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Sunday, March 23, 2008

Competent Use of Competency Models in Managing Performance

This is the third of my series on the topic “competency.” If you are interested on this subject matter, I suggest that you read all my articles with this label. I have already written a number of times on the subject of performance management so I see this as a follow-up or an augmentation if you will of what I’ve already said about competencies and performance management.

“Quality has to be caused, not controlled.” – Phil Crosby.

I feel that the idea of managing employees’ performance through a competency-based approach responded to this call of Phil Crosby. Being able to describe the kind of knowledge, skills and attitudes necessary for successful performance is like identifying the necessary ingredients to a quality result. While results orientation is extremely important as I mentioned on my KPI article, pro-activeness in investigating and mapping what leads to it provides the means for being able to more consistently deliver positive results. If competency models really are as useful as their champions say, why do many attempts to use it fail? This is where I’ll share some opinions on why and how I think some pitfalls occur and can be avoided.

  • Problems can occur right at the development stage of competency models. You’ll know that you did it all wrong when those who do not show the competencies you identified succeed and those who do fumble. There are several reasons why this happens. Number one is the lack of thoroughness in designing the model. Looking back, I know that I am guilty of this as well. Often, managers have a preconceived idea of what a good worker looks like in terms of knowledge, skills and attitudes and use these as the basis for creating their models. Often, their concepts are biased and baseless. For example, a manager may say that she prefers a programmer who is a team player, and will probably describe this quality further by saying that she expect her programmers to help each other out at times. While this works for others, it is possible that some members of the team find demonstrating this kind of behavior disruptive because they find themselves more productive when they are left to work on their own or when they do not have to stop what they are doing or thinking about because a team-mate is bothering them with a silly question. I have always found asking as many people as possible about what competencies constitute a good model as very helpful. By being able to withhold my own opinion on how things should be (believe that is one of the most difficult things for me to do), I’m able to see perspectives I was never able to consider. So, by interviewing as many people as possible, or by having people sit together to answer questions like “what kind of behavior supports the delivery of positive result in a particular tasks and have them argue about it, you can have a more thoroughly thought about model.
  • When you stop short of thoroughly explaining your model and allow people to ask questions and express how they feel about the model and consider changes when you see the need, no body will take ownership of it except you. During performance appraisal sessions, you’ll probably ask your “appraisees” to evaluate themselves against those behaviors you expect them to demonstrate and find them appraising themselves in a very different light from how you see them. This is often the cause of performance appraisal grudges that affect not only performance but also relationships. It destroys trust. My suggestion is for you to thoroughly communicate your expectations in terms of these competencies and make sure that employees are clear about what you mean.
  • I realized very recently that the competency models I’ve seen and made in the past contain a lot of noise – behaviors that are not relevant to the successful performance of the job. They just add up to what the employee needs to remember and because of their sheer volume, they become unappealing. I suggest that you do what I’m doing now, I’m going back to those models with the people involved and ask how relevant each behavioral attribute is and what happens if we stop monitoring those behaviors.
  • Lastly, I notice that there are companies who are completely bought in to this idea of competency-based performance appraisals lost focus on the result. This is why this phenomena of people having high performance rating while the entire company’s performance suck happens. Competency models should be used for developmental purposes. You appraise how people demonstrate the competencies so you can give them feedback. If there is a lack of correlation between the competencies and the results, something is awfully wrong. You might want to go back to reviewing your models. What I do in order to give the right emphasis, I only give 20% weight on the competency appraisal and 80% weight on the achievement of targets. This way, employees understand that while demonstrating competency matters, the delivery of results matters the most.
  • The really last point, if you didn’t hire the right person for the job, it will be doubly hard for you to have them manifest the right behaviors on the job, so please review my previous article that tackles competency-based recruitment and do the right thing, hire the right people.

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