One of the key elements often talked about with employee engagement is the need to create a company culture, usually focussed on ideas and innovation.

But what exactly is a ‘company culture’, and is it different from the multiple cultures we see in our everyday lives?

There probably isn’t such a thing as a single company culture. You may be able to define the fundamental elements, but these will naturally evolve multiple facets as changes happen in your business. It can be easy to assume that even if all employees share a company culture, they share the same viewpoints, attitudes and concepts. However, this is a very simplistic viewpoint, the equivalent of just looking at the tip of the iceberg.

Understanding the depth of culture is a problem shared by almost all professions, including professional fiction writers! In a neat illustration of how culture runs deep, the Writer’s Circle ‘Cultural Iceberg’ graphic shows how writers can too easily resort to ‘travel guidebook’ stereotypes, focussing on the obvious elements of national character such as the food they eat, the language they speak, or the national dances and music.

However, we all know that not every Italian male paddles a gondola, while eating pizza, drinking prosecco, and singing “O sole mio” to any passing pretty girl. The same could be said of employees; they will not necessarily talk about the company culture in the same way, and their way of expressing it through their work will not be the same across the room, let alone across departments.

The Cultural Iceberg diagram shows how culture is as much a matter of expression as defining elements. The diagram features five different areas of culture that authors (and managers) need to consider.

  • Communication styles and rules
  • Notions of acceptable behaviour
  • Concepts of fairness, timescales, family roles
  • Attitudes towards authority and moral issues
  • Approaches to major live events and decision-making

Any business owner who has done business abroad will be very aware of the differences in communication styles, from the etiquette of personal space to the nuances of polite conversation. Equally, they will be aware of the differences in attitudes to courtesy and manners, and will know to avoid any contentious discussions around politics. In the workplace, such cultural differences may not be so apparent, but an homogenised viewpoint should never be assumed to exist.

Online employee networks

One of the reasons this diagram came to our attention is that it came from an organisation devoted to the written word. With the rise of online employee networks, much of the employee ’conversations’ will in fact be written exchanges, with all the potential for misinterpretations and misunderstandings this involves. You only have to look at public social media to see how a single comment can be taken the wrong way, and how irony soooo doesn’t work onscreen.

Perhaps by considering the ‘hidden’ elements of the Cultural iceberg before typing, we can help ourselves and our employees have better, clearer online conversations. For example, will a jokey remark work in cold, clear type without the accompanying smile and relaxed body language that informs the listener “I’m being playful”? Probably not (even with an emoticon). However, take that remark into the real world of face to face contact, and it will probably be both acceptable and humourous.

The Cultural Iceberg can remind us not to take reactions or assumptions for granted. While some discussion topics may never crop up in a working scenario, such as death, sin, cleanliness or religion, assuming that all your employees hold the same views on these would be foolish. Equally, trying to nail down a ‘company line’ on all the topics shown would both be stifling and ultimately counter-productive.

It will always be a fine balance between creating and keeping a cohesive company culture and being too over-prescriptive, but by keeping our eyes, ears and senses open, we as managers can ensure that our employee engagement approaches recognises and embraces the shifting nature of cultural differences, rather than focussing on specifics.

And if we ever choose to write a fictional novel or screenplay, our characters will be credible, believable and (hopefully) best-selling!