Behavioral Pathways : Integrating the Cognitive Dimension in Competency Based Approaches.
published by Jan De Visch, on 08/10/2008
It becomes more and more clear that something is wrong with the current competency approaches. Building on the insight that the critical question in business success is not only what people do, but also how their thinking processes produced their actions, I explore a way to re-design competency frameworks, creating a higher predictive validity in assessing potential and allowing to redesign developmental programs for a higher effectivity.
A lot of organizations have attempted to provide objective assessment of the qualities of their staff. Those assessment procedures usually have a diagnostic goal, checking whether the qualities of the person match with the requirements of the role, or a developmental goal, identifying the needs to prioritize training and development initiatives. The assessments are usually based on efforts to identify the key competencies that are required for success within that business environment. The data are used to provide feedback to the organization and the individual in terms of what they need to do in order to improve their performance or grow towards a larger role. The advantages of these systematic efforts are that they enable the organization to be clear about what it is looking for and that individuals receive concrete feedback about their strengths and weaknesses which enables them to focus on key development areas. The results are translated into personal developmental plans.
It struck me, when asking Heads of Human Resources and Senior Managers about their experiences with personal development plans and what results the systematic processes they employ produce, that they expressed significant concerns about the effectiveness of this approach. One HR-Director even told me that only 8 % of the Personal Development Plans were ever carried out. Even developmental programs, based on the results of those assessments, did not produce the expected outcomes . And when they invested significant resources in validating data presented by line managers, this did not produce a qualitative better talent pool. These observations led me to explore the limits of competency based approaches.
It is without doubt that the added value of classical behavioral/personality assessments is in identifying weaknesses (the necessary behaviors that are ‘not yet there’). However it has been pointed out by Elliot Jaques (2002), Roger Martin (2007) and Otto Laske (2008) that the critical question in business success is not only what people do, but also how their cognitive processes produced their actions. In addressing business problems the thinking pattern of the person in charge is highly responsible for the kind of contribution he/she will make and the implicit use of his/her competences.
Elliot Jaques (2002) set out a theory that individuals provide optimal contributions working at the level of work commensurate with their cognitive processing abilities and developmental needs and organisations’ needing to get the work done at appropriate levels of complexity. Otto Laske (2008) introduced the concept of ‘thought forms’ as a way to look at the fluidity of thinking processes. Based upon these insights, a cognitive coaching approach was developed, as distinguished from behavioral coaching. The basic argument for the cognitive coaching was that although a lot of works on behavioral coaching provide extensive recipes for what must be done to function at a certain level (cfr. the critical transitions as specified in “The Leadership Pipeline”), no one addressed the question of what mindset was needed to make the suggestions work. Indeed, most competence frameworks are static and do not acknowledge that the mere definition of a competence takes on different forms, according to the level of complexity in which it is used. On the other hand, the cognitive approach does not define a direct link between the mindset and behavioral development.
Otto Laske (2008) recently provided a developmental framework that enables us to diagnose the fluidity in cognitive processes. He explored how people are trying to keep up with reality, making a distinction between four basic thought form categories that an observer can use both in trying to describe the thinking of a client AND linking these thought forms with the level of complexity a person is contributing on :
Thought forms can be considered as the deeper cognitive structure that allows one to make sense out of reality (Otto Laske, 2008). When a manager sees the world as being in constant transformation, is aware that each context has its big picture, and is eager to understand heterofore hidden relationships, he will be operating from a different stance, and this stance enables him to use cognitive tools of a new kind. It is my impression, working with the cognitive interviewing framework of Elliot Jaques and Otto Laske, that the thought forms occur at certain levels of complexity. For example ‘recognizing that two or more systems are related to each other, and can be coordinated, occurs when someone functions successfully on a complexity level where redefining systems and processes is crucial. I examined the relationship between the levels of complexity and the thought forms occurring at each level. This work resulted in the description of seven ‘Mental Highways’. The ‘Mental Highways’ can be seen as thinking patterns or language structure schemata through which meaning making at each of the capability levels (according to Elliot Jaques) is created. I’m convinced that these Mental Highways allow us to revisit the way most competence frameworks are build.
Most competence frameworks have four weaknesses :
These points make it understandable why the derived behavioral assessments have limited predicted power for Senior Management and/or CEO-functioning.
An alternative is to redesign the behavioral competence models, based upon the idea that thinking precedes behavior. We can use Mental Highways as a model to identify the changes in behavior at higher complexity levels.
Let me share two examples, summarized in the table below. The vertical ax is one in increasing complexity (from the ‘lowest’ level 1 at the bottom to the level 5 at the top). Horizontally I have selected two ‘classic’ competency dimensions, ‘Thinking strategically’ and ‘Supporting productive working relationships’. The new behaviors that are introduced are shown in bold, the increased complexity (and correlated use of thought forms) is show in italics.
One can do this exercise for most of the competencies.
This redesign is highly versatile for individuals and particularly useful in guiding leadership development for :