Below the Tip of the Iceberg

Have you ever seen an iceberg?  I haven’t – but with pictures to help explain it, I learned from childhood that what you see above the sea is only about a tenth of what is often an enormous structure. Beneath the water is a mass of ice spreading far wider and deeper than you would ever guess from its visible tip.

In 1970, Stanley Herman of the US Company TWR Systems, used the picture of an iceberg to draw attention to the factors that influence how we get things done in many of society’s organisations – from families and small working groups to the largest public or commercial institutions.(1,2)  He called it the ‘Cultural Iceberg’.  Since then many have acknowledged the realities of Herman’s model and their importance in the working pattern of groups trying to advance their aspirations.2

The visible tip of the cultural iceberg represents the way we say we get things done. Included here are the obvious, formal aspects of our working group: the goals and objectives of our organisation; its structure; the policies, rules, and procedures by which it operates; the stated products or services it provides; the technology (particularly the information technology) that underpins its systems, and – of course – the material and financial resources without which the work could not go forward. All these are seen not only as the key ingredients for success, but as the only considerations necessary for the group’s work to thrive.

The larger, invisible mass of the iceberg represents the way we really get things done. This is not to deny a useful role for everything above the water-line, but here, hidden well below, lie the informal forces that shape what actually happens in practice, for good or bad. These forces are people’s perceptions and beliefs about the work in hand, and their attitudes toward it, and to others in the group; the informal interactions and communication between co-workers; and the emotive feelings prompted within the working community by colleagues and the formal systems of management. A further key dimension of this underwater world centres on values. What do individual members of the group really value most? – the group’s achievement of its vision whatever the personal cost; maximising individual reward and recognition; respect for all, with forgiveness and reconciliation where necessary; promotion; power, image…?  In these are the strongest determinants of both the experience and effect of a working group.

But an iceberg is a single entity. The formal and informal aspects of our organisations and groups must connect and balance: order with spontaneity, policy with good judgement, well-defined goals with passions, strategic plans with a powerful sense of belonging – head and heart working together.(3) The head is obvious, shouting for attention and masquerading as THE answer to great achievement, but…

On 15 April 1912, the largest and strongest ship in the world sank on its maiden voyage across the Atlantic. Over 1500 passengers died. The tip of the iceberg was spotted by the crew of the Titanic, but it was the hard ice underthe water-line that ripped a fatal tear in the ship’s hull.

Take good note of what’s below the tip of the iceberg.                                                                

Professor Richard Vincent

August 2012


1. Stanley N Herman. TRW Systems Group, in Wendell L French and Cecil H Bell, Jr. Organisational Development: Behavioural Science Interventions for Organisational Improvement, 2nd Ed, p16, 1978

2. Stanley Herman’s illustration of his iceberg model can be found at:

3. Dan Oesreich. Unfolding Leadership.


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