At the Water-Line

Hear me read this post.

Many years ago I came across a remark­able mod­el, known as the cul­tur­al ice­berg. Devel­oped by Stan­ley Her­man of TRW Sys­tems in 1970, it describes some of the most impor­tant work­place dynam­ics that any of us could ever know about. The top part of the ice­berg rep­re­sents the vis­i­ble, for­mal aspects of an orga­ni­za­tion, such as the stat­ed goals, the tech­nolo­gies, struc­tures, poli­cies, and ser­vices of an enter­prise. Below the water-line are the covert or so-called “hid­den” aspects of an orga­ni­za­tion, the beliefs, assump­tions, per­cep­tions, atti­tudes, feel­ings and val­ues that char­ac­ter­ize the real-world inter­ac­tions from which an orga­ni­za­tion is also built. If the top of the ice­berg rep­re­sents “the way we say we get things done,” the bot­tom and larg­er part is “the way we real­ly get things done.”

As I watch the inter­play of these two aspects of orga­ni­za­tion­al cul­ture in my con­sult­ing role, I often see imbal­ance. In over-man­aged orga­ni­za­tions, the top of the ice­berg dom­i­nates the bot­tom, squash­ing it under the weight of for­mal sys­tems, paper bureau­cra­cies, rigid con­trols, a‑pol­i­cy-for-every­thing, par­ent-child man­age­ment. By com­par­i­son, in over-led orga­ni­za­tions, peo­ple enact a fan­ta­sy wish for an orga­ni­za­tion in which there is no water-line at all and we try to pros­per sole­ly on the basis of effec­tive rela­tion­ships, intel­li­gence, and entre­pre­neur­ial spir­it. In this view, sys­tems and process­es are dis­count­ed in favor of the smartest and best idea — or per­son — win­ning out. The first style is with­out a doubt the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment. The sec­ond may be clos­er to a start-up going south.

Nei­ther of these approach­es, in its extreme, is effec­tive. For­mal and infor­mal aspects of an orga­ni­za­tion need each oth­er. Order and oppor­tunism, pol­i­cy and good judg­ment, goals and pas­sions, strate­gic plans and a sense of belong­ing — head and heart. These things are wound around one anoth­er in a com­plex dance called con­gru­ence or alignment.

This is why we must hon­or man­age­ment as much as lead­er­ship. Good man­agers — peo­ple who can orga­nize, dis­trib­ute resources, and imple­ment — are as invalu­able as those who through their own pres­ence can release a com­mon aspi­ra­tion, inspire peo­ple to col­lab­o­rate and achieve, and fos­ter deep change. We need each oth­er and we need these parts of ourselves.

I am struck by Her­man’s dia­gram because it high­lights where things can go right or wrong in an enter­prise. Either there is per­ceived align­ment between the above and below the water-line worlds or there is not. When the align­ment is there, peo­ple are engaged and the work gets done — no prob­lem. When align­ment does­n’t exist it high­lights some­thing that is out of sync and needs to be addressed. For exam­ple, it may be that the self-per­cep­tions of an exec­u­tive group do not match the group’s own behav­ior. Or it may be an even broad­er ques­tion, such as “Does our orga­ni­za­tion match its mar­ket­ed image of itself?”

These dif­fer­ences are not a prob­lem, only the fail­ure to talk about them in a mean­ing­ful way. This is where drift occurs. It may be after dis­cus­sion that a sys­tem does need to be accept­ed. There’s a bound­ary con­di­tion for peo­ples’ behav­ior and the bound­ary needs to hold — for the lead­ers and for every­body. It may also be that that cer­tain sys­tems are the prob­lem and need to change. Fail­ure begins with a lack of real dia­logue, which includes mutu­al explo­ration, clear deci­sions, and respect. With­out this dia­logue, undis­cuss­abil­i­ty and ten­sion begin to take hold, often embed­ding dynam­ics of mistrust.


We are refined in our abil­i­ties to see incon­gru­ence in orga­ni­za­tions and peo­ple, but it’s impor­tant to stay hum­ble. I once worked with the head of a big health care orga­ni­za­tion in the mid-west where there was a very strong, val­ue-based state­ment promi­nent­ly dis­played through­out the work­place. It artic­u­lat­ed the beliefs of the orga­ni­za­tion about such impor­tant mat­ters as cus­tomer ser­vice, qual­i­ty, col­lab­o­ra­tion, and employ­ee devel­op­ment. It was a stat­ed vision, but I would­n’t say it was a par­tic­u­lar­ly well-lived one. One fac­tor that stood out was how the leader him­self used these pos­i­tive­ly stat­ed val­ues in neg­a­tive ways. It was said that if he ever told a per­son, “I’m not sure we agree on our val­ues,” that pret­ty much meant say­onara — whether for a Board Mem­ber or an employ­ee. Sure enough when it came time for the orga­ni­za­tion to enact a col­lab­o­ra­tive part­ner­ship with anoth­er busi­ness enti­ty, the effort failed direct­ly and per­son­al­ly on the basis of the val­ues he did­n’t see in his counter-part leader. There was a qual­i­ty of utter right­eous­ness about this deci­sion — and about him. In my mind, his per­son­al incon­gru­ence had neat­ly become orga­ni­za­tion­al incongruence.

And so, in my role, I attempt­ed to tell him about this prob­lem in no uncer­tain terms, and I thought at first he had not heard me. But, lat­er he invit­ed me to his home and instead of con­tin­u­ing the dis­cus­sion of the part­ner­ship agree­ment, he openned up about his life. Many years before he had been a gun­boat cap­tain in Viet Nam, see­ing a great deal of action before he returned from his tour of duty to the Unit­ed States. He felt grate­ful that he had made it out alive and also felt respon­si­ble in a very deep way — so respon­si­ble that he did anoth­er tour, as one of the black-coat­ed peo­ple who knock on the doors of the par­ents who have just lost a son or daugh­ter. He learned to bring the news of death and to stay with peo­ple through the unimag­in­able moments of their first grief.

When I asked him whether oth­ers knew of this expe­ri­ence, he replied that telling this sto­ry was like offer­ing a peek-hole into his show­er. He did­n’t rel­ish the thought of oth­ers see­ing him so naked.

To me this shows how deeply we have to under­stand our­selves before crit­i­ciz­ing anoth­er’s appar­ent incon­gru­ence. I think this guy knew at some lev­el that his right­eous­ness was in his way but he was stuck at a water-line in him­self and in a con­flict that would not eas­i­ly go away. I think if he had told this sto­ry to a few more peo­ple, stopped try­ing to keep his own grief so pri­vate, oth­ers would have known bet­ter how to address him, and per­haps his own edges would have soft­ened. I, for one, in the moment, had to exam­ine my own shad­ows of righteousness.

In orga­ni­za­tion­al life, we need both head and heart, just as we do per­son­al­ly. We all have to search out the con­flicts between “the way I say I am” and “the way I real­ly am.” And we have to find ways to close the gap — the wound — and also for­give our­selves for the difference.

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  • Dean F. wrote:

    Dan — “We all have to search out the con­flicts between “the way I say I am” and “the way I real­ly am.” And we have to find ways to close the gap — the wound — and also for­give our­selves for the difference.”

    So true, so dif­fi­cult to do. 

    I have to say that your writ­ing on these top­ics is acute­ly accu­rate in my judg­ment. I just wish I could bet­ter live out the con­cepts. I try to close the gap every day … some days I do and oth­er not. I sup­pose part of the equa­tion is walk­ing the path every day. 

    Hope all is well with you.

  • Glad to hear your voice again, Dean, and to share in the sense of the chal­lenge with you. Try­ing to deal with the “so dif­fi­cult to do” part alone can be unbear­able. We need an ongo­ing com­mu­ni­ty of peo­ple who also share the same desire for them­selves and their orga­ni­za­tion. With­out home-base, we end up, I believe, like the guy in my sto­ry, leak­ing shad­ows rather than shar­ing light.

    All the best to you, Dean. Stay in touch.

  • Anonymous wrote:

    Hi Dan, thanks for this great post. I did­n’t know the ori­gin of the ice­berg mod­el that we all use with no attribution.

    I love to blame oth­ers. It’s one of things I’ve learned to do so well. I love to spec­u­late what’s below the water line that I can see and make judg­ments about them. Some­times, I’m even correct. 

    But I agree with you, Dan, I need to do a bet­ter job of ask­ing ques­tions or sim­ply be accept­ing of oth­ers behav­ior when I can’ know what they are think­ing or feeling. 

    Your blog is a great con­tri­bu­tion to those of us who are try­ing to under­stand and influ­ence orga­ni­za­tion­al behavior.



  • Know­ing you as I do, Jay, I would say that you don’t “love to blame oth­ers” — that’s flip — so much as you feel great pain when you real­ize that you have blamed oth­ers and you have seen the effects. Like me, you hurt if you believe you have caused hurt. This is exact­ly what I meant about for­giv­ing our­selves for the gap. It’s a raw place and an incon­solable one with­out great friends, which we are. The risk, in the absence of love, feed­back and sup­port — in the absence of truth and care — is that we find our­selves much worse than we actu­al­ly are. You have often offered your truth-telling, guid­ance and reas­sur­ance to me and I would hope I could always do the same for you.

  • Head and heart — must be con­gru­ent. You are so right. I also blog on lead­er­ship — you may want to look:

    Thanks for your insights.


  • Dan,

    Good insights, as always.

    I have found for myself and my clients that there is often a sub­tle con­nec­tion between what we might like to believe are two sep­a­rate conflicts:

    1) the con­flict one has regard­ing the incon­gru­ence between “what some­one else says about him/herself” and “how s/he actu­al­ly behaves” and

    2) the con­flict one has between “what one thinks about one­self” and “how one actu­al­ly behaves”.

    All too often, it seems that the incon­gru­ence we accu­rate­ly see in oth­ers has its own relat­ed incon­gru­ence with­in our­selves… par­tic­u­lar­ly when we are hav­ing strong emo­tion­al respons­es to what we are see­ing. When this aris­es, it is more impor­tant to inte­grate one’s own shad­ow around the issue before attempt­ing to help others.

  • Thank you, Daniel. Yes, you are so right. A ther­a­pist I know used this phrase: “When you are most cer­tain you see some­one else’s shad­ow, look out, because you are prob­a­bly stand­ing in your own.”

    I believe that often the tough­est chal­lenges we must work at in our rela­tion­ships have to do with our pro­jec­tions onto oth­ers. By def­i­n­i­tion, we don’t know we are doing it…until it is too late. Am I see­ing some­thing real out there in anoth­er or am I only look­ing into a mir­ror that I have dis­owned? Shad­ows, reflec­tions, a slip­pery trail between truth and per­cep­tion. Believ­ing that we can eas­i­ly tell the dif­fer­ence — that’s the very spot we stumble.…

  • […] And we cre­ate two orga­ni­za­tions — an “offi­cial” one and a “below-the-water­line” one, as I’ve not­ed else­where. And just so, the ener­gy can­not real­ly be reduced to some cul­tur­al­ly pre­ferred forms. It keeps escap­ing the ket­tle in which we try to boil it down. While we keep try­ing to reduce our mind-sets into man­aged pro­grams, bud­gets, bureau­cra­cies, pow­er struc­tures, par­tic­u­lar van­tage points, such as the val­ue of “win­ning” the con­test with com­peti­tors, we just can nev­er quite get there. The soul of the place keeps show­ing up — through the peo­ple, espe­cial­ly the peo­ple who don’t “fit,” espe­cial­ly the peo­ple that keep chal­leng­ing the val­ues of the place. The peo­ple are won­der­ful, and they are try­ing to exist in orga­ni­za­tions that frankly have become banal; orga­ni­za­tions like strip malls, all lit up as a col­lec­tion of lit­tle shops shar­ing a com­mon park­ing lot, but cer­tain­ly not yet a vil­lage. The vil­lage is hid­den, below the sur­face, har­bor­ing con­ver­sa­tions among and about peo­ple (espe­cial­ly the lead­ers) on the edge of the orga­ni­za­tion, not at its cen­ter. All this is our social and per­son­al conditioning. […]

  • Thanks Dan : your arti­cle has giv­en me a very impor­tant insight. That’s why we’ve always failed to reform the failed orga­ni­za­tion, because we only changed the vis­i­ble things (the ones show on the sur­face). Of course, it is not an easy job to touch the hid­den factors.

    Kind regards, Gathot

  • Many kind regards in return, Gath­ot. I’m glad this post was use­ful to you. And I agree that many times orga­ni­za­tions try to change what’s below by chang­ing what is above. It isn’t quite that easy!

  • Richard Badham wrote:

    Dear Dan,

    I have been speak­ing with Stan­ley Her­man about his orig­i­nal mod­el and paper. While I have a 1971 arti­cle by him (I can share this with you if you want), in which he devel­oped on the ice­berg mod­el, he no longer has a copy of hi 1970 address, and the dia­gram you cit­ed. Do you have a copy of the address that you could share with me, or a ref­er­ence for the per­son you got the dia­gram for? We are cur­rent­ly explor­ing in some depth the ‘ice­berg’ metaphor, and how it might be used!

    All the best 


  • Hi Richard

    Thanks for your inquiry!

    I got the ice­berg mod­el from tak­ing an orga­ni­za­tion devel­op­ment course in the 80’s from Wen­dell French at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wash­ing­ton. It’s includ­ed in the Fourth Edi­tion of the book he wrote with Cecil Bell, Orga­ni­za­tion Devel­op­ment: Behav­ioral Sci­ence Inter­ven­tions for Orga­ni­za­tion­al Improve­ment (page 19). The cita­tion on the mod­el is the 1970 address by Stan­ley Her­man — which unfor­tu­nate­ly I do not have. 

    I have used this mod­el hun­dreds of times over the course of my career to illus­trate the nature of orga­ni­za­tion­al cul­ture and appli­ca­tion to the dynam­ics of “undis­cuss­abil­i­ty” artic­u­lat­ed by Chris Argyris. I’d be very inter­est­ed in the paper you men­tioned, Richard — it’s been a main­stay of my work for a very long time. You can reach me on email: dan at unfold­in­g­lead­er­ship dot com.

    Best to you

  • […] Bal­ance. A suc­cess­ful orga­ni­za­tion would real­ize the bal­ance between for­mal and infor­mal “at the water-line” […]

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