Friday, 26 October 2012

Keeping Afloat In The Competency Pool

Back in 2001 I wrote an article “How To Stay Afloat In The Competency Pool”. I observed that when I had started in consulting and tried to ‘sell’ the link between individual performance and their behaviour that it was a tough sell. By the time I wrote the article, the link between how you behave and how you perform had become understood.  Unfortunately, what has not changed from then until now is the proclivity of organizations that don’t consider their own uniqueness before buying pre-defined competency models.  But then I started to consider what I have learned or what has been solidified from the 11 years since that article was published.  Below is a list of some of the major points that I thought.  After reading the list, please consider my thoughts and respond to any point individually or add ideas of your own in the comments section.

1.   Competencies, to be meaningful, have to be assessable by others.  Otherwise, they lack a practical meaning. Subjectivity is something that will always exist when it comes to assessment. However, we have found that the most effective behavioural competencies are simple and clear in order to minimize the subjectivity of the analysis.  If everyone has a clear understanding of the meaning of the behaviours, there should be minimal difference between how two individuals would analyze the same situation.  Spending more time up front in making sure the behaviours are clear to everyone will help make the competencies more user friendly and more used across the organization.
2.  What many people think are behavioural competencies are actually outcome statements.  Behavioural competencies state that the need to be behavioural in the name.  Too often we see competencies that don’t state the “how”, just the “why”.  Some are more clearly outcome statements, but some are outcomes statements of a more subtle form.  For example ‘stays informed of ….’. Being informed is the outcome of one or many actions.  Those actions are what should define the competency.  Using outcomes in a competency statement is backwards.  Without linking the action to the culture of the organization you leave the interpretation up to what each person thinks is right. There is often use of situation, behaviour and outcome when articulating behavioural competencies.  Put another way, we must always understand the relationship between the when (situation), how (behaviour) and why (outcomes) of a competency.
3.    One way in which culture is demonstrated is the actions that, over time, have repeatedly been recognized as leading to success in the organization. The problem with purchasing competency models that are pre-defined by someone else is they will not reflect your corporate culture.  Employees read the behavioural statements and quickly recognize that they are not right for the organization. The consequence is that employees don’t embrace them and, at best, become just a waste of money.  The off-the-shelf programs are the culmination of the consultants’ work with behavioural competencies as to what the consultant believes are the behaviours that will lead to success in the workplace.  What is lacking in these processes is content validity of the behaviours specific to the culture and strategic business plan of the organization. To be broadly accepted, competencies need to be aligned to both the culture and the vision of the organization. 
4.  The application of levelled behavioural competencies is something I don’t understand. Yes, competencies should be associated with each job family or specific role. What I find confusing is the levelled differentiation of competencies with each level being supposedly more complex than the next justifying that for more complex or sophisticated behaviours ipso facto associated with more senior role.  Where this perspective falls short is that some more junior roles require more complex behaviours than some senior roles.  As a result linking scaled behaviours and ensuring that each level is actually more sophisticated and complex then the previous level has inherent flaws. Competencies need to be based on the needs of the specific roles, not some belief that may or may not be true.
While behavioural competencies have rightly become a staple of the talent management process, integrated into everything from selection, to performance reviews, to leadership development, succession planning and more, there is still a long way to go before we can say there is a clear and consistent understanding and application of behavioural competencies. 


  1. I agree with insuring that behavioural statements are not outcomes. My big question is how do you create observable behavioural statements to describe inherent aptitudes in action that effect the level of quality of output. For example, artistic technique is observable but how would one describe inherent artistic ability (which impacts quality of outcome immensely)? Strategic thinking is another competency. In my view, the ability is what dictates the quality of outcome. Demonstrating the observable aspects is another.

    Not sure if I have been clear. But what are your thoughts on this? How would you address this in terms of assessing that the right people have the right inherent aptitudes to produce the highest quality output for the job?

  2. Two items, David,

    1) Various assessments have become the norm in big companies, it's great to again have your reminder that generic competency systems have overlooked culture and values that are unique in each large organization. For example, Walmart is a very large global company, but is based in the South. Setting aside criticisms of Walmart, to which I'm told, they've made significant changes, they are also a US company based in the South. There are cultural expectations of what this means for how staff interact.

    This would be a good example to test in their systems like theirs including their credo, espoused values, hiring process, leadership development, etc. using a competency frame as you describe.

    2) I also appreciate your opinion on behavior levels. It's delightful actually, as it challenges the ego centric view that leaders are about complexity. Based on the work of Elliot Jacques, I'm 50/50% on it as leaders up the ladder often need to think in terms of systems they are building over the years, more jr. positions, maybe function in terms of quarters or a year or two. Yet I agree that "some more junior roles require more complex behaviors than some senior roles." Perhaps your next post could include a couple examples of this.

    1. In reply to Deborah's item #2....
      The longest task assigned to a role that the individual works on mostly independently is a surrogate for the measure of complexity found in a particular role. It is very difficult to arrive at this. Examples of this can include getting a man on the moon, which took someone to project manage over a 20 year period, or developing the plan of how to dispose of nuclear waste 25 years from now etc....


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