There is a consensus that culture is important for the success and well-being of an organization. Yet, while we probably all have a rough feeling about what culture is, we often can’t really put our finger on it precisely. What exactly is culture? Where is it? What shapes it?
All these questions eludes most of us most of the time, so, today, I’d like to take a look at the forces and elements that shape culture, the visible and the invisible ones: The culture iceberg.
Obviously, anything that you can actually see is visible. Let’s list some of them:
- Policies & Emphases (for example time management, arriving to the office on time, presence, etc…)
- Organizational Structures
- Buildings and spaces
- Habits, rituals, ceremonies
- Mission Statement
- Choices of tools, frameworks, etc…
- Published values
All of these can be seen, either in a document, from people, from the organization itself, etc. They all carry a strong cultural element and put all together will create a cultural dynamic.
They will also all translate certain things. For example, an organization that has a strict budget planning, that has a very hierarchical organizational structure, that has a strong manager-report emphasis, processes and controls, is probably an organization that believes that trust is not automatic and that you must enforce it, and that will put a lot of effort in building a command and control structure.
Therefore, every choice made translates into culture. Are you using KPIs or OKRs? Are you using Scrum or Waterfall (or nothing named)? Do you have strict close-door budgeting or bottom-up budgeting or agile budgeting or no budgeting at all? Do you have strict yearly appraisals with a calendar quarter dedicated for it or do you do peer-2-peer feedback at contract anniversary (check out my article on performance appraisals for more on that)?
As you can see, and probably start to feel, just about everything you do will translate in a cultural dynamic, promote certain things and discourage others.
Now, the fun part. The invisible forces and elements that also build the culture, but in ways that are much less obvious, however pervasive. As we understand teams and organizations as complex adaptive systems, we know that it is impossible to control every bit of interaction within the team. But as much as your actions translate into a culture, so are the actions of your team – as well as sometimes the lack of actions.
An important point first. Not all of these elements and forces are intentional or even voluntary. Most of the time, they are just actions or translations of certain key people’s own beliefs, that bleed onto others through certain mechanisms like hiring, organizational structure or simply behaviors. And sometimes, it is just how things have always been done within a team.
Here are some of these invisible forces and elements (especially for leaders):
- Actual values; values that people actually believe and care about but don’t always mention or even recognize
- Feelings; sometimes these feelings are visible, but how often? You often behave as a direct influence from them, but you don’t see them. Therefore, they influence your actions, which influence the culture.
- Assumptions & Beliefs;
- Unconscious thoughts, biases;
- Localized Decision-Making, which might result into unmanaged conflicts (aka team politics);
As you can see, these things will have an impact on the decisions and actions that will be taken, and are therefore invisible forces that will directly influence the cultural dynamics.
Everyone’s actions in the organization will shape the cultural dynamic, and the most powerful ones will likely have most impact. The effects can also be long-lasting ripples which outcome is hard to predict. For example, if someone hires a team, the cultural impact this person will have on this team, and this team on other teams, will live on and grow for a long time.
There are many visible and invisible forces that act to shape the culture. Impact can come from many things, decisions, actions, or even a lack of either.
Often, the impact is not intended, it is just influenced by one’s own beliefs and feelings. The actions and decisions taken will shape the culture without awareness on the cultural side effects.
Therefore, if you care about culture as an individual, it is important that when you make a decision, or decide to take – or not – an action, you think about the cultural impact and consequences of what you do – or don’t do. As leaders, it is impossible to keep control of all the individual activities and behaviors. The key is not to provide a system which controls your team, but rather a system in which the desired culture is visible, so there is no need to control your team, your team is empowered to take control of itself, allowing you to focus on coaching them versus managing them. In the next article, we will explore some ideas on how to do that.
Do you want to learn more about the effects of the “culture – iceberg”? Join us for the ThinkTank session on 25 August 2021 from 09.00 – 10.00 ICT.