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Company culture: the iceberg effect

Company culture is like PR – it’s something you have whether you plan it or not.

And for many organizations, it’s unspoken and implicit. I’ve seen this in my work on manufacturing and construction sites and on farms. For example, on one site, people will walk past a faulty environmental control while staff on another will call the environmental team or simply fix it themselves. How much harder will it be for an individual to break with the group dynamic in the former case and fix or point out the fault in time to prevent a polluting spill?

Ed Schein shows organizational culture as an iceberg – artifacts like buildings and logos are at the very tip, and the rest of the bit above the waterline is made up of the organization’s espoused values – the things people say in their environmental policies, for example, or on their website and in promotional materials.

But the 80% below the waterline is like the unconscious mind – here lurk the organization’s basic underlying assumptions or values that may only be guessed at by observing people’s everyday actions – the things that send an unspoken signal, “This is how things are done round here.”

So the likelihood of environmental incidents reflects the environmental culture of the organization, because it influences what individual employees actually do.

I’ve become increasingly aware of and truly astounded by the influence of such apparently subtle things like culture and leadership – and have observed companies turn themselves around by simply deciding they have to improve the way they work.

Creating a positive culture is an essential aspect of effective management in any workplace. In the same way, a strong environmental culture means the values and priorities placed on all aspects of the environment are observed by everyone at every level of the organization, aligning everyone’s actions towards a common goal. Conversely, if the day-to-day behavior of directors, managers, supervisors and staff does not support good practice, the environmental culture will be weak even where the company has good structural and procedural controls.

Based on his observations of the medical profession, surgeon Atul Gawande says many of the big improvements come not from big technical breakthroughs but from changes to the way things are done. He says doing better requires the ability to recognize ‘better’ when you find it, and for this you need to ‘count things’ – in other words, paperwork is important.

Good documentation allows us to track relations between symptoms and diagnosis, treatment and outcome, says Gawande (and yes, we can do this for the environment), without relying on memory, anecdote and prejudice.

I’m grateful to my friend and colleague Dr Lesley Stone for enlightening me about Ed Schein’s iceberg model as part of the training she and our late colleague Greg Brown gave me and others on the Target Zero team. We all worked together for three years on a major waste avoidance/resource efficiency project and continued this work in different forms for many years. Lesley is now the Sustainability Adviser for Auckland University.