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Breaking through the iceberg of ignorance: how internal communicators can bridge the gap

A fundamental part of our role as internal communicators is to create a shared understanding amongst employees so that they can work together towards a company’s goals. Internal communication can get everyone rowing in the same direction, through a clear understanding of the goals and priorities of the business.

But there’s often a disconnect between how leaders and employees perceive communication.

I was struck by what Axios reported in their “2023 state of essential workplace communications”. They found a startling gap between how leaders rate communication versus how employees rate communication in their organisations.

The report found:

  • 77% of leaders think that internal communication is helpful and relevant versus 46% of employees.

  • 78% of leaders think their internal communication is clear and engaging, compared to only 51% of their employees.

This suggests that leaders are struggling. They're struggling to understand what information is helpful and relevant to employees, and they’re struggling with communicating in a way that is clear and engaging to their people.

They are disconnected. They need our help to align their people around what matters.

It reminds me of a leadership team I worked with once. They swore blind that their employees understood the business strategy. They had communicated it well, they told me, and their employees were aligned around defined business goals. They were steadfast in this belief.

This belief crumbled, however, once I interrogated it outside of the leadership bubble. I spoke with a range of employees to ask about their understanding of business goals and priorities. I was met with blank stares, puzzled faces and shrugs. People were able to articulate what was important to their team or their department… but there was no shared understanding of the business strategy or the direction of travel for the company. This is crucial, because remember Lesley Allman’s definition of internal communication?

“Internal communication is about ensuring that employees know what they need to do to deliver the company strategy.”

Employees can’t deliver the company strategy if they don’t know what the company strategy IS.

This leadership team in this story were suffering from a classic case of The Communications Illusion.

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place” – George Bernard Shaw

The leadership team believed everyone understood the strategy BECAUSE THEY HAD TOLD THEM. They had:

  • Held a townhall meeting to present the strategy using graphs and tables

  • Disseminated a long-form document which detailed the nuance of the strategy

  • Posted a 20-minute video on the intranet of the CEO explaining the strategy

But information ≠ communication.

Dissemination ≠ communication.

Communication requires understanding. Your audience must:

  1. Receive the information

  2. Understand it

  3. Know how to act on it.

The leadership team had only done part 1.

If they had moved into part 2, they would have assessed whether their employees had understood the information they’d sent out about the strategy. They would likely have discovered that:

  • The slides in the townhall meeting were full of jargon and acronyms and hard-to-decipher graphs that made it difficult to understand the content. The townhall was 2 hours long with no breaks; anyone would find it difficult to pay attention for that length of time.

  • The long-form strategy document was 30 pages long and no one had time to read it. An executive summary at the start would have helped enormously.

  • None of the employees had the time or the appetite to sit through a 20-minute video. If this had been a punchy 90 second video explainer, then it would have been more effective.

I’m reminded of Sidney Yoshida’s Iceberg of Ignorance. Have you heard of this?

Yoshida argued that executives in leadership positions are usually only aware of 4% of the problems in the organisation. They are usually rather detached from the reality of the employee experience. The further down you dive into the organisation, the better the understanding of the problems, as people are closer to the work.

This iceberg of ignorance theory was born in 1989 and still holds so much value today. As the research from Axios shows, leadership teams still greatly over-estimate the effectiveness of their communication. They have very little understanding of the needs and frustrations of their employees.

Here’s where you, as an internal communicator, can really shine.

You can act as the bridge between the leadership team and their employees.

You should understand your employee audience deeply, and bring those insights to the leadership team to inform how they communicate and engage with their people. You can help to break through the iceberg of ignorance and bridge the gap between leaders and employees.

Here’s three takeaways to improve your internal communication practice:

  1. When you’re talking to senior leaders about the effectiveness of internal communication, take all of their answers with a large grain of salt. Remember the iceberg: they’re sitting at the top, probably with a lack of understanding of the reality beneath them. Make sure you do your own employee research and interrogate any assumptions the leaders may have about the effectiveness of communication.

  2. Make the time to understand your audience deeply. Talk to them. Make this a regular part of your job. Have conversations, spend time together, hold informal focus groups, ask people questions. As my peer and friend Andrew Hubbard (Director of Internal Communications with Poppulo) says, “We must be unapologetic about spending time with our audience.” This will inform your choice of communication channels and the language you use to communicate important messages, including those about strategy and business goals.

  3. Help your leaders communicate more effectively. Document the channels and tactics that employees prefer and show this to your leaders. Talk to your leaders about what language will resonate and what won’t. Talk to them about how employees are feeling and what key issues the leaders need to address. You’ll build credibility and become increasingly valuable to the business.

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