The ‘tip of the iceberg’ is a phrase used to acknowledge that what is being experienced or evidenced is merely an indication of something bigger or more composite. It is used to recognise that what is visible is often accompanied by layers of hidden complexities. Metaphorically, the tip of the iceberg axiom is powerful in aiding our understanding of the complexity of personal behaviour change and organisational culture change.

An iceberg is literally a large piece of ice broken off from a glacier that floats in open water. The most fascinating part of an iceberg is that, typically, only one tenth of it is actually visible above the water. The size and the shape of the underwater portion is difficult to judge by merely looking at the portion above the surface.

Similarly, when we look at the results produced by people and organisations, it is clear that ‘above the waterline’ reflects behaviours and results, while the ‘below the waterline’ reflects the factors that drive those behaviours and results. In the fast-paced, fix-it era in which we live and work, it seems as though our default investment leans toward a superficial and unsustainable focus on crafting what could be considered the tip of the iceberg.

The reality, which we emphasise in all the coaching and leadership development work we do at TowerStone, is that we don’t change behaviour – we change what drives behaviour. We don’t change performance – we change how we think about performance and we work to influence the factors that are inhibiting performance. These could include motivation levels, values misalignment, attitudes, confidence, expectations, emotions and assumptions, to name a few.

This is systems thinking at its best. If catching a cold is an above-the-waterline event, then the causes that have produced the event need to be considered – poor eating habits, lack of sufficient rest and work overload. But because the event of the cold is what is causing the discomfort, we engage with problem solving the cold – largely through medication, rather than through focusing on the pattern of events that caused the cold. In organisations, we similarly focus on fixing challenges such as tardiness, attitude, absenteeism and lack of motivation (sometimes punitively) rather than asking the real questions – what is causing this behaviour, lack of performance or loss of engagement?

As leaders, instead of proceeding from a place of our own assumptions, we need to ask questions that provide opportunity for reflection from both above and below the waterline. When we ask “Why are you late?” what are we really wanting? Do we want an excuse, or do we want changed behaviour? If the latter, we could consider asking “What about being on time is a challenge and what can we do to ensure timeliness?” That way we focus beneath the surface and provide scope for sustainably-changed behaviour.

There are very few, if any, people I know who start their day with the intention of not performing, of not being motivated, of not wanting to succeed. The 90% that is hidden beneath the waterline holds within it a wealth of perspective towards sustainable problem solving. It also holds within it an opportunity for us to practice empathy, e.g. giving people the benefit of the doubt that when they are not performing, not engaging and not showing up in a desired way, it is not because it is their desire to do so, but rather the complexities of their intrinsic and extrinsic realities being challenged. Team dynamics, lack of skill and ability, lack of confidence, personal hardship, lack of challenge, boredom and poor management may all be reasons for this. By empathetically questioning rather than assuming, we are able to be solution-focused rather than merely placing a band aid on a broken leg.

So, when the unsinkable becomes sinkable, as was the case with the Titanic, we need to ask ourselves whether we are working hard at crafting merely that which is seen, or whether we should be redirecting our focus in order to sustainably invest in the root causes and drivers of changed behaviour and organisational success.

*  This article was first published in Leadership magazine.