visible elements in a culture and they can be recognized by people not part of the culture.

2.       Espoused values:  Espoused values are the organization’s stated values and rules of behavior. It is how the members represent the organization both to themselves and to others. This is often expressed in official philosophies and public statements of identity. It can sometimes often be a projection for the future, of what the members hope to become.

3.       Shared tacit assumptions:  Shared basic assumptions are the deeply embedded, taken-for-granted behaviors which are usually unconscious, but constitute the essence of culture. These assumptions are typically so well integrated in the office dynamic that they are hard to recognize from within.

(Schein, 2017)

Increasingly leaders and managers are discovering that managing people means managing a culture.  Online experts and bloggers try to be helpful, and if you Google organizational culture, you will pull up what seems like an endless list of articles and blog posts with some variation of the title How to Create a Strong Culture.  I came across two recently that made me chuckle slightly before shaking my head:  one title offered Five Easy Steps to Creating a Strong Culture while another assured its readers that all they need to do is “two simple things.”

Anyone who tells you that developing your culture is easy or simple is doing you a disservice.

You Already Have a Strong Culture.

One reason that culture work is difficult is that your organization already has a strong culture.  It may not be the culture you want.  It may not be a culture that actually supports your mission, values or strategy.  But you already have a strong culture.  Your people already embrace a shared set of assumptions, beliefs, values and priorities, and your organization already has traditions, rituals, unwritten rules of behavior and intricate power structures.

Your organization’s culture started to form, mostly outside conscious awareness, the moment two people began working together.  Your culture continued to develop over time through your people’s lived experience; what actually succeeded historically became institutionalized and became “the way we do things.”  Individual and group interactions, tribal knowledge, social pressure and reprisals, how conflicts get resolved—all these interactions along with much more teach your employees unconsciously and unintentionally what to think and how to act in your organization more powerfully than anything you tell your people during your onboarding process, through your policies and procedures manual, or in directions given at team meetings.

Don’t underestimate how deeply-rooted, pervasive, complex, or powerful your current culture is.  Culture is your organization’s DNA.  It is your organization’s core characteristics, your true identity.  And all of your people live by it.  Your culture drives the way that people and groups interact with each other, with clients, and with other stakeholders far more powerfully than your formal policies and procedures

Culture Development is Culture Change.

Because your organization already has a strong culture, culture development work is always culture change work—and change in organizations is always more difficult than it seems it should be.   For over two decades change management practitioners have been saying that 70% of major change initiatives fail.  While the accuracy of that 70% figure is up for debate, everyone agrees that change is challenging—and that successful change efforts are the ones that are well-planned and carefully-managed.

You Can’t Change What You Don’t Know.

When it comes to cultural change it is particularly difficult to craft a well-planned change management process.  Like an iceberg, 90% of culture exists below the surface, and like an iceberg the 90% that we can’t see is the most difficult to navigate and poses the most risk.  Don’t overestimate how much you really know about your organization’s culture.  Most elements of your culture developed organically, and they guide your team’s behavior outside of awareness.  Crafting a well-designed plan for culture change is difficult because you can’t plan to change what you don’t know.

Want to Decipher your Culture?  Do Not Do a Survey!

Because 90% of your culture exists below the surface, crafting a well-designed plan for culture change must begin with gaining an understanding of and assessing the culture you already have so that you know what you actually need to change. There are plenty of survey instruments and questionnaires available that claim to assess culture.  But culture surveys cannot effectively reveal the 90% iceberg that lies below the surface.  Edgar H. Schein (2006) a former professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management and an expert in the field of organizational culture, explains why not.

You can’t create a questionnaire that covers all the bases.

Culture covers all aspects of what your organization has learned over its history.  To design a questionnaire that asks about all the relevant internal and external dimensions of your culture, you would have to write several hundred questions.

You don’t really know what to ask.

A survey can bring to light important and useful information – about the 10% of your culture that is above the surface.   But what about the 90% where all the important unconscious, tacit assumptions about mission, values, strategy, clients and other matters reside?  Not knowing what those tacit assumptions are, you aren’t likely to know what survey questions to ask to reveal those assumptions.  Asking about share processes, policies, structure, etc. – the 10% of your culture that is above the surface – won’t get you the information you need.

Asking your people what they would like to see changed doesn’t reveal the underlying assumptions behind what they want changed.

For example, it is common for organizations to espouse teamwork, and surveys often reveal that employees wish there were a greater level of teamwork.  But identifying the desire for a greater level of teamwork doesn’t reveal whether such cultural elements as the reward-and-incentive systems – both formal and informal that have worked in the past and are deeply embedded in people’s thinking – actually put a premium on teamwork or if in reality they reward individual accomplishment and promote competition.

If a Survey Won’t Work, What Do You Do?

The way to get at your current culture is to have a facilitated and structured discussion about culture with your people.  Bring in someone from the outside who knows something about the concept of culture—and yes, you do need someone from outside the organizational culture—and get together with some of your team members—and be sure to include newcomers—to have a facilitated, structured discussion about your culture.  Just be sure that discussion is rooted in something that really matters to the success of your organization—something you would like to fix or something that could work better.  A theoretical discussion of your culture will seem (and probably will be) irrelevant.

If Culture Change Work is so Difficult, is it Worth the Effort?

While changing your current culture may be difficult, there is a good reason for engaging in a cultural assessment and considering whether to work on changing your culture:  culture affects productivity, performance and revenue generation.

Culture provides guidelines for everything you and your employees do:  client care and quality of service: attendance and punctuality; which policies and procedures are followed and which ones are not; communication; decision-making and problem-solving; trust, integrity and accountability; how people dress and where they park their cars.  The list is endless.  Therefore, if your culture is not aligned with your mission, your values, and your strategy, then your culture becomes counterproductive.

By Kevin Dincher, PiP Strategic Advisor

Schein, E. (2006).  So how can you assess your corporate culture? In J. V. Gallos (Ed.), Organization development (pp. 614-633).  San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass.

Schein, E (2017).  Organizational culture and leadership (5th ed.).  Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.