The Problem With ‘Competencies’ At Work

Competencies are everywhere at work. From job descriptions to vacancies, from development programmes to 1000 textbooks. It's all about trying to identify 'what good looks like', develop people accordingly and apparently this is what will then make everyone most effective and successful in their role. So no harm done? Well, like a lot of work practices they have become a bit over-engineered and lost their way. At their worst they are about bureaucracy, compliance and ticking boxes so here's a few things to consider to perhaps review what you are doing to bring things back to their original purpose:

  • There are hundreds of competencies, skills and abilities so picking out ten and mandating that these must be the exact ones that make for success in this organisation just seems odd! Competencies are often cobbled together by HR and a few others who decide which ones are important - and they often never change for years despite the org changing/moving on/looking different from one year to the next.
  • Just putting subjective buzzwords out there in competencies like 'Effective Influencer' is meaningless - this needs breaking down into what we factually and indisputably see/hear that tells us whether someone is good at this or not. What is it they are actually doing? Most people are probably going to suggest that they are 'effective' when it comes to all of your competencies unless you've broken them down into a lot of detail. Trying to get competencies onto one page just isn't helpful. Human behaviour is much more complicated.
  • And are we really trying to download robots that all look, sound and act like each other? Let's not even get into the ridiculous process that asks every job applicant the same 'competency based questions' whilst we listen out for 'the right answers'! Auditing people against every competency and then producing a list of 'gaps' needs to replaced by a focus instead on making it a 'library' tool that people can dip in and out of and pick the things to work on that are right for them.

Are competencies really making the difference in your organisation? If yes, are you sure....?