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  • David S Cohen

Competencies: Myths & Realties


When I began in the field of consulting I came from a background in education with a focus on the developmental stages of children and the behaviours of the different stages. It was a natural transition to start with a focus on behaviours at work. But in the mid 1980's when I approached some senior leaders about what is now called behavioural competencies they said they might be interested in about 10 – 15 years. It was not something that their employees would go for at this time. Luck would have it some organizations did understand the concept and I successfully transitioned from education to corporate consulting. Learning along the way about behaviours at work, I even wrote a book on the topic of competency development The Talent Edge.

As one of the people predicted, less than 10 years later I presented at a Linkage conference in Boston (1993) on the implementation of behavioural competencies as the foundation for building an integrated talent management process. Since then myriad organizations have come into the field, each with their own spin on the topic. As things have evolved so have misconceptions about competency models and misuse of the models. I would like to take a moment and bust a few myths and speak to some realities of using behavioural competencies at work.

Myth 1: You can use the competencies to change the organizations' culture

You can however set out the desired behaviours aligned to the change in the strategic business plan. So if you are now focusing on customer service then you need to ensure they model the correct customer service behaviours. However, values are the foundation for the culture and the values are not going to change. Culture is too deeply ingrained into an organization to be moved without major dramatic event. As a result the behaviours your company includes in its model needs to be the action that enable the business strategy. Celebrate the existing behaviours of the culture and it will go smoother. Fight the culture and you are destined to fail.

Myth 2: You need 'scaled' Competency models

Myth. The concept of just noticeable differences or scales requires that each level is distinctly different then the previous level. The idea of a taxonomy of behaviour can be traced back to the work of Piaget, Bloom and Kohlberg. Those models clearly meet the requirement that you have to pass through each level in sequence and can not jump from level one to three without first living the behaviours of level two. Yet many of the scaled models have more complex or sophisticated behaviours in the 'lower’ levels than the higher ones. In addition many of them use a thesaurus to write the next level while in reality the on the job actions the behaviours are not differentiated enough to be called a new level. As a result, trying to force them into levels becomes a circular activity. Each role can have similar or different behaviours than other roles based on the individual requirements of the role, not of the competency model.

Myth 3: You can use a consultant’s dictionary as the foundation for a competency model

Ask someone, from the same industry, who changes to a company in that industry if working in the new firm is the same and they will always say no. No two organizations have the same culture and as a result no two have the same behaviours. Without taking the time to interview those who actually do the job you will miss essential elements of behaviours that separate the highly successful from the less successful employee. Any time spent customizing another person’s dictionary would be better spent interviewing internal employees on the same subject.

Myth 4: It takes too long and costs too much to customize the behaviours specific to your organization.

We often run into this concern until we present the project plan. At that time the client realizes two things, generally, it will take less time than the consultant than expected and second it will cost less money. For example we presented recently a proposal on the development of behaviours for the development of behavioural competency models for six different roles, which will be completed in eight weeks, or less. A competitor with a classic levelled model of behaviours to achieve the same results for the same roles the client indicated wanted four to five months to complete the project. What customization does give you is a set of behavioural competencies that are specific to your business strategy and your company culture and is validated by your employees. What the alternative approach gives you is a generic off-the-shelf predefined set that might or might not be adjusted to some extent for your organization.

Myth 5: Competencies can only be validated it they are benchmarked to other firms that are considered best in class.

This is actually one of the dangers of using off the shelf models. As noted above no two organizations have the same behaviours even if they say they have the same values. If that is true then how can they use the same behaviours? If your successful employees are your competitive advantage, they are who should be leveraged when determining the right competency behaviours for your organization. Without listening to employees, important advantages for your organization would be lost. For example, at a world class hospital we worked with it turned out that an important part of their success was a leadership competency of ‘Humility’. If they had turned to other organizations for the “right” behaviours, what was crucial to their success would have been lost.

Myth 6: You can use an expert panel to define all of the competencies.

If you want to write the engineer profile and you don't ask the engineers who are currently doing an exemplary job, how do you actually know the right behaviours? No one can define the right behaviours to do a role successfully without actually being in the role. Only those doing the job successfully know what they are doing to get the job done. The obvious exception to that is to learn how people within the role interact with others. Otherwise, no one sees enough of what each of us do each day to be successful. By conducting critical incident interviews and focus groups with those in the role, those who manage the role and others with whom they interact, you get a perspective on what the highly successful person inside the company does that leads to success. As well, ownership of the profile and the behaviours is lost when anyone but those in the role are the source of information on how to be successful within the role. Ownership of the profile can be the difference between success and failure when implementing a talent management process built on a behavioural profile.

Final Thoughts

If you rely on external sources (e.g. predefined list, consultants ‘expertise’, benchmarking, best in class) as the foundation for your profiles then you are limiting their success. Each organization is unique and each role within the organization has different requirements and specifications. To write a successful behavioural profile you need to build on the foundation of what is success now in order to help each employee improve and grow into the future. Anything less than that would be selling your organization, and especially your employees, short.

The Talent Edge is now available in paperback and in electronic format.

#Culture #BehaviouralCompetencies #StrategicHR