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  • David S Cohen

Music to My Ears - Measuring the Behavioural Competency Beat

I was at a Bruce Hornsby concert and there was a line in a song that got me thinking: “20/20 vision and walking ‘round blind”. It turns out the line is from an old Jimmy Martin song.

You should feel sorry for me as a human resources consultant that in such a moment, struck by such a poetic line, the first thing that came to mind was a question: “How do you measure behavioural competencies?”

Perhaps it’s because performance reviews currently the hot topic. Many performance reviews I have had experience with use a scale akin to the traditional five point Likert Scale with the high point being “Exceeds expectations.” That should be a red flag. After all, how can you exceed expectations when it comes to the demonstration of desired behaviours associated with being highly successful?

On LinkedIn you can find a spectrum of comments on this debate that range from: “Why bother trying to capture the behavioural performance since it is totally subjective?” to “Use a tool like 360˚ feedback as a means of getting ‘meaningful’ feedback.” Neither of which are helpful. Everyone who thinks they have the answer has 20/20 vision, while those who say there is no answer believe it is impossible to see.

So how do you measure behaviour and can you measure it objectively?

The obstacles before can be traced to some of the following: 1. Lack of a calibrated understanding of the behaviour within the context of the culture and strategic business plan

When the behaviours that make up the behavioural competency model come from the outside and are not based on the company’s DNA then the behaviours are not deemed relevant by employees and they don’t buy into.

2. Corporate obsession on short-term profits

There’s a perception that meeting or exceeding market projections is more important than how one does business. Accordingly, companies will publish behavioural competencies / corporate values and then reward people for results achieved while doing the wrong things. In such circumstances, behaviours lose value and are a source of confusion at best, cynicism at worst. This is exacerbated by CEO compensation that is measured by growth of the value of the shares, linked to financial performance only.

3. Annual reviews of performance for the purpose of merit rating or as allied by forced ranking systems

Why spend the emotional investment in getting people aligned to the behaviours when, even if they change, you still have to rank them? As a result those managers who do help employees improve still have to put successful people in the bottom grouping, creating frustration, lack of trust and internal competition.

​4. The need for the tangible by managers so they use only visible figures, with little or no consideration of the intangible of behaviours

This links back to point two above but also stands on its own. Most managers want clear and clean ‘fact based’ decision-making. However, when speaking of behaviours, I often use the quote often attributed to Albert Einstein:

Not everything that can be counted counts. Not everything that counts can be counted.

The continued practice of senior leaders who hire, reward and promote those who are a reflection of themselves, without regard to the company stated behavioural profile or values.

Enough said.

Implicit in all these points, with the exception of number five, is a desire for facts, rather than subjective impressions, to accurately measure and assess performance. This is understandable. Subjectivity will always lead to employees questioning their feedback and performance reviews / appraisals. So to avoid the conflict with direct reports, the performance reviews focus on the measures that lead to profitability.

To correct this errant path, this you will need to make the intangible measurable. We can do so by ensuring that:

  1. The statements of behaviours are authentic to the DNA of the culture

They must be actions that support the execution of the business plan and are consistent with the behaviours that underpin the values. Put another way, they have to have validity within the organization itself not validity from external sources or aspirational behaviours that are not clearly linked to the culture or the business plan.

2 All employees, not only managers, must have an opportunity for training to help them understand how the action to accomplish the result is the behaviour instead of reinforcing the fallacy that desired outcome are a description of behaviour

I find that too many so-called behavioural statements are outcome statements, not behavioural descriptors. The training needs to be done with managers and direct reports together so they have a calibrated interpretation of what the right action looks like in the workplace.

3. Measurement has to be based on frequency relative to opportunities, not on how well a person does it once

Doing it once, even by mistake, does not mean you demonstrate the behaviour every time you are called upon to do so. As a result, you need to eliminate from feedback systems and performance reviews the concept of “exceeds expectation” when speaking of behaviours. If you were supposed to do the behaviour 10 times and only did it 9 you have an opportunity for improvement.

4. 360˚ Feedback or multi-source feedback reports are best used only for the purpose of the person’s development

360˚ Feedback, even when used for development, is questionable feedback when the report is shared with the boss. In most cases, knowing others will see the feedback, people hesitate to provide meaningful and completely honest answers. (More on feedback in our next blog.)

People purport to have various means to objectively assess behaviours. However, anyone receiving feedback must understand that other people’s collective perception of them is not invalid but the reality of how other’s see them behave. Such impressions are always, to some degree, subjective and influenced by the context of the situation. Will the feedback be 20/20 accurate? Probably not unless the circumstances, culture and a number of other factors are consistent from situation to situation. Nor is it a given that an individual will always accept that the ‘measurement’ of their behaviour is accurate.

So you have to ask yourself, what is the vision and the goal of performance management. Is it about looking backwards or looking forward. Is is about managing past performance or continuously improving performance moving forward. So you want to make it less subjective based on first hand interactions or leave it up to a manager who hardly is present when the direct report is doing their job? Is a team approach more appropriate but how do you implement that?

For most systems, even the approaches that have embarked on elimination of the formal annual review and rating scale I would suggest subjectively still outweighs objectivity in many of the designs.

What can we do about that? The only consolation I can give comes from a song by my favourite poet, Bob Dylan: “You're right from your side, I'm right from mine."