Friday, March 9, 2012

Unconscious Competency: The Unrecognized Root of Competency Models

In the bad old days, personnel departments just analyzed two things: jobs, which are really collections of task, and skills, which are what people can do.

Starting in the 1970s, however, David McClelland and his protégés developed a different method. Their efforts were a reaction against psychometric testing and the traditional methods of describing, predicting and developing employee performance.

These Harvard-based Freudian psychologists believed that unconscious motives, thoughts, and behaviors are important. They used projective, not psychometric, tests. This does not mean they were obsessed with the deep secrets of the id’s conflict with the super-ego. They believed that humans are not aware of all their assumptions, schemas, and skills. Today, cognitive psychologists and instructional designers would agree. In fact, some training programs deliberately build unconscious competence.

The Unconscious Competence Matrix

McClelland and his protégés investigated the conscious and unconscious thoughts, feelings and behaviors in interviews with high-performing incumbents.  They inquired about critical incidents and they analyzed the common themes that emerged in the stories. This method was called the behavioral event interview (BEI).
  1. The researchers were identifying what high performers paid attention to—the story an incumbent chose to tell. They did not focus what they are able to do (skills) or the job requirements (tasks). BEIs are projective tests—like a Rorschach ink-blot test.
  2. They only focused on the thinking, motives and behaviors that differentiate superior from average performance. They did not develop exhaustive lists of skills and qualifications needed to do the job. 
  3. The often found the difference between superior and average performance was a matter of inter- or intra-personal skills, such as collaboration or emotional intelligence.
  4. The analytical (vs. theoretical) results were often surprising. For example, the competency that differentiated the best from average sales people in a furniture chain was “elicits tactile expressions.” Getting someone to express how furniture should feel (vs. how it looks) is the key to selling furniture.  
  5. New insights were common.
They unlocked the secrets to high-performance! A genuinely new and different method of developing employees was born.

Now, competency models have become a standard part of HR and leadership development. Many professionals are confused and overusing competencies. We have forgotten about, or ignored, the history of competency models. Competency models have become too common and few organizations use them to unlock the secrets of high performance.

Recently, I was asked to inventory the skills of an organization for workforce planning using a competency model. The model was comprised of general capabilities such as “teamwork” and “communication.” The model was not up to the task; it could not identify whether the organization has the right people with the right skills for the future.

I have heard some equating competency models with knowledge/skills/abilities (KSA) lists. This intellectually lazy simplification is the root of the confusion about competencies. It is better to distinguish competency models as a unique approach to improving performance.

KSAs and competencies are different! KSAs, which are the result of jobs and skills analysis, are associated with individual-differences psychology (e.g., personality and intelligence testing). KSAs work well for some tasks (e.g., workforce planning). Competencies, which are the result of BEIs, are associated with Freudian psychology. Competencies work well for some tasks (e.g., leadership development, understanding intra- and inter-personal demands of jobs). Both methods can be appropriate in certain circumstances. Bottom line:
  • Competency models should not be the basis for all HR tasks. For some purposes skill- or task-dictionaries work better.
  • There are multiple methods of developing competency models and there is a sweet spot for each. I will blog about this in future posts.
Charley Morrow

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