Don’t Blame the Millennials: “Iceberg Leadership” Lessons


“The terrible thing about the word ‘communications’ is that we usually don’t know what we are talking about. What are we talking about?”

– Van France, Disney University Founder

Effective, accurate communication is never easy to attain. Even those with similar backgrounds and values must constantly employ strategies to minimize misunderstandings and miscommunication. Adding age, linguistic, cultural, and geographic differences to the communication puzzle further complicates an already challenging process.

Most simply blame those groups they don’t understand.

The “Cultural Iceberg”

The complexity of the communication transaction between people from different cultures is best described via analogy: the cultural iceberg. If language, behavior and communication style represent the “tip of the iceberg,” (anything we can detect with our five senses), then the portion below the waterline represents the values, beliefs and “common sense” of those from that iceberg, or culture. Misunderstandings abound when those from different cultural icebergs come into contact, especially for extended periods of time.

Carrying the analogy a bit further, most managers never strap on SCUBA equipment; they don’t jump in the water, eager to take a closer look at the entire iceberg. Most managers fail to analyze the values and needs of their cultural counterparts. This results in mutual mistrust and miscommunication.

Reinforcing the need to continuously work toward bridging the gaps between the many “icebergs” at Disneyland, Van France, founder of Disney University argued, “Managers need to know that the people they supervise are different from what they were ten years ago.”

Van knew, as well as any cultural anthropologist, that sustainable and effective communication—across cultures, genders, generations, job functions and economic classes—occurs when members of differing icebergs strive to better understand their own icebergs and those of their counterparts.

Van didn’t blame the younger generation, he strapped on the SCUBA tanks to learn what motivated them.