Why workplace culture is like an iceberg

I’ve had many conversations around workplace culture that go something like this:

Me: “So tell me how you would describe the business’s culture.”

Business: “Well it’s just really fun, you know! Like we have meals, and really good snacks and we do little team activities together every now and then.”

Here’s the thing. I’m not anti perks, perks are fun! Whenever one of my tech friends (and let’s be honest it is usually this crew) invites me to their office for lunch or happy hour I gladly say yes.

But perks aren’t culture.

Workplace culture is actually a lot like an iceberg.

Do you remember learning in school that only 10% of an iceberg is visible? 10%! Most of it is underwater.

I think workplace culture is a lot like this. What we see is a very small percentage of the whole picture and what people tend to focus on first is the part everyone can see — so we get perks, we get fun but we don’t get substance and highly developed culture.

It’s easy to look at that 10% (cool office, kombucha on tap!) and assume you will get equally cool benefits and awesome management but Glassdoor reviews and side conversations often tell us the two are not actually related.

Employee retention and engagement is unrelated to perks. Great culture doesn’t cost a dime, but it does take work. You can’t buy it, which might be why it is hard to find truly great ones.

In 1968, a psychologist named Frederick Herzberg released a publication entitled: One More Time: How do You Motivate Employees? Within a decade it sold 1.2 million reprints and became the most requested article in the Harvard Business Review.

Updated for the modern workplace, Herzberg’s “Two Factor Theory” presents a simple framework for diagnosing the strengths and weaknesses of a workplace culture. As he said in 1968, “Forget praise, forget punishment, forget cash.” We’d add, forget perks too.

The best workplace cultures provide employees with four key benefits.

Meaning — What you are working on matters.

Care — The company cares about you as an individual.

Growth — You are becoming what you aspire to be.

Say — Your voice matters in the workplace.

(Pro tip: If you lead people — write those four things down and post it on something you will see EVERY day.)

Once a company’s performance in these areas is seen clearly, leadership can get far more specific in its efforts to learn how to build a great culture and thereby a great company. Best of all, companies of all sizes can learn to deliver these key cultural benefits without without spending much (if any) money.

Just ask BIGGBY COFFEE, one of the nation’s three largest specialty coffee franchises.

Over the past three years they’ve transformed their culture from toxic to good enough to be on the cover of the current issue of Conscious Company Magazine.

Yes, they spent some money with us learning how to build and lead this kind of culture, and they also chose to increase their overall wage structure, but the money they have spent on “perks” did not change significantly, nor did the kinds of perks they offered. What did change?

You guessed it!

Meaning — What you are working on matters.

Care — The company cares about you as an individual.

Growth — You are becoming what you aspire to be.

Say — Your voice matters in the workplace.

Read the article detailing what happened at BIGGBY COFFEE here (it’s a great story!)

So you can have snacks and you can invite your friends over for lunch, but your friends are going to be a lot more excited for you if they hear you talking about how your opinion matters on your team and you feel invested in what you do, not that you can get them a free salad.


-Nathan Havey and Jessica Blackstock

This article originally appeared in the Thrive Journal on May 20, 2018.