Competencies - How they fail your organization and your employees

     Competencies, as a concept for performance management, have been around since the early 70’s. The idea of looking at what and how an employee does a job, can be a great indicator of their performance, so it makes sense to measure employees against their individual competencies. On August 18, 1988 President George HW Bush delivered a speech where he spoke of a “kinder, gentler” nation. In my opinion, this marked the beginning of the trophy generation or era of participation awards. Everyone wins something, whether you win the event or not, effectively creating a softer, gentler workforce.

A little background
Competencies are defined as the ability to do something successfully or efficiently. Competencies are what people need to be successful in their jobs. Job competencies are not the same as a job task, this often gets confused or mixed up. Competencies include all the related knowledge, skills, abilities, and attributes that form a person’s job. This set of context-specific qualities is correlated with superior job performance and when used correctly, can be used as a standard, against which to measure job performance as well as to develop, recruit, and hire employees.

Competencies provide organizations with a way to define, in behavioral terms, what it is people need to do to produce the results the organization desires, in a way that is in keeping with its culture. By having competencies defined in the organization, it allows employees to know what they need to be productive. When properly defined, competencies, allow organizations to evaluate the extent behaviors employees are fully demonstrating and where they may be lacking.

Dreyfus and Dreyfus [1] introduced nomenclature for the levels of competence in competency development. The causative reasoning of such a language of levels of competency may be seen in their paper on Calculative Rationality titled, "From Socrates to Expert Systems: The Limits and Dangers of Calculative Rationality". The five levels proposed by Dreyfus and Dreyfus were:

  1. Novice: Rule-based behavior, strongly limited and inflexible
  2. Experienced Beginner: Incorporates aspects of the situation
  3. Practitioner: Acting consciously from long-term goals and plans
  4. Knowledgeable practitioner: Sees the situation as a whole and acts from personal conviction
  5. Expert: Has an intuitive understanding of the situation and zooms in on the central aspects

When used correctly, competencies can give one some insight into how an employee will perform or how they have performed. This is great information for recruiting or succession planning. Competencies can also be used in performance management as long as it is done correctly.

So what’s the problem?
As managers look to be fair to all their employees, competencies became more popular. To truly use a competency, you would need a fully fleshed out operating procedure delineating levels of competency success. This procedure would have measurements and potentially some type of test required to show competency. For example, when you received your driver’s license you had to prove you were competent at driving, stopping, changing lanes and parking. There was a written test on the laws of driving and you had to prove your skills to someone. This however, did not mean you were an expert, but you were able to demonstrate enough to get your license and as time went on you got better at driving, however most of us are still not a professional at driving.

The problem started somewhere along the way. Since the early 70’s, competencies become part of the annual performance evaluation. Managers were asked to rank their employees on competencies using a Likert scale, which is then averaged to give the evaluation a value. Here is where the issue starts. Managers are sometimes guessing at how well and employee does a competency such as communication. If a manager witnesses them talking to other people or if the employee produces a document effectively communicating a new process, then the employee will rank high on the scale. However, often times the manager has not witnessed the competency and is left to guess or pick a number.

Performance evaluations and compensation.
Competencies can be very subjective. Managers are typically given a specific budget, including their employees' average merit increase. For example, if the department’s budget calls for a 3.0% average merit increase for the new year, then some employees will get better than 3.0% and some will get worse. This forces managers to play with numbers and adjust the ranking of competencies, so the budget is met. So, suddenly employees merit increases are altered unfairly to hit budget. This is not fair and has happened to most of us whether we knew it or not. Another issue happens when a manager wants to give their favored employee a bigger raise. This can be done by increasing someone’s scores on their competencies. This practice is also not fair, but happens in corporate America every day.

An employee evaluation should be a true reflection of how an employee did his or her job, not how well he or she did a competency, which might not have any real reflection of how an employee works. The real question should be, did the employee hit his or her goals and how well did he or she hit the goals. Goals have a specific result that is measured and everyone involved knows how this goal is measured.   

Competencies that are not competencies
As Human Resources departments look to create performance evaluations that are more competency driven, sometimes items are added that are truly not a competency. A great example would be attendance. You can’t use a Likert scale to measure this, you either come to work or you don’t. One can’t really be an expert at coming to work. As an employee it is part of your job to come to work.  

When used correctly, competencies can be used for recruitment and selection. A well-sound Competency Model will help with performance management, succession planning and career development. But more often than not, this is not the case and competencies are not really helping your organization. You are merely giving everyone a trophy for coming to work.

Dreyfus, Stuart E.Dreyfus, Hubert L. (February 1980). "A Five-Stage Model of the Mental Activities Involved in Directed Skill Acquisition" (PDF). Retrieved July 28, 2019

Related Articles