The famous culture guru Edgar H. Schein describes organizational culture using the metaphor of an iceberg.  The berg has three distinct levels that all counteract with each other.

The top part is the visible part where we normally put our emphasis and efforts on. It reflects the norms, artifacts and behaviors that are explicit in our daily routines and communication with each other, describing “the way we do things around here”.

The less visible part is just beneath the surface, built on values and attitudes that drive our thinking and actions. This level might be less visible, but a valuable resource when we want to understand the immediate drivers of our collective behavior.

The root of the berg corresponds to the subconscious, invisible and rarely questioned level of culture depicting the underlying beliefs and assumptions that we hold. They result from experience and development over the long term and therefore take most time to get a grasp on, yet change.

Titanic was the most luxurious ocean sea liner of its time and it was described as unsinkable. Nevertheless, it sank on its maiden voyage in 1912 taking more than 1500 of its total 2200 passengers to the bottom. What was the cause? There are several speculations on the cause of the destiny especially after the detection of the wreckage in 1985. The root cause seems to be a combination of human ignorance and inconsistent quality of the ship itself. Titanic was not meant for a voyage around icebergs.

The iceberg has its thickest part just under the sea level. Consequently, the part you see is not telling the whole story and you can be fatally mistaken. Similarly, you cannot make any assumptions of an organizational culture just by studying the visible signs and behaviors it conveys.

It is commonly known that only around 30 % of mergers and acquisitions succeed.  This is mostly due to cultural clashes of the voyaging partners. Like any relationship, you tend to fall in love with what you see and get caught by the feelings the other one awakens in you.  As time passes, words and deeds get more meanings and your assumptions and expectations of the other may turn out to be incorrect or even disappointing. You might also be surprised by hidden rules, beliefs and the impact history can have on current behavior.

Titanic was not meant to ship around icebergs. Similarly, organizational culture clashes can face obstacles like:

  • varying opinions on the level of formality between countries, companies, divisions, teams
  • philosophy on issues such as pay and expenses
  • different leadership styles and operating processes
  • different approaches to diversity, equality, inclusion
  • differences in the philosophy of goal setting and decision-making
  • differences in the understanding of time horizon

In order to avoid fatal clashes make sure your core values are consistent with the “the way we do things around here”.  Practice and live your values daily and make yourself accountable.

Turn any blame game into a praise game.  Long marriages tend to have struggles at some point of time, businesses will face unanticipated changes. When tough times are ahead, do not look for the guilty ones but rather praise any wins or positivity that can keep the energy going.

Make sure you have the right captains, first officers and lookouts in your team. Even more importantly, make sure you are listening and responding to any concerns or feedback they give you. Also, surround yourself with influencers, companions and networks that you believe can make a ripple effect on your culture.

Lastly, just like in any marriage, relationship or perfect voyage, walk the talk as the proud captain of an imaginary unsinkable ship and stay curious to find things of mutual interest and embrace the differences in a constructive manner.


Bon voyage!