by Phil Wilson

The Iceberg of Ignorance

In the last month we’ve had the opportunity to conduct a number of assessment projects. This is some of the most rewarding work we do. It is truly Left of Boom work where a client proactively tries to identify employee relations molehills before they turn into mountains.

These projects usually include interviews with frontline leaders and focus group meetings with employees. Clients are often surprised to learn that we never bring up unions in these interviews or meetings. Why? Because the topic of unions is completely irrelevant (and even distracting) to a company focused on creating a positive work environment.

The vast majority of our time on these projects is spent talking to the two foundational levels of the organization – frontline employees and their immediate supervisors. That’s because these are the folks who know best what’s actually happening on the ground. They can state clearly whether the strategy of the company is actually translating to the day-to-day experience of employees or customers.

I ran across an interesting LinkedIn article that highlights a study explaining why this approach works. The 1989 study by Sydney Yoshida focused on a Japanese car maker, but it resonates with our experience in workplaces of all shapes and sizes. Yoshida researched who knows the most about what’s happening in an organization and relayed what he called “The Iceberg of Ignorance.” You won’t be surprised at all about the overall results – frontline employees and their supervisors know far more about what’s going on than levels of management above them. What may be a surprise is the vast difference from the top to the bottom. Here is a diagram:

The study reveals that 96% of problems known to the organization are unknown to top leaders. Even at the level of team managers, 91% of problems are unknown. That’s a major problem. It is very unlikely that top leaders will take any action to solve a problem they don’t know exists. And because the gap is so large, it is also very likely that they’ll make changes that can create more problems (on top of the ones they didn’t know about before).

Acting based on this poor understanding of the situation means that any employee relations successes are most likely dumb luck. And dumb luck isn’t a great employee relations strategy.

There are myriad reasons for this huge knowledge gap. In the worst cases it can be that higher level leaders just don’t care to know about the problems. That’s not been my experience. More often the case is that top leaders are focused on higher level problems. Ironically, these problems are often equally unknown to the lower levels of the organization. These leaders don’t take (or have) time to get to the frontline and learn how their decisions impact how the work is actually getting done.

At the same time employees on the frontline don’t understand why they are being asked to change the way they work. To them these decisions often look dumb (to be fair, sometimes they are). They resist, especially when they feel the decisions were made with no input from the people closest to the work.

The Iceberg of Ignorance is a problem in every area of an organization, but it’s especially prevalent on the employee relations side of the house. The good news is there is one simple (although not easy) answer: leader approachability. And you don’t even have to hire consultants to do it. Here are three quick tips for your organization:

ONE:  Think about the “structural approachability” of your organization, especially at the mid-level manager level (where known problems drop from 26% unknown to 91% unknown). What can you do to make sure mid-level managers have the time and space to talk to frontline employees and their immediate leaders about what’s happening in the organization? Create “skip-step” opportunities (birthday or anniversary lunches, focus groups, or fireside chats are great options). Most organizations operate very lean and put a lot of time pressure on mid-level managers. The less time you give these managers to understand what’s happening in the organization, the larger your Iceberg of Ignorance grows - it’s a choice.

TWO:  Make sure all leaders focus on their own personal approachability. Talk about approachability as a part of your leadership culture. Make sure leaders can describe exactly what it means for them to be approachable and how they do it. Ask employees whether they believe their leaders are approachable. And look for signs of it (do people actually approach their leaders with suggestions, ideas, or complaints). Consider the three core components of leader approachability (openness or right space, understanding or right feeling, and support or right action). Are we doing the best we can in those three areas?

THREE:  Run to the smoke. Whenever a leader senses there is a problem or concern they should go out of their way to find out what’s happening and do their best to drive that issue to a solution. They must go looking for problems and not just wait for them to show up on their doorstep. When we teach this to leaders in our workshops we tell them they should be a “heat seeking missile for frustration.” They need to look for things that create daily frustrations for their team; ask the question “what would make this better,” and then act.

I hope you will do something this month to tackle the Iceberg of Ignorance in your own organization. It’s well worth the effort.