Blog Conscious Leadership

Have competencies had their day?

Written by Charlie Efford

Photo By Maxxl²

If you have worked for an organisation of any size in the last decade you will almost certainly have been subjected to a set of behavioural competencies related to your job. Your accountabilities define what you are expected to do and the competencies define how you should do it.

Expensive consultants have probably analysed the behaviours that differentiated the great from the not so great and deduced that these differences were the reasons for superior performance. If being a good team player was important to success in a job, then hiring someone who was good at team working was logical. It wasn’t long before someone worked out that training people to become better team workers would improve performance even further.

Then the ‘Theory X’ folks came in

Then the ‘Theory X’ folks came in and decided to measure how good people were at being team workers. By building competencies into the performance management system, they could re-inforce the message that team working was important. By linking performance to pay they could doubly re-inforce the message.

At this point I lost the will to live.

What started out as a rational way of predicting who would be the best fit for a particular job, has unwittingly become a clumsy attempt to re-engineer people for the benefit of the organisational machine. I don’t know of any business where using competencies to measure and manage performance has really added much value, but conventional thinking says you must have them.

My observations about workplace competencies are:

  • There are lots of ‘motherhood and apple pie’ lists with 10-12 ‘key competencies’ carefully chosen and defined. Everything that sounds important has been covered (just in case). These behavioural smorgasbords rarely identify what is really critical for the job. I can focus on maybe 3-4 things at work, trying to tick 10-12 boxes feels very difficult to me. The 80/20 rule would be helpful here. (I.e. of the 12 competencies, which 3-4 would have the majority of impact on how well the job is carried out?)
  • I think the behavioural contract that a competency model sets up is deeply flawed from the outset. It goes like this. “If you behave in the way we want then we will reward you”. This sounds remarkably similar to the way Pavlov trained his famous dogs. I therefore wonder if teaching ‘behaviours’ is the answer. Even if someone complies with the behaviour required, unless it reflects who they are, their actions will not be authentic and have little impact.
  • Measuring behaviour is fraught with difficulty. My experience has been that people are often left confused and angry when they are told they scored low on a particular competency. It feels very personal. It is an attack on self-image because the person on the receiving end is being judged. The judgement usually boils down to either the manager’s opinion or a one off conversation. The manager is desperately looking for something to complete the form and they grasp what they have. It is rarely enough.

So what is the way forward?

As most organisations are structured around jobs, I think the original idea of trying to identify what it takes to be great in a particular job is sound. The information and understanding this analysis brings can really improve the hiring/appointment process. Once in the job I suggest putting the competency models to one side.

People will devote their talents and energy when their work is meaningful and when they’re with others who have their best interests at heart. This way of thinking shifts leadership from managing compliance to harnessing energy and creativity Leaders who can create the conditions for a thriving workplace do not need competency models. They understand and sense only too well what it takes to get the best out of those around them. Manipulating people to follow a set of rules (and behaviours) rarely achieves greatness. The paradox is that as soon as you stop trying to change someone they miraculously change all by themselves.

As soon as you stop trying to change someone they miraculously change all by them selves

My proposal is to remove behavioural management from central control and instead ask leaders to build relationships and create the conditions for people to thrive. I am talking about developing ‘Conscious Leaders’ throughout your organisation. They will manage people not behaviours and the businesses where they work usually thrive.

Have competencies had their day? – What do you think?

If you are curious to know more about conscious leaders, please look at the conscious leader programmes we run.

About the author

Charlie Efford


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