It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts
- Sir Arthur Conan Doyle -
You might have noticed that lately, I’ve been writing about culture and leadership: while there’s quite a lot of interesting material that I’m looking forward to sharing with you, on this occasion I’m writing to you about a matter that’s been bothering me for a long time.
Have you ever heard of the Iceberg of Ignorance?
A quick Google search will return hundreds of results, among which:
"The ‘iceberg of ignorance’ is a concept popularized by a 1989 study by Sidney Yoshida. It posited that frontline workers were aware of 100% of the floor problems faced by an organization, supervisors were aware of only 74%, middle managers were aware of only 9%, and senior executives were aware of only 4% of the problem.";
"It all originated (so it is said) in 1989 when consultant Sidney Yoshida produced his study called ‘The Iceberg of Ignorance'. (Unfortunately, we couldn’t get our hands on the original.) Allegedly, Yoshida revealed what he saw in the work and leadership habits of the Japanese car manufacturer, Calsonic."
A well-known study in the 1980s stated that ‘only four percent of a company’s problems are known to top managers’. Sound familiar? Well, this statistic sits at the tip of the ‘Iceberg of Ignorance’ and still resonates in businesses today. So let’s look at why the ‘Iceberg of Ignorance’ study is so relevant, how leaders and managers can melt it, and what this has to do with a (prematurely binned) 90s reality TV show."
"It all started (so they say) in 1989 when consultant Sidney Yoshida published his study, entitled ‘The Iceberg of Ignorance’. Allegedly, Yoshida revealed what he saw in the work and leadership habits of the Japanese car manufacturer, Calsonic."
What’s especially interesting about a concept that CEOs and consultants all over the world appear to be fascinated with, is that in months and months of thorough research I haven’t even been able to find one single scholarly reference for this worldwide famous study allegedly conducted in the 80s: most articles about the Iceberg of Ignorance link other articles, which quote some paper, citing some other material that does not include any link to the source. As for consultant Sidney Yoshida, nothing can be found online about his work except for - you’ve guessed it - references to the Iceberg of Ignorance. I have not been able to find any picture of the man, any bio, anything at all.
Even more concerning, is the fact that none of the sources that reference the outcome of this alleged study seem to have linked such outcome with the cultural context in which the study was conducted: considering that Calsonic Kansei Corporation was a Japanese automotive company, and knowing that the Japanese society scores high in terms of both Power Distance and Collectivism would it be fair and accurate to assume that in most organizations all over the world senior executives might be "aware of only 4% of the problem"?
But what do cultural dimensions have to do with anything? Let’s find out.
Concerning Collectivism, for instance, a study published by the International Journal of Information Systems and Project Management claims that:
- "Many countries in Asia and South America such as China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Colombia, Venezuela, and Peru are collectivists. General population in these countries is likely to prioritize team relationship over individual objectives.";
- "It has been reported on several occasions that a strong team can become overprotective and lead to deceptive vision.";
- "Generally, team solidarity is beneficial for a project. However, if such a bond is too strong, team members may become protective. As a result, they might fail to report information which could negatively affect their colleagues or team relationship";
- "The collectivist nature of Asian people reflects one of the key Confucius principles, which perceives that a person is not a mere individual but an important member of a family. An example to illustrate this principle in practice is the case that students are keener to express their ideas as a group rather than as individuals. If their opinions are wrong, the blame is shared between team members. That way, whether the group decision makes sense or not, students who have a different opinion than the majority of the group would usually keep mum."
Concerning Power Distance, the same study suggests that "people with higher power distance index, which indicates a perception of a large gap in societal equity, are expected to be more vulnerable to mum effect. An example scenario of this case is when young engineers feel reluctant to communicate with their superiors".
This is why I will never talk about the Iceberg of Ignorance to illustrate a point about ineffective communication, vertical communication, or any other topic for that matter: the inability to find reliable, meaningful sources on the origin of the study.
On the other hand, if anybody is aware of a scholarly source that I might have missed during my search, it would be amazing if they decided to share it with Mudita’s community: they will get my gratitude and a much deserved public acknowledgment :)
Looking forward to hearing from you!
Despina Moralidou is a chartered linguist (CIOL) and accredited translator, and for the better part of her adult life she has been working as a freelance translator/editor and in-house project manager specializing in Web, Marketing and Software localization. She has a Master’s degree in Specialized Translation (Surrey) and a Postgraduate diploma in International Cultural Cooperation & Management (Barcelona). She sometimes writes and/or shares thoughts on language, culture, her field of work, and anything else that catches her eye here .