The Motivation Iceberg Michael Millar

The Motivation Iceberg: 3 Tips to Fuel Lasting Motivation with EQ

The Motivation Iceberg is a simple, clear model that shows how different motivators drive different kinds of performance. It helps managers, leaders, parents, educators – anyone concerned with motivating others – consider how to use their emotional intelligence to fuel lasting motivation.

Keep reading to learn more about the ins and outs of motivation and get a FREE worksheet on choosing the right motivators to get the results you want.

What Drives Star Performance?

One of the central challenges of managing and leading is to inspire and engage — to motivate — people to optimal performance.

People are paid to do their work, and eventually should lose their jobs if they don’t meet expectations.  But in most roles, in most organizations, star performance requires a higher level of engagement — a commitment that goes beyond the paycheck.  That extra commitment is called “discretionary effort” because it’s at the employee’s discretion.  They give that extra because they want to — because they feel like it. True leaders are able to inspire that feeling.  As FedEx founder Fred Smith said, “Leadership is getting people to work for you when they are not obligated.”

As we consider “motivating employees,” we can divide the work we want to achieve in two basic categories of outcomes:

1: Basic, task-oriented, behavioral pieces of work.

Showing up on time.  Filing required reports.  Making the required number of calls.  These tend to be prescribed, tactical, and easily measurable.

2: How employees work

This category is more about the quality of the employee’s work.  We want them to care for customers.  To innovate new solution.  To give their all.  To trust and be trustworthy.

So when we want to influence the second category, it’s not just a “behavior” we need, but a quality… how do we get this kind of deep motivation?

What Actually Drives Behavior?

An iceberg is a useful metaphor for these two categories.  At the tip of the iceberg are those visible, tangible activities; the first category.  Beneath the surface are the invisible, emotional drivers which shape attitude; the second category.  These emotional drivers make the difference in how activities are done and thereby define the impact employees have on customers and colleagues. Above the surface is what’s visible.  Below is what’s invisible.  Above is BEHAVIOR, below is what DRIVES behavior.

So what kinds of motivators work best for these two parts of the iceberg?

Extrinsic vs. Intrinsic Motivators

In addition to different categories of outcomes, there are different kinds of motivators; different “levers” that managers can use to engage performance. There are two basic categories for these levers – “extrinsic” and “intrinsic” – and they tend to be most effective for one type of outcome or the other. Here are examples of each:

Extrinsic Motivators

Live outside the employee (e.g., bonuses, perks, fines, employee of the month).

Delivered by the CEO, the manager, or the organization.

Easy to quantify, concrete.

Require ongoing expense (e.g., more bonus funds).

Reinforce power structure (higher ups decide and dole out).

Intrinsic Motivators

Live inside the employee (e.g., passion, alignment with values, belonging, purpose).

Driven by relationships and organizational climate.

Intangible, abstract.

No ongoing expense and spread from employee to employee.

Reinforce interdependence (shared responsibility).

While we can categorize two kinds of motivators, it’s more accurate to consider a spectrum.  For example, while salary is extrinsic, many employees are using their salary to support their families, which can be intrinsic.

Not surprisingly, different kinds of motivators drive different kinds of performance.  But one of the most dangerous and common pitfalls in organizations is the use of one type of motivator for all employees and all goals.

Take, for instance, a typical incentive program. Salespeople get a bonus for meeting a certain quota, set by the management. In this case, the salesperson is rewarded for making the sale irrespective of how it’s done.  Many salespeople like it and it’s easy for sales managers to incentivize ‘tip of the iceberg’ behavior. However, the operations people are rarely thrilled with the way salespeople over-promise to customers; they are the ones who have to respond to the nasty customer reviews.  Furthermore, the top salespeople routinely leave to find better-paying opportunities, so the turnover cost is high. And consider this: What happens when the business model changes, and the salespeople find themselves needing to collaborate?

Different Motivators for Different Results

We’re starting to see some of the complexities of motivation, and how different factors motivate people in different situations. One of the keys to this puzzle is to match different types of motivators with different types of needs.

Download the graphic to the right for an up close look at what motivators drive what types of outcomes.

As you can see, the extrinsic (“above the surface”) motivators drive “above the surface” outcomes. And the intrinsic (“below the waterline”) motivators that drive “below the surface” outcomes.

What’s critical to remember is that extrinsic levers (top left) do not effectively motivate the deeper outcomes (bottom right).  In fact, emphasizing these extrinsic influences can undermine this kind of ‘beneath the surface’ commitment.

For example, if you want your employees to be more trustworthy, it probably isn’t a good idea to set up a financial reward system for employees who tell the truth the most. You may be better off thinking about how you can create a sense of belonging for your employees, like informal gatherings or listening more.

This is not to say the extrinsic motivators are irrelevant, but rather to say we need to use the correct motivator for the desired outcome.

The big challenge is that because it is incredibly easy to offer an extrinsic carrot, that method becomes the default. Extrinsic factors are measurable, concrete, and reinforce the power structure in the organization – which makes these quite attractive to organizational systems. Quite satisfying except for one key obstacle:  when it comes to engaging hearts and minds, they don’t work.


One of the most dangerous and common pitfalls in organizations is the use of one type of motivator for all employees and all goals.

Three Tips for Engaging Intrinsic Motivation

While it’s more work to develop intrinsic motivators, if you want to engage those “beneath the waterline” outcomes, this work is not optional.  Here are three tips:

1. Develop powerful values.

Most organizations have a list of values but are they real or are they PR? Do people really live by them?

Recently I was with a group of managers…

2. Connect with people.

One of, if not THE, most fundamental intrinsic motivator is belonging. Humans are pack animals, wired to connect.

Yet most senior leaders have a schedule…

3. Constantly articulate purpose.

Why does your organization exist?  It makes money in order to exist, but what does it exist for?

Many of my clients’ first reaction is…

While this work is challenging, it has long-lasting benefits.  When you get these core drivers in place, they become part of the organizational culture. Intrinsic motivation lasts. But who has time?

Discussing this type of work with leaders, many of my clients’ first reaction is:  “This sounds right, but I just don’t have time.”  If you’re like most managers, you have too much to do just getting the basic tasks done.  It’s like you’re on a treadmill chasing to catch up.  So here’s a hard truth:  Unless you do the leadership work of building intrinsic motivation, your treadmill is just going to go faster and faster.

There is no “right time” to stop chasing and start leading.  No one is going to gift you with blocks of uninterrupted time to shift your attention to the “heart of the iceberg.” You have to decide it is important, and carve the time out for yourself. That’s where the real opportunity lives.



The “Motivation Iceberg” model is explored in “Motivation from the Inside Out,” a workshop in Six Seconds’ Developing Human Performance curriculum.  DHP provides 14 essential building blocks for organizational performance in practical, engaging 2-hour workshops that can be used by almost any competent development professional.

For further reading on this topic, author Alfie Kohn has written extensively about the problems with extrinsic motivation, particularly in schools (e.g., Punished by Rewards) and parenting (e.g., Unconditional Parenting). Challenging Behaviorist Dogma: Myths About Money and Motivation is one of his articles for business, from Compensation and Benefits Review.

Struggling to Motivate Employee(s)? 4 Questions to Ask Yourself

Struggling to Motivate Employee(s)? 4 Questions to Ask Yourself

What drives lasting motivation? It’s a context set by leadership that balances these 4 crucial elements of the employee experience.

White Paper: Emotional Intelligence and Success

White Paper: Emotional Intelligence and Success

About Latest Posts Michael MillerWriter at Six SecondsMichael Miller is a writer and contributor for Six Seconds who lives in Santa …