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 problems.

The result? An iceberg that senior executives in an organization can only see the very tip of. When a problem does become visible? There is a lot more beneath the surface.

The Iceberg of Ignorance has been cited for more than 30 years to illustrate the importance of increased communication and traceability in large organizations. While a lot has changed since the 1980s in corporate communications, the fundamentals of management remain largely the same. As we discussed at length in a recent blog post and corresponding eBook, the existing managerial model is fundamentally broken and hasn’t changed much in the last 100 years or so.

So what should organizations do to uncover the gaps in knowledge between the frontline and senior executives? Let’s take a closer look at what the Iceberg of Ignorance really looks like and how to address it.

The Iceberg in 2020

A 2015 ThinkPoints Transformation Survey found that significant knowledge gaps still exist between senior executives and the rest of the organization. For example, 61% of executives and general management said that their organizations had “efficient, effective processes with minimal waste and bureaucracy.” The rest of the organization? Only 27% agreed with that statement.

Similar gaps existed in executive and frontline perception of how departments worked together towards common goals and the overall efficiency of the systems in place. It illustrates the iceberg in action:IMAGE

At the same time, the iceberg goes both ways. While executives are only aware of 4% of the challenges faced by frontline workers, the same can be said in reverse. The top-down management style favored by most organizations keeps frontline workers in the dark about the challenges faced by the company and the reasoning behind many decisions.

The result is an inverted Iceberg of Ignorance representing the gap in both directions.

Bridging the Gap

Leaders are routinely blown away by the day-to-day operations of their organizations. Undercover Boss has clearly illustrated how big the gap is between the plans made in a boardroom in New York and the actual work employees do every day by showing CEOs and senior executives engaging with their employees at the ground level.

It’s a fascinating concept – the idea that two individuals can have fundamentally different perspectives in achieving the same organizational goals. But it can also be damaging. Frontline employees who don’t know the why behind their directives are less engaged and experience higher turnover. Executives who don’t know what is happening on the frontline often miss the major quality and culture problems that can severely damage the company in the long run. So how do you close that gap?

Engaging with Employees

While you can’t go on Undercover Boss to spend more time with your employees incognito, you can make a concerted effort to better understand what they deal with every day.

Managers should spend a percentage of their time on the frontline engaging with employees, and executives should schedule a time to travel to plants and offices to do the same. This offers you clear insights into what motivates, empowers and encourages employees to perform better, while also making yourself a more accessible, reliable leader who they can trust to do what’s best for them.

Using Technology to Improve Communication

Of course, a C-suite executive who oversees tens of thousands of employees can’t engage each of them individually. That’s where technology can help close the gap further. Connected worker platforms allow for the quick dissemination of information to all employees for whom that information is relevant.

By sharing news with employees, explaining major decisions that impact their lives (both professionally and personally), and engaging with them in a meaningful, intentional way on a regular basis, you address the communications gap that is inherent in the broken managerial model. The best part about technology is that it can scale to the size of your organization. A digital andon cord solution is just as effective for a 350 person plant as it is for a 10,000 strong workforce spread across dozens of plants around the world.

Empower Employees to Participate in Decision Making

The same technology provides an outlet for employees to share their thoughts and concerns upwards. Make employees part of the decision-making process and invite them to highlight concerns and indicate problems before they become systemic.

The reason an Iceberg of Ignorance develops is that frontline workers have no outlet or are discouraged from raising red flags when they see an issue. This is both a structural and cultural problem. You need to give them the tools by which to make their voices heard, but also put in place a system that encourages and rewards them for doing so.

Learn more about how the broken managerial model can be addressed to help improve employee engagement, productivity, safety, and overall quality in your organization. Download our eBook here:

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