Overcoming the Iceberg of Ignorance

We hear a lot about the ‘Iceberg of Ignorance’, where those at the top of the organisational pyramid have little idea about what’s really going on among their staff at the lower levels —about how they feel and how they behave with each other as a result of how engaged they are.

It’s why the programme Undercover Boss was created, where CEOs disguise themselves and pretend to be taking on trainee positions in different parts of their companies so they can get a feel for the real situation on the ground. They then return to their corner offices and fix what otherwise they wouldn’t have known needed fixing.

Among my consulting assignments, I have worked with organisations where the CEOs were indeed aware that there were issues within their icebergs. Recent changes had resulted in staff leaving and new ones arriving, including at the leadership level, and some of what the new leadership had introduced had led to a certain amount of holding back, among at least some of the staff.

So we were brought in to create a safe space within which the staff would feel free to open up and reveal what they would like to see more of and less of while accepting that they too would need to adapt in certain ways.

At this early stage, such thoughtful souls at the peak of organisations who realise their places can do with some opening up may share more with us consultants than with their own people, as they want the change to emerge more naturally, more from the bottom up and not driven by them.

They will hint at what they would like to see but not lay their thoughts out too explicitly, focusing on initiating the retreat at which staff will hopefully interact freely with one another and with them, facilitated by us.

We start such events by getting the participants to feel relaxed, including through enjoyable outdoor activities. For it is this that will see them open up, contributing what they are really feeling rather than just what they think others—not least their superiors—would like to hear. Our challenge as facilitators is to help them now articulate what they had not felt comfortable doing back in the workplace, for fear that it would not be taken positively.

It does not happen instantly, by magic, but gradually, as the zone of psychological safety expands. If it’s a two-day event so much the better, as this offers more time for the melting of timidity. We nudge, we tickle, we nurture, in larger and smaller groups and at the individual level, encouraging the participants to reveal what they had been holding back.

Some relax sooner and more than others, and they then influence their tighter colleagues to also open up.

For us it’s a joy to see the iceberg melting and to feel good for the leadership that what they wanted to have revealed and tackled is emerging. Very importantly, this can only be the launch of a journey, and let no one imagine that at the end of a couple of days of interacting, however effectively, one can put a tick in the culture-change box.

For sure this can only act as the launch of a journey, and before the end of the event the way ahead must be fully defined and owned: the overarching purpose above all, and the who-must-do-what-by-when. Then the momentum must be maintained, which too often it is not. It’s so easy, as people “get busy” on returning to their workplaces, and for whatever impact was made at the retreat to fade.

Certainly at the top, but by no means just at the top, people must hold each other accountable for following through on the consequences of the retreat, celebrating when this happens and drawing attention to when what had been agreed would stop happening re-emerges as the default position.

The progress along the change management journey must be tracked as a standing agenda item at management—and also board—meetings, and after around 90 days there should be a regathering of the participants to review what’s worked well, where challenges still exist and how to tackle them.

I hope I have made you adequately anxious about the iceberg of ignorance, and stimulated you put on your deep diving kit so as to explore what you didn’t know that you didn’t know.