What is an iceberg model of culture: Navigating the iceberg model of culture in 2024

12 min read
What is an iceberg model of culture: Navigating the iceberg model of culture in 2024
What is an iceberg model of culture: Navigating the iceberg model of culture in 2024

The Iceberg Model of Culture, introduced by anthropologist Edward T. Hall, serves as a compelling framework for comprehending the layers of cultural elements that define a society. At its visible tip reside explicit elements such as language, customs, and rituals, which represent the observable aspects of culture.

However, it is the submerged layers that demand our attention – the implicit beliefs, values, norms, and unspoken communication patterns that operate beneath the surface.

In this blog, we unravel the depths of the Iceberg Model of Culture as we navigate the currents of diversity and intercultural dynamics in the evolving landscape of the 21st century.

What is an iceberg model of culture?

Analogous to an iceberg, it highlights both visible and hidden aspects of culture. The tip of the iceberg represents explicit elements like language, customs, and behaviors, observable on the surface.

However, the submerged portion symbolizes the implicit, encompassing beliefs, values, norms, and unspoken communication patterns that operate beneath the surface. This model emphasizes that while certain aspects of culture are readily apparent, a significant influence stems from the concealed, often subconscious layers.

It serves as a powerful tool for understanding the complexities of human interactions and intercultural dynamics, urging individuals to explore beyond the obvious and appreciate the nuanced layers that contribute to the rich tapestry of global diversity.

What are the layers of the iceberg model of culture?

What are the layers of the iceberg model of culture?
What are the layers of the iceberg model of culture?

The Iceberg Model of Culture is a metaphorical representation that helps to illustrate the various layers of culture, with the visible aspects above the waterline and the hidden aspects below.

1. Surface culture (Above the waterline):

  • Visible Behaviors: These are the observable actions, gestures, rituals, and customs that people engage in on a daily basis. This includes the way people dress, the food they eat, their communication style, and other explicit behaviors.
  • Artifacts: These are tangible elements of a culture that are easily noticeable, such as clothing, architecture, symbols, and technology. Artifacts often reflect the values, beliefs, and customs of a particular culture.
  • Vision: Vision represents the long-term aspirations and goals of an organization within the surface culture. It is a forward-looking statement that articulates the desired future state and the overarching purpose that guides the organization's actions and decisions.
  • Mission: Mission outlines the fundamental purpose and raison d'être of an organization within the surface culture. It defines the organization's scope, its primary objectives, and the ways it aims to contribute to the larger community or industry.
  • Strategy: Strategy encompasses the planned actions and approaches an organization employs to achieve its objectives. It involves the allocation of resources, identification of key priorities, and the overall roadmap for success within the surface culture.
  • Policies: Policies are the explicit guidelines and rules that govern the behavior and decision-making processes within an organization. They provide a framework for consistent and fair practices, contributing to a sense of order and predictability within the surface culture.
  • External presentation: External presentation involves the public-facing image and representation of an organization. This includes branding, marketing, and the overall communication strategy that shapes how the organization is perceived by external stakeholders within the surface culture.
  • Office environment: The office environment is the physical and cultural space where employees work and collaborate. It includes the layout, design, and atmosphere of the workspace, as well as the social dynamics and interactions that occur within the organization's physical boundaries within the surface culture.
  • People: People are the lifeblood of any organization within the surface culture. The individuals who make up the workforce bring diverse skills, perspectives, and experiences to the table.

Surface culture represents what is readily visible to an outsider, but it only scratches the surface of a culture's complexity.

2. Hidden culture (Below the waterline):

  • Values: Values are the underlying beliefs and principles that guide a culture. They define what is considered necessary, worthwhile, and desirable within a society. Values influence people's behaviors and decisions.
  • Beliefs: Beliefs are the accepted truths or convictions that people hold. These can be religious, moral, or philosophical in nature and are deeply ingrained in the culture.
  • Norms: Norms are the unwritten rules that dictate acceptable behavior within a society. They govern how people interact, communicate, and relate to one another. Norms provide a framework for social order.
  • Assumptions: Assumptions are the unconscious, taken-for-granted aspects of culture. They are deeply embedded in the collective mindset and shape the way people perceive the world, others, and themselves.
  • Unwritten rules: Unwritten rules are the subtle guidelines that exist within a culture, often unspoken but widely understood. These rules govern the acceptable ways to navigate various situations, shaping the day-to-day interactions and decisions of individuals within the culture.
  • People's fundamental needs: People's fundamental needs are the universal requirements essential for their well-being and fulfillment. These needs extend beyond the physical and include emotional, psychological, and social aspects.
  • Purpose: Purpose serves as the guiding force that gives meaning to individual and collective endeavors within a culture. It provides a sense of direction, inspiring individuals to contribute to something larger than themselves.
  • Expectations: Expectations are the implicit assumptions and anticipated behaviors within a culture. They shape the standards for performance, communication, and relationships. Managing and aligning expectations contribute to a more harmonious and productive cultural environment.
  • Vision statement: A vision statement articulates the aspirational goals and desired future state of a culture. It serves as a beacon, inspiring individuals to work collectively towards a shared vision. A well-crafted vision statement fosters unity and provides a roadmap for cultural growth and development.
  • Personal space: Personal space is the physical and emotional boundaries individuals establish for themselves within a culture. Respecting personal space is crucial for maintaining healthy relationships and promoting a sense of autonomy among individuals.
  • Trust: Trust is the foundation of any strong culture. It is built on reliability, transparency, and mutual respect. Cultures that prioritize trust create an environment where individuals feel secure, fostering collaboration and innovation.
  • Learning opportunities: Learning opportunities are the pathways for personal and collective growth within a culture. Cultures that embrace continuous learning create an environment where individuals are encouraged to acquire new skills, adapt to change, and contribute to the cultural evolution.
  • Work ethic: Work ethic reflects the values and attitudes individuals bring to their professional endeavors. A strong work ethic contributes to a culture of diligence, responsibility, and excellence, driving collective success and achievement.
  • Core value: Core values are the fundamental principles that define the essence of a culture. They represent the non-negotiable beliefs that guide decision-making and behavior. Cultures that uphold core values foster a sense of identity and purpose among their members.
  • Flexibility: Flexibility is the ability of a culture to adapt and respond to changing circumstances. Cultures that value flexibility embrace innovation, resilience, and creativity, allowing individuals to navigate challenges and seize opportunities in an ever-evolving world.

Understanding the interplay between these visible and invisible layers is crucial for navigating the complexities of cultural interactions and fostering effective cross-cultural communication.

The surface level: Visible culture

The surface level, or visible company culture, in the Iceberg Model refers to the observable and explicit aspects of a society that are readily apparent to external observers. This layer represents the tip of the cultural iceberg, akin to the exposed portion above the waterline, but is only a small part.

Some of its key components include language, which encompasses verbal and written communication distinctive to a culture, providing a tangible means of expression. Customs and traditions manifest as visible rituals, ceremonies, and social practices, offering insights into the shared behaviors of a community.

Additionally, the dress code reflects the attire specific to a particular company's culture, serving as a visual marker of identity.

While these elements provide a glimpse into a culture, the Iceberg Model emphasizes that a more profound understanding requires exploration of the submerged, implicit layers that shape the intricacies of human interactions and societal dynamics.

Beneath the surface: Invisible culture

Beneath the visible part lies the invisible culture, constituting the submerged layers of the Iceberg Model. Unlike the visible aspects, these elements are implicit, shaping the core values and dynamics of a society. This hidden realm includes:

  1. Values: Fundamental beliefs and principles that guide individuals' behavior and decision-making, forming the moral compass of a culture.
  2. Norms: Unwritten rules and expectations governing social behavior, influencing how individuals interact and relate to one another.
  3. Beliefs: Cultural and religious convictions that define the worldview and mindset of a community, often ingrained from generation to generation.
  4. Communication styles: Implicit rules and nuances in how people convey messages, which may include tone, body language, and contextual cues.

Acknowledging and understanding these invisible elements is crucial for effective intercultural communication, as they significantly impact the interpretation and meaning of observable behaviors.

The Iceberg Model underscores that cultural proficiency necessitates exploring and appreciating these concealed dimensions to navigate the complexities of human interaction, deeper culture, and global diversity.

Analyzing the impact of cultural iceberg on organizations

Analyzing the impact of cultural iceberg on organizations
Analyzing the impact of cultural iceberg on organizations

The Cultural Iceberg Model concept has profound implications for organizations operating in today's globalized and diverse business landscape.

At the surface level, observable cultural elements like language, dress code, and rituals may appear straightforward, but the hidden dimensions beneath the surface significantly influence organizational dynamics.

  1. Workplace communication: Understanding implicit communication styles is crucial for effective collaboration. Divergent communication norms may lead to misunderstandings, impacting team cohesion and productivity.
  2. Decision-making and values: Varied cultural values influence decision-making processes. Organizations must recognize and reconcile differences in core values to foster an inclusive and harmonious work environment.
  3. Team dynamics and collaboration: Norms governing teamwork and collaboration can differ across cultures. An awareness of these implicit rules enhances cross-cultural cooperation, preventing potential conflicts.
  4. Leadership styles: Cultural nuances shape leadership expectations and approaches. Organizations benefit from recognizing diverse leadership styles to promote effective management.
  5. Diversity and inclusion: Acknowledging the cultural iceberg is integral to fostering diversity and inclusion. Organizations that embrace cultural differences create a more innovative and adaptable company and workforce.
  6. Global expansion: For companies expanding globally, grasping the iceberg's submerged layers of strong culture is essential. Adapting to diverse cultural landscapes fosters successful market entry and sustained growth.
  7. Organizational change management: Cultural differences play a significant role in how employees perceive and adapt to organizational changes. Understanding the cultural iceberg aids in developing change management strategies ensuring smoother transitions and higher acceptance rates.
  8. Conflict resolution: Cultural misunderstandings can often lead to conflicts within the workplace. Recognizing the underlying cultural factors at play allows organizations to address conflicts more effectively, facilitating resolution and maintaining positive relationships among team members.
  9. Customer relations: Cultural awareness is not only vital for internal operations but also for external interactions with customers and clients. Recognizing and respecting cultural differences can enhance customer satisfaction, improve communication, and strengthen business relationships, ultimately driving long-term success in diverse markets.

The influence of leadership on cultural iceberg

Leadership plays a pivotal role in navigating the complexities of the Cultural Iceberg within organizations. At the visible level, leaders set the tone through explicit communication styles, embodying cultural values, and establishing norms.

However, the profound impact lies in the invisible layers, where leadership styles, beliefs, and unspoken expectations significantly influence organizational culture. Different cultures attribute diverse qualities to effective leadership, and understanding these implicit nuances is essential for leaders to foster inclusivity and collaboration.

Moreover, a leader's ability to adapt their leadership approach to accommodate diverse cultural perspectives is critical. The cultural iceberg underscores the importance of recognizing implicit cultural elements that shape leadership expectations.

By demonstrating cultural intelligence, leaders can bridge gaps, build trust, and create an environment where diverse talents and ideas flourish. In essence, leadership serves as a guiding force that either reinforces or transforms the cultural landscape within an organization, shaping its identity and influencing the collective success of its members.

Leveraging the iceberg model for diversity and inclusion

Leveraging the Iceberg Model for Diversity and Inclusion is a strategic imperative for organizations committed to fostering an inclusive workplace. At the surface level, visible diversity aspects such as ethnicity, gender, and age are apparent, but the true strength lies in acknowledging and embracing the invisible dimensions beneath.

By recognizing implicit cultural elements like values, beliefs, and communication styles of workers, organizations can build a more comprehensive understanding of their workforce.

This awareness becomes the cornerstone for inclusive policies and practices. Leaders equipped with cultural intelligence can create environments that celebrate differences, ensuring that underrepresented perspectives are valued and integrated.

The Iceberg Model prompts organizations to move beyond mere tokenism, fostering an inclusive culture where everyone feels heard and respected.

By leveraging the depth of the iceberg, organizations not only enhance employee engagement but also unlock the innovation and adaptability that a diverse and inclusive workforce inherently brings.

In essence, the Iceberg Model becomes a tool for cultivating a workplace where diversity is not just acknowledged but woven into the fabric of organizational success.

Iceberg model of culture examples

Iceberg model of culture examples
Iceberg model of culture examples

The Iceberg Model of Culture can be found in various aspects of everyday life, for example, illustrating how visible and invisible elements shape cultural dynamics.

1. Language and communication

  • Visible: The choice of language, accents, and non-verbal communication styles.
  • Invisible: Implicit communication norms, such as the level of formality, indirectness, or reliance on other words and non-verbal cues, which greatly impact interpersonal interactions.

2. Workplace behavior

  • Visible: Office attire, punctuality, and observable team rituals.
  • Invisible: Unspoken rules governing hierarchy, decision-making, and professional relationships that are deeply embedded in the organizational culture.

3. Ceremonies and traditions

  • Visible: Cultural ceremonies, festivals, and public celebrations.
  • Invisible: The underlying values, beliefs, and historical significance attached to these traditions influence social cohesion and identity.

4. Management styles

  • Visible: Leadership behaviors, communication with employees, and organizational structure.
  • Invisible: Implicit leadership expectations, attitudes towards authority, and cultural nuances that shape management approaches.

5. Cultural artifacts

  • Visible: Art, literature, music, and other tangible expressions of culture.
  • Invisible: The deeper meanings, symbols, and values embedded in cultural artifacts reflect the collective identity and historical context of a society.

6. Family dynamics

  • Visible: Family structures, roles, and rituals.
  • Invisible: Implicit rules governing familial relationships, expectations, and values that guide interpersonal interactions within the family unit.

7. Educational systems

  • Visible: School uniforms, teaching methods, and academic curriculum.
  • Invisible: Emphasis on hierarchy within educational institutions, and the values instilled through schooling, influencing students' behavior and perspectives.

8. Food and dining etiquette

  • Visible: Cuisine diversity, table manners, and dining customs.
  • Invisible: Significance attached to specific foods, mealtime rituals, and the social hierarchy reflected in dining etiquette, shaping social interactions and bonding within communities.

9. Religious psractices

  • Visible: Religious symbols, rituals, and places of worship.
  • Invisible: The deeply ingrained beliefs, moral codes, and spiritual values guiding religious practices, influencing individual behavior, community cohesion, and societal norms.

Questions to ask employees in the iceberg model of culture

Employees are standing next to a huge question mark symbol
Questions to ask employees in the iceberg model of culture

Here’s how you can explore cultural dynamics with your team:


  1. What languages do team members speak fluently, and how does language proficiency impact communication within the team?
  2. Are there any cultural nuances in communication styles, such as directness, indirectness, or the use of nonverbal cues?
  3. How do team members navigate language barriers or differences in communication preferences during collaboration?

Cultural practices

  1. What observable cultural practices or rituals do team members engage in, and what significance do these hold in their respective cultures?
  2. How do team members perceive differences in workplace attire, and are there any cultural expectations or norms regarding dress code?
  3. Are there any visible symbols or artifacts in the workplace that represent different cultural backgrounds, and how do these influence the work environment?

Values alignment in diversity

  1. What implicit norms or values influence decision-making processes, leadership styles, and professional interactions within the team?
  2. How do team members navigate cultural differences in hierarchical structures, power dynamics, and conflict resolution approaches?
  3. What strategies can be implemented to leverage cultural diversity as a source of innovation, creativity, and collaboration within the team?

Implications and solutions

  1. How does cultural diversity impact team dynamics, communication effectiveness, and decision-making processes?
  2. What challenges or opportunities arise from working in multicultural teams, and how can these be addressed through training, education, or cultural competency programs?
  3. What steps can be taken to foster a more inclusive and culturally competent work environment, where all team members feel valued and respected?


In navigating the Iceberg Model of Culture, we unveil the profound layers that shape our world. From invisible aspects to visible customs to invisible values, this model serves as a compass for understanding diversity.

Embracing both the seen and unseen fosters inclusive environments, empowering individuals and organizations to thrive in the rich tapestry of global interconnectedness.


1. How can organizations leverage the culture iceberg model to foster inclusivity?

Organizations can leverage the culture iceberg model by recognizing visible cultural elements like language and rituals, then delving deeper into underlying values and beliefs. By understanding these deeper layers, they can promote inclusivity by respecting diverse perspectives and fostering a sense of belonging among employees from various cultural backgrounds.

2. What are some practical applications of the culture iceberg model?

Practical applications of the culture iceberg model include developing cross-cultural communication strategies, designing inclusive policies, and conducting diversity training. By addressing both visible and hidden cultural aspects, organizations can create environments where employees feel valued, respected, and able to contribute effectively regardless of their cultural backgrounds.

3. How does the culture iceberg model apply to multinational corporations operating in diverse cultural contexts?

The culture iceberg model is crucial for multinational corporations navigating diverse cultural contexts. By understanding surface-level differences like language and customs alongside deeper cultural dimensions such as values and worldview, companies can adapt their strategies, communication, and operations to effectively engage with diverse stakeholders, mitigate misunderstandings, and build strong, inclusive global teams.

4. How can leaders effectively address hidden cultural biases within their teams using the culture iceberg model?

Leaders can address hidden cultural biases by fostering open dialogue and promoting cultural awareness. Using the culture iceberg model, they can encourage team members to explore deeper cultural dimensions beyond surface-level behaviors. Implementing diversity training, mentorship programs, and inclusive policies helps mitigate biases and promotes understanding and respect among team members.

5. What are some common challenges organizations face when implementing the culture iceberg model to promote diversity and inclusion?

Common challenges in implementing the culture iceberg model include resistance to change, lack of awareness about cultural nuances, and difficulty in integrating diverse perspectives. Additionally, organizational culture clashes, inadequate resources for training, and ineffective communication strategies can hinder successful implementation. Overcoming these challenges requires commitment from leadership, ongoing education, and creating a supportive environment for diversity and inclusion initiatives.



Santhosh is a Jr. Product Marketer with 2+ years of experience. He loves to travel solo (though he doesn’t label them as vacations, they are) to explore, meet people, and learn new stories.