The iceberg in your organization

The iceberg in your organization

All of us are familiar with the famous story of ill-fated luxury liner, Titanic. Titanic’s captain gauged the size of the iceberg incorrectly as only one-tenth portion was visible. As a result, the ‘un-sinkable’ Titanic sank in its maiden voyage.

I feel an organization’s culture is very similar to the iceberg in the above story because only a fraction of what makes culture is visible. And, similar to the iceberg that sank the Titanic, the invisible portions of culture can sink your company’s ship if left unchecked.

The visible portion of culture is usually made up of vision-mission-value statements and the organization polices. You will often see these framed in the hall ways & lobbies of organizations. In many companies, culture is also showcased via the office interiors – bean bags, lava lamps, bright color walls, glass partitions etc. The visible portion helps create the image of the organization in terms of ‘the way we are supposed to do things’.

The invisible portion of the culture is made up of beliefs, shared values, stories & unwritten rules. Unlike the visible portion, these invisible aspects of culture are usually unstructured, contextual and constantly evolving. The invisible portion often sums up to ‘the way we actually do things’.

The reason I started with the story of Titanic is because I see many business owners & leaders trying to steer their organizations by addressing only the visible elements of culture.

Let me give you an example. The management of one of the businesses I worked with had put in Ownership as one of their organization values. Yet, the internet access in the company was restricted. Facebook & Online shopping sites were blocked. When I asked about this, one of the directors said that they were afraid that employees would waste a lot of time on the internet. In other words, they were expecting people to own their jobs but at the same time afraid to trust that their people to manage their time responsibly.

In another company, the owner wanted his people to be entrepreneurial but kept the knowledge & work scope of his people restricted to their assigned areas of responsibility.

Sometimes, I also get to work with companies in which what visible portions of the culture are in sync with what is actually practiced. The owners of one such company believed in welfare of their employees and accordingly contributed to Employee Provident Fund even though their employee strength was just 15. (In India, contributions are mandatory for companies only once employee size exceeds 19.)

Another business founder had listed transparency as one of his company’s core values. He practiced this by regularly sharing his own performance (which included company financials) against set goals with his entire team.

Predictably, this founder’s core team members displayed similar values too.

On the other hand, the business owner who constantly spoke about wanting his people to be entrepreneurial never has had an employee who displayed an entrepreneurial streak.

In a nutshell, I find that visible portions of culture such as vision-mission-value statements or creating a ‘fun & vibrant’ office are not enough to influence the invisible parts of the culture i.e. the aspects that determine how things actually get done in the company. The only thing that really influences how things are done in practice is what the company leaders consistently display via their own actions.

Smart business owners & leaders know this. Accordingly, they actively influence how the invisible portions of the culture shape up. And by doing so, they steer their companies clear from the sharp edges of submerged icebergs.

What has been your experience with the culture in your organization? Do you or your company leaders actively influence how things generally get done in the organization by setting examples through actions?

I am looking forward to read your comments & observations.


  • Deepak Sir,

    Though we are in a growing stage we have made it a point from the year of commencement that every employee’s medical insurance shall be borne by the company irrespective of the company’s performance. The only criteria is that they should complete atleast 6 months with us. We three directors bear our individual insurance. We believe that this shall provide every employee a sense of belonging from the time they join. EPF shall be the next step. This despite we having only 6 employees currently.

    Ashok RaoAugust 14, 2015

Leave a Reply