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Competencies are a waste of time. Here’s why…

Submitted by on Monday, 9 December 20132 Comments

competencies are a waste of timeMany working in companies today will most likely come across competencies in some aspect of their professional roles.

Competencies are used by many companies for everything from hiring, managing, compensating, developing and (finally, let’s not deny it) outplacing or laying off their people.

Competencies can appear in everything from tacit ‘nices-to-have’ to highly structured (even religious) processes as part of performance management systems, 360° feedbacks and appraisals, and strategic management systems.

And, no matter how ‘well managed’ they may be, or however much they may be ‘better than nothing’, we’re going to save you all 10,000s of man hours to explain why competencies are a complete waste of time, and worse, extremely harmful to companies’ success, individuals’ health, as well as team and employee engagement.

Why competencies are a waste of time…

There are 4 main reasons (and probably more) why competencies are a complete waste of time.

1. They are not sound

The first reason competencies are flawed is that they are simply not scientifically sound. There is no empirical basis for them. Words and phrases like ‘team player’, ‘takes initiative’ and ‘attention to detail’ may make sense, but probe deeper and, in some of these cases you will find a pure behaviour, in others a talent, and in others a hybrid of skills, talents and behaviours that are more closer related to engagement and thus must be considered an effect, rather than something the employee by himself or herself can truly cause.

Bottom line: there is no science to the nomenclatura and the whole basis of the so-called competency model is a mess.

But it gets worse.

As MRI-research conducted by the Johnson O’Connor Institute has found (but been blithely ignored by HR departments for decades), performance differentials at work are greatly determined by talent. Put simply, someone may be more ‘hardwired’ to excel at tasks requiring an ‘attention to detail’ than, say, ‘creative thinking’. Given this empirical, scientific research how do you think it will affect someone to be expected ‘to improve’ when he or she was simply not born for tasks of that kind? Will the person be more or less stressed? More or less engaged? We’ll come back to that one…

ptolemaic universeYou see, competency models not only fly in the face of this scientific research into what we are, and Peter Drucker’s exhortation that everyone has peaks and valleys – we just have to make sure we leave those valleys alone, but they also fly in the face of employees themselves, causing stress and disengagement (currently running at 60%+) – anyone see a connection here?

Competencies are an artificial construct, with about as much validity as claiming the Sun flies around the Earth, or a wound is best healed by cutting off the limb (medieval science). But, hey-ho, ‘better than nothing’!

2. They are not specific

The second reason that makes competencies a complete waste of time, is that they are not specific. That’s to say, not specific to the employee or the situation itself.

You see, in the struggle to reinforce some consistency bias (an irony which HR themselves seem – again – blithely unaware of) companies issue these competencies like edicts no matter whether you are in the creative design department, delivery section, or accountancy department.

And (you guessed it!) it gets worse.

They are also not specific to situation or time factors. There may, for example, be periods of a manager’s time (for example closing of accounts, where attention to detail is critical) but others, where the very detail itself (like inspiring a vision) becomes an actual hindrance (the work of Boyatzis, Goleman et al also using MRI machines have demonstrated how this dynamic works in the brain).

And it gets worse still.

Let’s say you are now trying to assess your direct report for this very competency. How much of his or her performance have you really seen, in terms of time? If you say 10% – then you’re already a micromanager;-). The fact of the matter is that even if it’s 5%, you really are not qualified to pass judgement on that, in the cold light of day.

But perhaps the most damning reason that competencies are a complete waste of time is…

3. They are not strategic

It’s important to understand competencies not only an artificial construct, but also an artificial construct created from the middle of companies.

Let me explain that.

As a company expands, it naturally creates more and more layers of management and organisational systems as explained in our post here.

What then seems to happen is that, as ‘the customer’ gets further and further away from ‘management’, the company itself becomes more inward facing.

In an attempt to keep people ‘outward facing’ management (or HR) then tries to find ways to redress that.

The Balanced Scorecard is one such initiative, competencies and performance management systems the other.

Makes sense right?

Wrong. The problem lies…:

1. In the management’s perspective. Creating a system from an inside-out perspective is likely to lead to a disconnect between the company and the customer. Instead, start with the customer and work backwards to the company as Steve Jobs counselled here.

2. As well as the problems encountered above (first with the fact that people have different talents) a ‘catch-all’ shopping list is doomed to failure and also extremely time-consuming to boot. A catch-all competency list disengages and leads to complexity and confusion – and stress.

The solution? The process needs to be catch-all, and, given the realities of VUCA as well as behavioural change, the content needs to be simple, minimal and agile.

We propose a process that rapidly iterates a simple and specific success model similar to that proposed by Marc Effron here:


Stay tuned…

In a coming post we’ll be covering a simple, specific and strategic was to implement precisely this kind of model in an agile way at all levels of your company.

In the meantime, stay tuned by subscribing below.

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