Competency Frameworks – Why They Shouldn’t Be Thrown Out in the Light of Positive Psychology
published by , on 08/05/2009

The case against competence is that it is merely a risk management strategy. Making sure people are competent at their jobs ensures that they don’t make mistakes. They have all the skills needed to perform without error. The problem with the competence philosophy of course is that if we over-focus on it, we neglect the talents our people have that are in excess of their competency or role profile. In the same way, many large organisations spend as much as 90% of their learning budget on developing people in their areas of weakness. Yet all the data shows that an investment in someone’s natural talents pays back many more times than development in areas of weakness.

I support all the arguments described above. I am fanatical about talent liberation to the extent that I have devoted my working life to promote it. I simply think it is a question of balance.

Of course competence is important. Why would we not want to stop our people making mistakes, especially where there is a significant risk of loss or, worse still, of injury or death?  Take driving a car. If we’re great at accelerating and steering but don’t know how to brake safely, our driving career won’t last very long. We absolutely must take account of our weaknesses. But perhaps we can be creative. Maybe we can safely offload some of our work to others who have talents we do not. Maybe we can manage around our weaknesses or maybe we just have to work really hard and learn to do those parts of the job that we can’t farm out and that just go with the territory.

In recruitment, competency frameworks and role profiles are great for cutting the short list down to an acceptable number of applicants. But if I’m the CEO, I want to ask the applicant that killer question, “What is it that you bring to the party that is unique to you, that is going to add massive value, that will cause me to give you this job?”

I would argue that questions like the one above, asked with a high degree of eye-contact are far more likely to identify the right person for the job than routine profiling – as long as the profiling has been done first of course.

So, my defense of competency frameworks are that they are a necessary means of identifying competence, of securing a good fit for the job, of avoiding error, of minimising loss – but not for pinpointing the potential for top performance.

And, beyond all this, it doesn’t mean that profiling can’t help with the talent spotting and strengths building work too. When an assessment identifies that someone has talent over and above the requirement, we should avoid making the conclusion that its fine and we can ignore the data. Instead we should sit up and take note. If I’m CEO, I want to meet this person that has so much talent, so much gold. I want to develop the hell out of them. I want them to spend all their time doing what they’re best at and making my company great on the back of it. Really, I don’t want my profiling system to be labeled up as a competency framework. I want to change its name to talent profile, skills profile, strengths profile – anything but competence as this label sends the wrong signals. And I want my managers to spend at least as much time looking at what’s above the line as they currently do looking at what’s missing below it.

Please don’t throw those competency frameworks out. Just reinvent them and get the full value out of a wonderful technique.

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