Behavioral Pathways : Integrating the Cognitive Dimension in Competency Based Approaches.
published by , 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 :
– (“Context”) The first category builds upon the conviction that there is always a bigger perspective in which you can position your own point of view. All problems are layered and the clue in increasing effectivity is to start building common ground from that broader perspective. The thought forms in this category help distinguishing what kind of elements/variables one sees.
– (“Emerging change”) There is always an ongoing change process, often not made explicit or emerging. It helps if you integrate the ’emerging’ perspective in your arguments. Often problems are just analyzed from a context perspective, forgetting to position the issue in a time dimension of ongoing changes. By making this dimension clear, it often helps to recalibrate the relative importance of different perspectives. The thought forms here enable the active listener to identify what a  person sees as constant change.
– (“Common Ground” – Relations). These thought forms enable us to identify the kind of relationships a person is seeing and creating. On a higher management level this means for example that there is always a common ground in seemingly conflicting points of view. Finding this common ground often requires a different kind of ‘modeling’ (Roger Martin, 2007).
– (Systems in Transformation). There is always a systemic viewpoint. Connecting changing contexts with ongoing processes and redefining relationships often leads to a transformational thinking. The different thought forms in this group allow us to specify the degree of open vs. closed systems thinking. On a senior management level this  means that most solutions for strategic problems can only be realized if you look at changing the borders of the system in which the problem raised. So redefining the system almost always helps in increasing impact.

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 :
(1) The defined behaviors differentiate on the first two to three complexity levels, and not higher.
(2) Building proficiency in a certain competence follows a path starting from a junior position towards mastership, which is often translated as being able to pass the competence to another person. This assumes that the definition of a competency remains the same on the different levels of complexity. This is not correct.
(3) It is clear that  competencies defined in equal categories (eg. “level 3” in a clients competency-scheme) were not defined at the same “Mental Highway” level if you would look at them from a cognitive perspective.
(4) It is not clear how one can develop a certain competency. The relationship between the ‘classical competency level ‘and the kind of developmental tasks is based upon a belief that a growth task will work, but not on science based modeling. A lot of growth assignments are not carried out because the ‘size of the person’ (‘thinking capabilities’) is still too small for the ‘size of the role’.

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.


Level of complexity (cfr. Elliot Jaques, 2002)

Thinks strategically Supports productive working relationships
5. Transformational. Creating new business models. Understands the organisation’s current and potential future role within the business environment.  Considers multiple perspectives when assessing the ramifications of a wide range of issues and develops solutions with long term viability. Considers emerging trends, identifies long-term opportunities and balances organizational requirements with desired wholes of outcomes. Builds and sustains positive relationships within the organization and across companies to transform signals of change in the value systems of major stakeholders into new generic products and services.. Looks for shared agendas and capitalizes on the positive benefits that can be gained from diversity and harnesses different viewpoints..
4. Breakthrough New Product, New Service/ New Market Understands the organisation’s objectives and links between the business units, organization and the different external stakeholders agendas.  Considers multiple perspectives when assessing the ramifications of a wide range of issues. Anticipates priorities and develops long-term plans that address both current and future requirements. Seeks to align business unit activities with strategic priorities. Builds and sustains positive relationships within the organization and across companies with a diverse range of external stakeholders. Anticipates and is responsive to changes in market/technology solutions. Looks for shared agendas and uses these to bring people together to develop a different perspective that enables breakthrough developments.
3 : Systemic New Process and or Value Stream (re-thinking) Understands the organisation’s objectives and contributes to the development of plans, strategies and team goals. Identifies broader influences and considers the ramifications of issues and longer term impact  on the team’s and cross team’s  work objectives. Builds and sustains positive relationships with a network of key people internally and externally. Anticipates and is responsive to changes in client needs and expectations. Recognises shared agendas and works toward mutually mutual beneficial outcomes.
2 : Situational Quality and continuous Improvement  (Optimizing) Understands the work environment and contributes to the development of work plans and team goals. Demonstrates an awareness of the implications of issues and problems that may impact on own and team’s work objectives. Builds and sustains positive relationships with team members and clients. Is responsive to changes in client needs and expectations. Proactively offers assistance for mutual beneficial relationships.
1 : Procedural Executional and or Service Excellence Understands the work environment and participates in team goal setting. Demonstrates an awareness of issues that may impact on designated work tasks. Builds and sustains positive relationships with team members and clients. Actively participates in teamwork and activities. Responds under direction to client needs and expectations.

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 :
– Those who aspiring to leadership positions at all levels
– Those transitioning to the next level, or to a new role
– Those who want to be more effective at their current level
The validity of assessment procedures and the effectiveness of developmental efforts will be enhanced by pointing very clearly to the interwoveness of behavior, thinking tools and the complexity level one is expected to contribute on.  Mastering the thinking tools (thought forms) will also enable managers  to discover that an other’s point of view, while seemingly in opposition to their own, is a fruitful antithesis to own points of view, and can be used as a launching path of synthesizing opposing views.
Your feedback is most welcome on .

Reactions (3)
  • Diane Smets says:


    I couldn’t agree with you more. Right now I am being faced with exactly these type of shortcomings in our own competency model (level 3 max.) It is not distinguishing for our succession pipeline higher up the ranks.
    Also the nr. of development plans being acted up on is probably not more than the 8%, sometimes slightly higher if intensive personal coaching is involved. But then still no more than about 15% I would say. Which is still unacceptable and will not solve our succession capability.
    I love the example you incorporated on the competency model and will use the ideas in your article to design a workshop on root cause analysis of low scores on leader effectiveness and employee engagement before diving straight into action planning. Hopefully this will bring some more insights.
    Many thanks for this great article!

  • Diane Smets says:

    Oh, and by the way, thanks for posting it in English. This makes my life so much easier in trying to influence some of our key stakeholders in the company!

  • Jan De Visch says:

    Fine to read that you can use the ideas. And indeed, looking at employee satisfaction results from a cognitive perspective will bring you in a whole new range of possible actions and priorities !

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