Competencies – Testing For The Average

By Frank Salisbury


I have watched in horror (and even taken part in the nightmare) the advance of the competency movement. It follows hard on the heels of another complete waste of effort – the vocational movement, which itself was preceded by another fad which consumed a forest of forms and pencils – the quality movement. All I can say is that while many companies are following a particular fad, it does not mean that it has any validity or is of practical use. I have the feeling that it has more to do with a) the lack of internal insight into separating myth from reality, b) the need for quick solutions to complicated problems and c) the need that we all have to want to believe in the Emperor’s clothes.

The answer to performance improvement, whether individual or corporate, lies within, not by adopting someone else’s dubious formula.

There is an obsession with competencies. Each company has its list of 25 competencies for managers, 35 competencies for salespeople and 101 competencies for the cleaner. Competencies are used on selection processes, development centres, and in appraisal processes, except for senior management. The latter have remained aloof from the process, and although it pains me to say it, may actually be the only ones showing some level of common sense.

Do competencies work? They do in magazine articles and books. They do at budget meetings. They do at seminars. The problem I have is that I meet a lot of competent salespeople who are not on target. I know many competent managers who could not inspire me to file a paper clip. I find the whole process of identifying and implementing competencies very, very boring. Am I the only one in the Western world prepared to say so?

There are some fundamental faults in the whole competency approach. 1. The benchmark descriptions of competence are usually so low as to be of no use at all. 2. The person who matches the full list of competencies only exists at the lowest common denominator level (have we learnt nothing from the failure of comprehensive education?) 3. Competencies only measure whether something exists or not, not whether it is of any use or how well it is done.

Let’s compare the usual approach to identifying and monitoring competencies at work with some other professions such as acting, music, dance, and sports. To save time and space I will only produce one competency per profession:

Guitarist: Plays the chord G.

I can play the chord G. The Rolling Stones have not telephoned me up yet to feature on their next album.

Actor: Recites speech from Romeo and Juliet without missing a word.

Have you ever watched an amateur performance of a Shakespeare play? Enough said!

Dancer: Correctly makes all steps in a Waltz sequence.

I took 15 dance lessons once. I was a competent dancer. I was also an awful dancer!

Athlete: Runs 100m in 11 seconds.

Comes in last.

The fact is that competencies steadfastly refuse to measure success. I have yet to see a management competency which says – ‘Inspires the team to exceed all corporate targets’, which if not achieved results in dismissal. I would love to see just the one competency for salespeople – ‘Exceeds target ethically’.

Labelling people as competent rewards mediocrity. Like the vocational movement, it concentrates on average performers.

There is nothing wrong with identifying the elements that make up performance at work. However, the achievement of that low benchmark should be something that individuals bring with them, not something to aspire to. Management’s job is not to focus on the mediocre, but to coach individuals to achieve their potential by giving them a vision of excellence and the talent that lies within everyone.

Life is a lot simpler than the competency movement would have you believe. The problem is that it involves hard work doing practical things. Competencies, like so much else in the world of HR solutions, seems an ideal opportunity to confuse everyone into believing that the answer lies in form filling and box ticking. But then I do actually like the Emperor’s new outfit.


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