HR Trends

Why competency models are intellectual masturbation

Arne Van Damme

COO at intuo

In the old days, when companies were run like big controllable machines, competency models probably made sense. But using them now is a bit like using a postal pigeon to send a frame-by-frame printout of a YouTube video to a friend. It’s costly, it’s slow, and on the usefulness scale, the arrow is pointing to Nada-Zero-Nothing.

Of course, competencies can be useful when used in a reactive way to create the hiring pipeline, guide people into relevant training, gain insight into succession planning and define the desired culture. But they are NOT useful for increasing company-wide performance if you use them to evaluate or promote.

They are oblivious to the complexity of today’s tasks

If you have a company of people that shovel snow off people’s driveways I can imagine that there are competencies that could be used for the role of snow-shoveler to increase overall customer satisfaction. You’d probably want them to be friendly, thorough and proactive. But if a job becomes any more complicated than that, the difficulty of the exercise increases along with it.

It’s by letting them be who they are that they are successful in what they do.

These days people are trying hard to escape the narrow prison cell that is their function description, to meet their clients’ changing needs. When a customer demands flexibility, you simply can't ignore it in this climate of abundant options and possibilities. So if you, being in charge, decide to divide that prison cell into even smaller parts by adding competencies, that person totally loses all breathing room to be creative, take the initiative and actually help your customers. Who made you the "Grand Chief Know-it-all Officer" that knows exactly how everyone in your company should do their job? It’s just unrealistic that a few people in the organisation have the knowledge and insight to decide on that.

Psychologically, they give way to evaluation and obstruct coaching

Give people a list of things to score, and they feel powerful. Feeling powerful is not the right mindset to start a coaching conversation. But even without that psychological pitfall, it’s easy to see that those competency lists restrict creativity in coaching. A true coach can help a person figure out what they need to do to improve, without delivering a set of improvement points even before the session has started. His/her goal is not to massage your brain until it’s molded into something that does a specific amount of tasks in a specific way. There are machines for that now.

They work against strengths

This one is easiest to explain with a personal example. At INTUO we have three people working as an account executive (closing deals), one is good in sales because he’s very analytical, the other radiates trust and the last one honestly loves figuring out solutions with the customers. It’s by letting them be who they are and allow them to use their strengths to the fullest that they are successful in what they do. No predefined list of competencies would’ve made them any better, on the contrary.

They counteract customer centricity

A lot of effort is being put into increasing companies' agility, meaning that your companies' tasks (and products) will change very often. In that situation, it's probably not the worst idea to come up with a system for coaching/evaluating people that is adaptive instead of rigid and top-down. By the way, the whole exercise of defining functions with matching competencies takes so long that the result will always be outdated anyway, even in a relatively slow changing market.

So, take a few steps back and try to keep your competency models on a macro level. Or if you do want to use them in a more micro way, use them reactively. That implies that you don’t decide who’s good at what beforehand, but that you try to analytically discover what skills & behaviors make a person perform well in a role. That’s what you’ll be looking for in a hiring or succession context as well then.


An example of competency overkill