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The Iceberg Model


We are all witnessing how today’s business environment is becoming increasingly challenging and complex, causing managers to reach out and develop tools to support their organizational performance. However, there still are a few delicate aspects that could make a difference when it comes to what outcomes we may experience.

With the risk of approaching a rather old chestnut, let’s talk about competence. Such a simple term, which you have grasped and tackled long time ago, yet there is one really interesting approach coming from psychologist David McClelland that might raise a few questions and is worth mentioning.

In many of his past research papers, McClelland explained why when given a new opportunity, two separate individuals that went through the same educational experience and acquired the same skill set, could potentially act appreciably different.

For a long time, we got stuck upon the idea that the key to performance was intelligence, which was also back when IQ tests were highly popular. At that point in time, McClleland published an article entitled “Testing for competence rather than for intelligence”, where he attempted to explain through a series of studies that the key to work performance was not in fact so easily uncovered, as psychologists first thought when they started predicting individual performance levels through their numerous intelligence and aptitude tests.

McClleland however came up with the alternative, namely his competence measurement. Now, dictionaries define competence as the ability to do something well, or the quality or state of being competent. It sounds pretty simple so far, but there is in fact more to this concept.

“Criterion Samples” and “Behavioral Event Interviews”, these are the key instruments that McClleland developed and which allowed him to truly understand the ability to reach performance.

What he did was to go past the area of expertise of an individual and concentrate more on the psychological inner identity, trying to gather the thoughts and feelings behind their behavior. There was indeed a thoroughly structured interview that McClleland developed and applied, but his method mainly moved the individual away from a work-related scenario, choosing a more personal approach that allowed him to tackle into the world of hidden, deeply embedded traits that influence a certain sequence of actions and have the potential to drive people’s excellence.

Now I am asking you to reflect on yourself for a while, understand how much of your personality you actually reveal at your workplace and to what extent do you consider it important for your overall drive, motivation or actions. I would assume it is a considerable amount.


The Iceberg model of managerial competencies accurately described his theory, by attributing several layers to competence, similarly to the shape of an iceberg. We can only see the tip of the iceberg, which in our case we refer to the knowledge and skills that one possesses, but the most substantial chunk of ice lies deep underneath the water and embodies the social role, self-image, core traits and motivations that frame the foundation of each individual personality and stabilize the entire iceberg.

Now, what I hope you can take from this is that when it comes to human resource planning and reaching performance, it is essential to understand that it is not rocket science to spot an iceberg. Anyone can tell you that a certain individual has the right qualifications just by scanning through their career path, but it takes quite a bit of time, effort and knowledge to collect enough data about the shape, size or depth of an iceberg.

This is one of the simpler reasons that oftentimes causes businesses to fail. Companies notice skills, they appreciate them and offer management positions to what they see as being their most well-prepared employees a bit too soon. The purpose is to place a flag on the tip of the iceberg quickly, but there is a good chance that that particular iceberg is going to sink your ship.

McClleland differentiated between two distinctive groups in his approach, “star” and “average” performers, beneficial to understanding the difference between people reaching performance excellence and just “doing your job”.

Nevertheless, it is important to understand that knowledge and skills should still be highly valued and continuously developed by employers, but when it comes to organizational management positions, the key to top performance is going further, looking into the core embedded traits of an individual and harnessing that hidden potential.

Lower costs, employee motivation, customer retention and capitalizing on opportunities are only a few of the reasons why you should consider applying the McClleland model.  Ask yourself this: is it enough to identify the level of expertise, capabilities and characteristics required by a certain position of employment or are there any undefined behavioral traits that can enable and streamline excellence within it and as such impact the entire organizational performance of a company or institution?

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