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The Culture Iceberg

What is culture?

It’s often described as “the way we do things round here”. That’s a good definition, but not useful in breaking down the different elements that go into making a culture, or determining whose responsibility it is to create a positive culture.

When I’m delivering training on managing difficult conversations I often talk about the iceberg concept. People are like icebergs: there is the stuff we can see going on above the surface – essentially our behaviour and its results - but there is also a huge mass of stuff going on under the surface, such as our previous experiences, our beliefs, our values and our fears. All of these affect how we react to any situation.

The iceberg concept is a really useful one to apply to conversations about culture, too.

Above the surface are all the visible elements of our team or organisational culture: the corporate strategy and values, the policies, the systems, the structures, the rituals and the internal communications. These are usually ‘top down’ – determined by the senior leadership and communicated through official channels. They are the levers that we often pull on if we want to shift the way people work.

But there is also a huge mass underneath the water. These include the team’s attitudes, norms, unwritten rules, histories and stories and control systems. It is also where we find the truth about where power in the organisation lies (and it’s not always with the CEO). These elements are created by the people within the organisation and can shift easily.

As with the Titanic, it is what is underwater that can prove hazardous. Run up against one of these factors and you could sink fast. They are often what is really driving the culture.

Understanding what is going on under the surface is essential to building the culture that will best serve your team. It will probably mean digging into truths that can feel a little uncomfortable. You may find that the experience of being part of your organisation is very different at a junior level from your experience at the leaders’ table.

It also means that we need to move beyond the simplistic understanding that “culture is down to leadership” and recognise that we all have a part to play in building the culture that we want.

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