Below the Tip of the Iceberg

Published: December 4, 2018

What you can’t see sometimes has the greatest influence. What is visible isn’t always an accurate reflection of the whole picture. Teams go to great lengths to portray a workplace culture where anyone in their right mind would want to work. Add a ping pong table and a meditation room and you might be able to sell a “best place to work” rating. Sometimes, it’s not until you’ve accepted the job that you realize you’ve been oversold. Consider what lies below the tip of the iceberg.

History & Momentum

As they say, culture eats strategy for breakfast. The most deeply rooted workplace problems usually have a long and storied history. The occupants of the roles change from time to time, but the script stays the same. Open office plans can’t hide a culture that shuns collaboration and transparent communication. Any variation of “we’ve always done it this way” is code for “don’t expect this to change.”

Power & Influence

Some teams grant power to people based on status rather than job description or performance. It’s easiest to see in family businesses where influence is anointed rather than earned. A similar dynamic plays out in teams where leadership is christened even when behavior falls outside of organizational values. Taking note of who wields the most influence will reveal everything you want to know about team culture.

Normalization of Deviance

Pain eventually becomes normal. What we tolerate we sanction. Sometimes, it’s easier to endure a problem than to solve it. Over time, the problem becomes a way of life and the frustration it causes becomes the mood of the day. Very few workplaces practice full accountability. Top producers are permitted to be jerks. Low performers stay employed because the HR path is too cumbersome.

Resistance to Change

The two emotions most correlated with change are depletion and excitement. It’s difficult to get from the drain of loss to the fuel of embracing something new. It’s an easy place to get stuck. Every teammate has a trait or two that can catapult them from exhausted to energized. For some, it’s adventurousness. For others, it’s adaptability or resourcefulness. For still others, it’s passion and optimism. Until those traits kick in, the team’s time and resources can get consumed by resistance.

What you see is what you get. Or is it? Humans are fascinating creatures. Crazy things happen when you put them together on a team. This is why it is so difficult to build and sustain a healthy workplace. If you only look at the exchanges occurring in the tip of the iceberg, you can miss the true drivers of the ecosystem.

Photo of Steve Ritter, the co-founder of The Center for Team Excellence

Steve Ritter

Steve Ritter is an internationally recognized expert on team dynamics whose clients include Fortune 500 companies, professional sports teams, and many educational organizations. He is on the faculty of the Center for Professional Excellence at Elmhurst University where he earned the President's Award for Excellence in Teaching. Steve is the former Senior Vice President, Director of Human Resources at Leaders Bank, named the #1 Best Place to Work in Illinois in 2006 and winner of the American Psychological Association's Psychologically Healthy Workplace Award in 2010. Steve provides ongoing workplace culture consultation to many thriving companies including Kraft Foods, Advocate Health Care, Kellogg's, the Chicago White Sox, AthletiCo, and Northwestern Mutual Financial Network.