Understanding the Culture of a Company, Part 1: Surface Culture

A company’s culture goes far beyond what we see on the outside. In this article, I’ll be examining what culture is, how it matters in achieving goals, and which aspects we can see on the “surface.”

Here’s an example. You walk into Grocery Store A, where you see a colorful display of fruits and vegetables. In the background, you hear pleasant music. A friendly associate smiles and asks, “How can I help you?” During the visit, you find exactly what you were looking for and feel welcomed at every turn. The check-out process is a breeze, and you leave feeling refreshed.

At Grocery Store B, it’s a different story. There’s only one shopping cart, which another shopper grabs just before you can get to it. The staff is rude and ignores you. Displays are askew. You discover that the store has run out of everything on your list. As you head to the check-out area, you hear the customer ahead of you arguing with the clerk. Once you finally get through the line, the frazzled associate barely looks at you. She tells no one in particular: “I can’t wait to finish my shift. Just two more lousy hours.”

What’s the difference between these two shopping experiences? Store A is visually appealing, well laid out, and the staff is friendly. Store B is messy, disorganized, and everyone is impatient and rude.

But beyond the surface appearance, there’s a fundamental difference. What is it?

The answer is culture. Both stores operate with an underlying belief system, values, and actions that are either directly or indirectly encouraged by the owners. One is building relationships with customers, providing products and services that meet their needs, and creating a seamless shopping experience. The other is on a fast track to disaster.

What is Culture?

Here’s how I define Company Culture:

Defined expectations of behavior, words, symbols, habits, values, and beliefs that directly impact an organization’s work environment, vision & mission, ethical practices, objectives, and performance standards.”

Culture is the “secret sauce” that makes a company succeed. It is based on the belief system of its founders, which includes:

  • What they value,
  • how they reward staff,
  • what they do for fun, and
  • the structure (or lack of structure) they create.

I recently saw a graphic about culture that was created by a music teacher named Janine (Janine’s Music Room). It shows an iceberg, with the top half labeled the “Easy to See” aspects of culture, such as Language, Dress, Folklore, Food, and Holidays.

Beneath the surface are “Difficult to See” parts of culture, such as Family Roles, Gender Roles, Core Values, Manners, and Work Ethic.

culture, culture iceberg, cultural iceberg, internal culture, surface culture, deeper culture, risk management, management, business ownership
Culture Iceberg by Janine’s Music Room

I thought, “This is really interesting; but how can we apply it to the business world?”

Upon further research, I found another great image by Stuart Sinclair. It added some insights. The top of the iceberg represents “Surface Culture,” and the bottom is labeled “Deep Culture.” On the surface, there are Food, Flags, Festivals, Language, and Literature. Beneath the surface, we find things like

  • Communication Styles and Rules,
  • Notions of Courtesy and Manners,
  • Concepts of Self, Time, and Fairness
  • Attitudes toward Dependents, Rules, and Expectations.
culture, culture iceberg, cultural iceberg, internal culture, surface culture, deeper culture, risk management, management, business ownership
The Cultural Iceberg by Stuart Sinclair

But it still didn’t answer my question.

So I decided to do a bit more research and created my own version, the “Company Culture Iceberg.” This concept was first developed by Edward T. Hall in his book “Beyond Culture” (1976) and by Gary R. Weaver in “Understanding and Coping with Cross-cultural Adjustment Stress” (1986).

Here’s my take on the culture iceberg:

company culture, culture, culture iceberg, corporate culture, internal culture, surface culture, deeper culture, risk management, management, business ownership
Company Culture Iceberg by Grace LaConte

Let’s talk about what’s happening in the aspects that are visible.

Surface Culture

All we can see of most companies is limited: initial impressions from what we see (the website, how people dress, what the office looks like), what we hear (the sayings and language), and what we feel (how the words resonate, what we sense emotionally, whether the experience is pleasant or not).

These are all “signals” of how the company operates, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.

You may have already experienced this when starting a new job. You’ve done research about your new employer, went through several interviews, met the staff and management team, and started orientation with a certain set of expectations about how things will go. But once inside, things may not be as they appear. You’ll start to notice quirks and rules that nobody told you about.

That’s because every company has hidden cultural values and beliefs that aren’t easy to see. The surface elements don’t tell us the whole story. Just observing the surface cultural elements can’t tell us WHY a company does certain things… like

  • using pogo sticks in the parking lot,
  • throwing an office toga party, or
  • creating an “away room” with hammocks in the common area.

As fun as these types of fun events sound, there’s always a belief system behind it. Perhaps you’re thinking, “Heck, no. I would never do something like that at my company.” That’s totally fine.

The action, words, and symbols to incorporate in the company culture are those which:

Sometimes, it is difficult to understand the beliefs behind these culture decisions. Why do some companies seem to have constant parties, while others are all-business-all-the-time?

We can find the answer by understanding the mindset of the owner, founder, and/or top leaders. Most of the time, our underlying beliefs are subconscious. The business owners I talk to don’t specifically create a company culture; it just “happens.”

In order to avoid bad outcomes in the future, you can examine how your company’s culture appears right now, especially to stakeholders (customers, staff, and anyone with a vested interest in your company’s success). Visible aspects of a company culture serve a very important purpose: They provide clues about what the owner believes is important, and how she or he chooses to run the business.

Read more: 5 Painful Discussions That No Organization Should Ignore

This process is even more effective if you use a series of feedback loops to recognize actions, words, and attitudes that are not getting the results you want.

I have discovered several types of culture that are obvious on the surface of any company. Let’s examine each in detail.

12 Types of Surface Culture

1. Logo

A logo is a simple icon that represents your company visually. There are many ways that logo design can go wrong, which is why it’s best to hire a professional graphic artist (or at least listen to feedback from your trusted stakeholders first).

Check out this article by SEO expert Saijo George for before & after examples of logo designs.

2. Symbols

The style and “feel” of your company are dependent on a variety of design choices—or lack of choices—as well as the repeated elements that tie everything together.

Consider the symbols you use to communicate with customers. If you have a physical office, everything should have a consistent theme: paint colors, décor, fabrics, and wall art. Consider the size, color, and weight of your envelope and paper. Make sure all materials have a consistent look with the logo, motto, and font in harmony with each other. I recommend reading The Non-Designer’s Design Book by author Robin Williams to learn about the elements of good design.

Regardless of your physical location, you should have a strong online presence. I tell my clients to only think about social media platforms that are used by your target customers. Every company should also have a website that gives a very clear message, has repeated design elements, and provides a call to action.

Read more: 5 Reasons to Share a “Year In Review” of Your Business

3. Sayings & slogans

What verbal cues are you using to communicate your brand promise?

Examples include common phrases at the end of a staff meeting, a repeated message to customers, and “inside jokes” based on an event you all shared.

4. Dress & appearance

  • How do you and your staff appear visually?
  • Is there a uniform or color theme that represents your company?
  • What overall concept do you expect everyone to follow?

More companies are loosening their dress code to accommodate casual clothing like jeans and T-shirts. But this decision ultimately comes down to the image that you, as the owner, want to portray.

5. Building façade

  • How does your office space, parking lot, entryway, and interior look to a visitor?
  • How do these spaces make people feel?
  • Have you put off the upkeep and maintenance for too long?

Peeling paint, frayed carpet, stains, dust, rust, and mildew are all easy fixes.

Frequent attention to detail can make a huge difference to potential customers; the ones who are turned off will probably never tell you why.

6. Office layout

The design of any space affects how people interact, whether or not they see each other, how comfortably they can work, and how happy they feel. In fact, aesthetics is extremely important to us psychologically. What we see, hear, and feel at work makes a big difference on employee engagement.

  • What is the interior design of your workplace?
  • How does movement flow? Are certain areas overcrowded or under-utilized?
  • Have you considered the proximity between various departments? Does the layout make sense?
  • Are there any limitations that could restrict mobility? Is your office layout in compliance with your country’s Disabilities Act?
  • Does the space and equipment provide good ergonomic support? Do some tasks put you or your staff at risk for injury or falls?
  • What partitions or separations exist?
  • Is there a logical flow, plenty of natural light, and appropriate use of color?

7. Language

Language is a means to deliver a message with shared meaning. The way we communicate with others is a crucial aspect of company culture.

Since we have a limited set of words, sounds, symbols, and gestures to convey meaning, it’s essential that we present information as clearly as possible, and using the most learning styles (Visual, Auditory, Read/Write, and Kinesthetic).

Consider these aspects of communicating through language:

  • Behavior: formal or casual?
  • Delivery: direct or indirect?
  • Manners: polite or crude?
  • Word choice: squeaky clean, or is swearing allowed?

8. Speaking tone and volume

I’m a bit of a linguistics nerd (it was my first major in college). The way we speak makes a huge impression on others, especially if they’re auditory learners (see #7).

Tone: The variation of pitch (for example, “monotone” is one long sound after another; “Valley Girl” ends every phrase in a question; “rollercoaster” has exaggerated highs and lows in a single sentence).

Volume: The amplitude or loudness of the sound (“whisper vs. yelling” or the difference between a loud voice that is “booming” or “popping”).

Pitch: The frequency of a sound. A bass sound is warm and powerful, midrange has energy and high pitch can provide “presence” and clarity. (example: “baritone vs. soprano”)

Timbre: The quality of a sound (such as “nasal, robotic, scratchy, or clear”)

Harmonics: The pleasantness or unpleasantness of a sound (a “radio voice” vs. a “lullaby voice” vs. a “squeaky wheel”)

Frequency: How often certain sounds are made, and in what order (like a repeated “uh…” or “like…”)

Rate: The number of words spoken per minute (fast, slow, or just right?) An ideal speech rate is 140-160 words per minute. For ideas on improving your speaking rate, read this article.)

Rhythm: Recurring and alternating sound from strong to weak (such as “syncopated, lulling, marching, or random”)

Diction: Clarity of pronouncing one’s words; enunciation. (“Wull meet agun tomorruh, same tum.” Vs. “We will meet again tomorrow, at the same time.”) English speakers (especially Americans) tend to overuse the schwa (upside-down e ), which sounds like “uh” (/ŭ/ or /ǐ/). The schwa is the most common sound in the American English language… although that is not exactly something to be proud of.

Dialect: A variety of language based on geography (regional dialect), nation or subgroup (ethnic dialect), social background (class dialect) or occupation (occupational dialect).


  • How does your voice sound to others?
  • Can they understand your speech pattern and dialect?
  • Is it possible that your speech volume (or lack of volume), squeaky pitch, or machine-gun firing of words are causing others frustration?

One way to find out is by recording your voice while speaking in a variety of settings, then playing it back to yourself. It’s amazing how different our voice sounds when we hear it recorded, rather than spoken aloud.

With a bit of practice, you can retrain yourself to sound more animated, less monotone, improve your diction, or remove an accent.

9. Spelling and grammar

  • Is your written content full of spelling errors?
  • What kind of grammar are you presenting: polished, or rough around the edges?
  • Didja cut a few corners to get yer audience’s attention?

Think about how your words are coming across to others. If that effect matches your desired company look and feel, then go for it. If not, it may be time to make some adjustments.

10. Phone greeting

Your personal contact, website content, and printed materials are important. But apart from these, a customer’s main impression of your business is by how you answer the phone. The office greeting can reveal a lot about how your business operates.

  • Is every call answered promptly, professionally, and patiently? Or is it answered in a rushed, annoyed way?
  • What is the tone of your voice? Is the volume, pitch, rate, and rhythm pleasant to hear? Are you using poor diction or speaking in a dialect?
  • Do you answer each call the same way?
  • Are you moving every caller into the “next step” (actionable ways to continue the buying process)?

11. First impressions

As the saying goes, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” Your company’s culture is being presented by how a customer first finds you, how they contact you, and what happens when they express an interest in your services or products.

  • What do potential customers see, hear, smell, and experience on initial contact with your business?
  • How do they feel they are treated? (Not just your perception, but what they say)
  • What is their “takeaway” after the first visit? If they had to summarize it, what 3 words would they use?
  • Which emotions, sensations, and reactions do they feel?
  • How does this affect their buying process?

12. Communication style

Language is a spoken form of communication, but there are many non-verbal forms that tell everyone what your company finds important. Here are some examples of non-verbal communication styles:

  • Facial expressions
  • Eye contact
  • Manners
  • Gestures
  • Body language
  • Touching
  • Patterns of conversation
  • Distance apart

Final Thoughts

As humans, we have a biological need to simplify complex information. So we tend to generalize something complex into something simple. An outsider is likely to observe your company and make a snap judgment about whether your business is trustworthy, how likely you are to solve their problem, and whether they feel comfortable working with you.

The surface culture is all we can see at first; it provides a shortcut for identifying which values we finds important.

But to truly understand a company, we need to dig deeper. Why does the company value these things? What is the motivation behind it?

We’ll venture into these questions in an upcoming post and examine the mysterious underworld of the iceberg… the Deeper Culture.

Read more: Understanding the Culture of a Company, Part 2: Deeper Culture

company culture, culture, culture iceberg, corporate culture, internal culture, surface culture, deeper culture, risk management, management, business ownership

What do you think about the cultures where you have worked, or where you work right now? How effective is the culture at demonstrating the values and beliefs of the founders?

If you could create the perfect culture, what would it look like?

Read more: How to Create the Perfect Workplace Environment

workplace, perfect workplace, work environment, workplace environment, perfect company, strategic risk, strategic plan

If you are wondering whether your business is presenting a culture that aligns with your customers’ needs, let’s talk. Find out more here.

Grace LaConte is a profitability expert, writer, and speaker. She is the founder of LaConte Consulting, which provides business owners with practical ways to improve their company's profit, growth, and value. Grace also shares her thoughts about marketing strategies and the dangers of predatory tactics used by MLM (multi-level marketing), which you can find at https://laconteconsulting.com/blog. She is based near Houston, Texas.

7 thoughts on “Understanding the Culture of a Company, Part 1: Surface Culture

    1. Hi Dr Holland, thank you for sharing this. I have credited the original creators of the “Company Culture Iceberg” concept (Edward T. Hall and Gary R. Weaver) in this article and elsewhere on the site.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.