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Iceberg Metaphor

is a metaphor or analogy to describe the different elements of a company’s culture from the visible and explicit to the hidden and unseen. While an iceberg is a common analogy used by many including the Peace Corps to teach cultures to teachers, by career coaches to understand how our unconscious mind works, and more – it’s used in HR in a few different ways (including D&I), but mostly to better understand the different elements of a company’s culture.

iceberg analogy in hr

There are three very distinct stages or phases with this analogy, which include:

Above the waterline: Is the explicit, highly-visible, and taught elements of a company’s culture. This can be the outlined and shared vision, mission, company values.

At the waterline: Are the elements which transition from visible and articulated to unseen. These include transitions from the top of the iceberg down where taught and visible elements are or are not carried out by the team. They also work from the bottom of the iceberg up – where elements which are not discussed are newly brought into culture consciousness and are discussed.

Below the waterline: Are the hidden and unseen cultural elements. These are often experienced but are not, and cannot be articulated. A common example would be attending meetings. Are people early, on time, or a few minutes late. Do they begin with explicitly building rapport by using the color grids to describe their current emotional states, or in a more casual way by discussing their recent weekend? Does someone always take notes, or sometimes, and how does everyone know which one it will be – or who it will be to take notes? Does a meeting include humor, brief interruptions, or sidebars – and does everyone get a chance to speak? How does someone know when to use the white erase board or not? These are generally items which vary greatly from company to company and are learned through osmosis.


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