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Culture change

Managing the Iceberg

Managing the Iceberg Culture Change Organizational Dna

Our team has completed several organizational culture surveys over the past year. Our clients are in the whole range of service, manufacturing, public and private sectors. Some of the issues we ran into as the programs progressed have got me thinking about the two types of actions that organizations take in order to move their cultures forward and the qualitative differences between these actions that can lead to disappointing results if we don’t address and manage them properly. I like to think of these differences in terms of an iceberg: actions and changes above the surface you can see and those below the surface that you don’t see. It’s the below-the-surface ones you don’t see that are by far the most important.

The visible actions are all about things that need to be done and seen to be done. The invisible below-the-surface ones are all about thinking styles and the organization’s emotional intelligence: you can also call them the DNA of the organization.

This a good way to envisage what we have to manage:

When our clients decide to make important changes to build on the results of their organizational culture survey, the changes mean some significant ‘genetic engineering’. For example, treat all employees with full respect, allow genuine autonomy at all levels, develop talent to the maximum. These changes are at the below-the-surface DNA level. Individuals, especially those in senior management levels, have to examine, question and make changes to aspects of their emotional intelligence. This is all invisible to employees, at least at the beginning of the culture change process.

How they prove that they are indeed making important changes to the way they approach their styles of management and leadership is frequently through visible above-the-surface actions. For example, our latest culture change client identified important issues to do with increasing levels of respect towards employees and increasing the level of autonomy employees can exercise. Some visible actions were obvious and urgent to set in motion. They are now refurbishing all the showers and changing rooms, because the old ones dated from the 1960’s and were in a poor state of repair. They are also renovating the mini cafeterias that dated from the same era and did nothing to improve the appetites of the employees who were obliged to eat there. To increase employee autonomy, they are introducing flex time where possible and making sure that the employees affected by the new system have a large say in designing it. These, plus several other actions, are very important because they are visible evidence of change happening. But they will fail if the below-the-surface DNA that supports all the culture change does not also evolve and improve in quality. It’s no good giving people autonomy in deciding their working hours if, at the same time, you micro-manage them to death. Renovated cafeterias will only create mixed messages if managers give demeaning performance feedback to their employees, instead of constructive feedback designed to improve performance.

So, the key question is: can people really make important changes in their “emotional DNA”, that is in their thinking styles they use to manage and lead their teams? The answer is somewhat surprising. It is not easy, but most people are already pre-wired to do so. It’s just that over their careers they have frequently developed less effective thinking styles because their working environments have encouraged counter-productive management and leadership styles, for example due to an exclusive focus on short-term goals, rather than long-term ones, or working in an industry that has not had a history of constructively questioning and updating its procedures and programs.

It all starts with the top leaders. They will change the management and leadership styles of their teams by modeling the styles themselves. They are natural mentors and coaches. They “walk the talk” by using four constructive families of leadership behaviors and actively encouraging their subordinates to use them too. These styles can be characterized as follows *:

Actualizing Style

Encouraging others to take moderate risks, to think out of the box and to get involved in all aspects of the functioning of the organization, not just their small department or


Achievement Style

Setting tough, but realistic goals which are focused on delivering excellence at all times, but critically, not on being perfect. Hiring people with a “take-charge” approach to their job and giving all employees the maximum amount of autonomy and decision-making that their position allows.

Humanistic Style

Constantly reminding oneself that most people are trustworthy and genuinely want to do a good job, despite the fact that most people also “screw up” from time to time. This type of belief system leads to highly effective listening behaviors, which in turn leads to the leader being a top-quality coach and mentor.

Affiliative style

Encouraging teamwork and cross-silo collaborative projects throughout the organization. Making sure that simple, effective recognition and reward strategies exist to reinforce individual and, more especially, team performance.

One of our most successful clients has done the following things to turn around the old-fashioned organizational culture he inherited which risked his unit going out of business within less than five years. He had a smart senior management team, but their overly rigid leadership styles were generating unacceptable levels of internal conflict and a costly level of employee turnover.

After generating and starting several visible, above-the-surface projects in the cultural iceberg, such as the renovations mentioned above, he got his senior managers to work in sub-teams to generate some “wild” ideas to improve key systems. One of these systems was the new employee onboarding program. He asked his senior managers to put themselves in the position of a new employee and imagine an ideal program that planted the seeds of long-lasting loyalty to the company, right from day one of the employee’s time on the job. He had his own ideas, but he deliberately kept them to himself, giving precedence to the ideas his managers came up with, even when he felt his own ones were as good or even better. After three months, the new program was rolled out and was immediately rated a success, both by the new employees evaluating it and, critically, by the retention rate as measured 12 months later. A key measure will be in two or three years when we will have data on the longer-term retention rate. So far, the indicators look good.

When I asked my client what were the game-changers generated and implemented by his senior managers, his list was of initiatives that can only come when they are using the four constructive leadership styles. Here are some examples they generated by putting themselves in the shoes of a new employee following an improved onboarding program:

  • Pairs of Senior managers take turns to run each onboarding program. Human Resources provides some input, but does not run the whole show.

  • The organization’s Vision, Mission and Values are constantly referred to and examples of their application are given frequently during the program. These include the organization’s positive contribution to their local community which had always been significant, but was hardly mentioned in the old program.

  • The program doubled in length, from one week to two weeks.

  • Every new employee is now assigned a “buddy”. This person is an employee at a similar level and in a similar function to the new employee. Buddies keep close to the newcomer, especially for the first month. They take them for lunch, give them a plant tour and generally “show them the ropes” for their first three months on the job. Typically, buddies continue to remain close their assigned employees long after the initial three-month onboarding period. Buddies, of course, follow a special training program.

The critical element of these and the other changes that have begun to turn the organization’s culture around are that they were generated by a team of moderately successful, but old-fashioned Senior Managers who were actively encouraged to think in new ways by their forward-thinking leader.

* These styles follow the Human Synergistics® leadership model, which has been the subject of ongoing research for over 60 years.

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