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.