Who Took the “Comp” Out of Competencies?

You should hear the garbage associated with competencies. Some people define them as trainable, others make them up from scraps of nice-sounding terms, others say they are identical, and some search for the perfect “benchmark” set. What a pile of nonsense! The Tower of Babel is not just an Old Testament story, it is alive and well, and living in HR. Competencies are much more complicated than people imagine. They are like the Siren’s Song in The Odyssey. They sound attractive, but inevitably lead your ship onto sharp rocks. Improper understanding of a competency can lead to BIG (read “expensive”) mistakes in hiring, management, and job placement. It can also lead to a major loss of confidence in HR’s ability to assume a strategic role in developing the business. But let’s begin with the formal definition of a competency. Merriam-Webster defines competency as “the ability to perform.” In a business context, we take that to mean a competency is the ability of a specific individual to perform the skills required of a specific job. Competency Basics There are really very few “core” competencies ó only about three or four. Core competencies are “basic” to the individual. They are the personal toolbox each employee brings to work. How do we know this? Have you ever taken a long survey and after a while, notice that you are giving the same answers to similar questions? The same thing happens with job tasks. When you take hundreds of individual tasks and run them through a statistical analysis, all those nasty job details have similar answers that reduce to about four major areas. These are:

  • Cognitive ability (i.e., thinking, learning, technical knowledge, problem solving, etc.)
  • Planning ability (i.e., organizing, planning, managing, etc.)
  • Interpersonal skills (i.e., persuasion, communication, cooperation, etc.)
  • Motivations (i.e., interests, attitudes and motivations, etc.).

Cognitive ability refers to the brainpower to think, learn, and make good decisions. Planning ability refers to the ability to plan and sequence activities to get things done. Interpersonal skills are all the one-on-one skills required to coach, persuade, get along with others, etc. The first three areas represent “can-do.” The last area, motivations, does not represent abilities or competencies at all, but we’ll call it that for simplicity. Motivations represent the applicant/employee’s “will-do.” High performance only occurs when an applicant’s “will do” and “can do” match the job. You don’t have to believe me, you can confirm these basics yourself by asking:

  • Have you known people who were smart, but disorganized?
  • People who were highly organized, but poor problem solvers?
  • People who were smart and organized, but who could not get along with others?
  • People who were smart, organized, and smooth, but lazy or untrustworthy?

Pat yourself on the back, you just learned what it took experts years to discover. Competencies Need Specificity At first blush, it seems like basic competencies are an oversimplification. Another big mistake. Although a competency like “analysis” may apply to jobs like management, engineering, sales, or machine operator, it is applied in very different ways. Run away from people who don’t know the difference! They cannot help you. Experts make competencies job-specific by adding statements called “representative job activities” (RJAs) that define how the competency applies to the job. RJAs make the difference between “Analysis” for a computer salesperson and “Analysis” for an auto salesperson. For example, an HR department of a large HR consulting firm screened sales applicants for an interpersonal sub-competency called “Persuasion.” (Yes, they should have known better, but it goes to show that even big-name companies may not always follow their own advice.) The recruiter’s list of RJAs included:

  1. Big-ticket products
  2. Repeat customers

The recruiter thought she was doing a good job when she submitted an imported car salesman to the field sales manager. The hiring manager was incensed that HR should be so out of touch. In addition to HR’s RJA list, the sales manager’s RJA’s included:

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  1. Experience selling intangible products
  2. Long-term relationship building
  3. Long-term strategic selling ability

Both departments were looking for persuasion, but the RJAs required for the actual job did not match the applicant’s skills. The same is true for cognitive ability, planning, interpersonal, and motivation. Remember, if it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and looks like a duck, it is only a duck when the RJAs say so. If you tried to use the competency lists I published a few months ago, you will have already learned this lesson. Competencies are associated with the job. They do not change depending on the person who fills it. There is no external “golden mean” of competencies. They depend largely on what your company needs. The only “best practice” competencies are ones your employees need to achieve the business plan. Trainable? Only If You Make a Living Selling Training Rather that get into an argument about what is trainable and what is not, I ask the reader how difficult it would be to make someone smarter, a better planner, more interpersonally skilled, or change their motivations. How about the last time you saw an incompetent person enter a training program and leave competent? Training can improve a skill slightly, but there is almost no published data whatsoever to support the claim that training will significantly change behavior or fix a hiring mistake. Even that big HR consulting company never produced a piece of public research that could support a “trainability” claim ó and they produced some very attractive training programs. Competencies Must Be Measurable It is very important to understand that to be useful, a personal competency must be “measurable.” Easier to say than do. Measurability means being accurate, trustworthy, and repeatable. Suppose, for example, you had a death wish and decided to put your wife on ten different brands of bathroom scales at Target. Further, suppose you publicly announced her weight over the PA system each time she got on a different scale. If the scales were equally accurate, you would expect your wife to weigh the same on each scale. If she did not accidentally drop the hammer she was swinging at your head, you would expect her “true” weight to be constant from one scale to the next. And if you did not have to physically restrain her on the scale (to keep her from running to the nearest divorce attorney) you could assume there was no outside influence affecting the scale’s indicator. The same is true for competencies. That is:

  • They should be clear and observable.
  • They should be consistent over time (test-retest reliable).
  • You should be able to trust the results to predict job performance (validity).
  • They should be free of outside influence.
  • Anyone who re-measures the competency should get the same results (inter-rater reliability).

Accurate, repeatable, and independent measures are critical to every recruiter, hiring specialist, and placement manager. Confused? Too hard? Good. The first step toward recruiting enlightenment is learning what you don’t know. Find an expert who can help you build a workable competency set. The money you invest will pay off hundreds of times over. Look for the following:

  • A terminal degree in the field (you need someone with “book learning” as well as practical experience).
  • Plenty of practical experience in developing, training, managing, and measuring competencies (emphasis on development and measurement). Avoid super-trainers and professors who moonlight as consultants. Especially avoid anyone not trained in psychometrics (the science of measuring human skills).
  • Practical experience working with dozens of different organizations.
  • An understanding of the difference between competency applications for hiring training and managing (one type DOES NOT fit all).
  • The ability to develop competency models from scratch (they may all end up in the same place, but top-down competency development is bad science). Avoid people who arrive with a list of competencies in their briefcase.
  • Someone whose competencies they recommend do not sound like they were lifted from training course or personality test (i.e., leadership, staffing, budgeting, winning attitude, business acumen, dedicated, etc.).

Above all, don’t try to do it yourself unless you enjoy learning through public humiliation or have acquired the above credentials and experience. Credibility can only be stretched so far.


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