Competency frameworks are bunkum

I mean, if you read no further, you would still understand the gist of this post.

In the interest of fairness, and for a bit of a debate, here’s all the good things about competency frameworks.

4. They help establish consistent behaviours for everyone to be measured against.

I’ve developed competency frameworks in my time. Spent months of my life that I’m never going to get back understanding corporate behaviours, job based behaviours, and how these might be translated into identifiable measurable things. Rolled out these frameworks to the workforce and spent time with managers helping them to understand how to use them.

You know who loved them? Technical experts. Why? Because it gave them a tool to be able to have those conversations which didn’t focus on a persons craft and were about their behaviours, or their attitude or their knowledge. It gave them a way to have good conversations because they didn’t know how to do that well.

You know who else loved them? All the suppliers and vendors who built their business on a competency framework that identifies x and helps improve performance by doing these sets of interventions. They’re a tangible product, some even have norm groups for some reason, and some are actually quite good.

But they’re the wrong solution to the problem.

The problem has always been how to help people at work talk well with each other. The biggest challenge and biggest opportunity for every team, for every manager, for every senior executive, for every comms team is how to communicate well.

No competency framework will fix that.

When you put a competency framework in place, you’re effectively restricting the clever people to conform to a set of agreed principles. You’re telling people they’re not allowed to think about their own behaviour at work because you’ve produced a manuscript of what that looks like. You’re reducing the whole of a persons being into a neat framework that everyone must and will conform to otherwise they’ll be in disciplinary procedures.

As L&Ders we need to be focused on improving dialogic skills. That’s how organisation development happens. That’s how engagement scores improve. That’s how retention happens. That’s how good recruitment happens. That’s how dealing with difficult behaviour happens. That’s how the world turns round.

The science of… Competency Frameworks

Seems like an apt one to choose seeing I went on a competency framework workshop today. I have an issue with the workshop, but will save that for another post once this series is completed.

So today’s post in the Science of… Occupational Psychology is all about competency frameworks. What a beast this is!

Where in the world do I begin with this? Ok here it is, the age old mantra about competency frameworks – You know your staff can do the technical side of their job, and that’s measurable, but how do you measure how they behave? With a competency framework!

Ok, so look, I know they can be contentious, but they mean well. Something about the road to hell comes to mind. And, I’m in the middle of developing our own company competency framework. They’re not bad. They just get sidelined. But this post isn’t about justifying the existence of competency frameworks, it’s about how they get constructed. I warn you now, there will be jargon, I can’t help it today.

Company Values

The first place to start is to identify and define what the company values are and how these are understood by staff. What this means in reality is to do an audit of how staff define and understand the values. Is it the cleaner at Nasa scenario or is it a blank face?

Once you’ve got this, you have a fair place of understanding what the competency framework needs to look at. That’s to say, is performance the issue? Is it interpersonal skills? Is it communication? Is it development? Is it being fun? Or a mix of these?

Job Analysis

This is the crux of it. This is where it all starts from. Meeting with staff, carrying out focus groups, interviews, workshops, offsites, party’s (well not quite). The key questions here are about:
– what are the key activities you do day to day?
– what are the behaviours expected of you at work?
– what are the positive behaviours you see and are rewarded for?
– what are the negative behaviours you understand are not in line with company values?

The responses from those produce rich information about understanding the behaviours cum competencies that staff currently exhibit. This isn’t about what management want them to exhibit, it’s what they’re currently exhibiting. This information then needs to be grouped, or themed to produce the core competencies.

These competencies then form the standard, consistent basis that everyone will be measured against. You then need to produce indicators of those behaviours e.g. “making the right decision” would need a positive indicator such as “able to collect accurate information to make informed decisions” and a negative indicator such as “makes no effort to gather information, making judgements based on own subjective opinions”.

This is a lot of work. A LOT OF WORK. While at my last company, a team of us spent 2 weeks doing nothing but producing the competency framework for the client who needed it. It was the bane of my life. But extremely satisfying once complete. If only because it was complete.

Throughout this process though, there needs to be regular reviews with the business to ensure the competency framework is being produced in line with the language, culture and values. If a team does this in solo, you run the very high chance of producing something which might be excellent but simply not fit for purpose.


So it’s complete. It’s produced. You can now announce to the world you have a new competency framework. Everyone cheers and forgets about it 2 minutes later.

The key thing is to embed the framework in every part of your being as a business. First hit the obvious places – recruitment, appraisals, promotions, objective setting. Those will be the high profile areas that everyone will already understand and then be able to draw the line of sight of how the competency framework will only enhance and strengthen those processes. There will need to be training and roll out of the framework, but this should be with the objective in mind of updating the current processes – not a new way of doing things, an improved way of doing things. What the framework enables you to do is to give structure to all these processes – and that structure comes from staff not from HR. What’s the importance of that? It’s a business initiative, not a HR initiative.

This will take time. At least a year. Then once you’ve got that, you can think about other initiatives the competency framework should be used. Talent management, leadership development, business planning, learning and development, culture development, employee engagement – you get the idea? You have a core base from which you are already measuring staff. You’re not just taking it further and demonstrating how you can use it strengthen the company culture and brand.


How often should it be revised? When managers start to complain en masse about it’s applicability to the business. Not 2-3 years, but when you have every department coming to you with feedback that says – I cannot use this anymore we need to update it.

And what do you do in that case? Follow the above process. It’s a long, involved process. But once developed and used effectively, it becomes a core piece of the way a business functions.

Is it really objective?

No. It’s still based on interpretation of each competency and of each indicator. How does “Making the right decisions” differ from “Ability to discern quality information”? Or “ability to communicate well with all staff” to “understands how to engage actively with others”?

It’s objective insofar that it’s developed in conjunction with the business. If a sole developer or consultancy or business unit takes charge then it will be subjective as there’s no business context that underpins it. It is validated through the business. It’s use is only validated when managers actively come back to you and say – “I found it useful to use the competency framework because I got stuck on how to further develop my staff”.

Posts in this series:

The science of… Assessment Centres
The science of… Psychometrics
The science of… Ergonomics
The science of… Appraisals
The science of… Learning and Development
The science of… Occupational Psychology

>Why aren’t we all highly effective then?

>I’m revising a course I’m due to deliver next week called ‘Making a Personal Impact’. It’s aimed at juniors in the workforce to give them more understanding about how to make a better impression and impact so that they get noticed and become able to move up the corporate ladder. As part of the course I’m doing a piece on what it means to be pro-active and as I was searching the interwebs, I was directed to Stephen Covey’s website He’s the author of the best selling book ‘7 Habits of Highly Effective People’. The book was first published in 1989, has sold over 20 million copies, and has been named the #1 Most Influential Business Book of the Twentieth Century” according to his website.

Let’s fast forward to the here and now. A lot of authors have written about and blog regularly about how to be effective and the latest ten rules for doing so. I take issue with the continuous rise of such things, least of all because they tend not to be evidence based, more anecdotal, and this means there’s no real fix. The better works try to be scientific in their approach but still fall foul of not following an effective or repeatable process. Anyway that’s not what I’m blogging about.
My question today is around why we’re all not conforming to the multitude of theories in existence that tell us how to be successful and/or effective. Well the answer is pretty simple really. The companies and organisations we work in just don’t support these theories. Business 101 tells us that companies are in existence to make money. In order for that to happen, those same businesses look for the kind of people who are willing to put in the time and effort to make things happen. That’s a broad brush comment which is meant to include all manner of behaviours such as selling, collaborating, seeking new business, delivering on time, etc.
Part of that demand for success means sometimes those businesses have to overlook the desirable qualities that are oft quoted as being the corner mark of an effective person. Do you want a CEO who is able to make hard decisions, communicate them out and keep a business surviving, or a CEO who spends time ensuring staff are being cared for, relationships are well maintained, and may miss opportunities to sustain business success? I’m trying to present extremes on purpose.
The problem is the habits of highly effective people are often in conjunction with other behaviours that aren’t quoted or discussed. Some of these highly effective people are task masters. Some are sticklers for discipline. Some are really picky about details. Some just care about big ideas and big promotions. Some just railroad others into accepting their way of thinking. These are all traits which many executives possess but no-one really takes the time to recognise.
One psychometric tool I’ve come across does attempt to redress this. It’s called the Hogan Dark Side and is developed by Psychological Consultancy Ltd. It’s a good tool which encourages seniors to look at what may ‘derail’ them. What this means is, you may have a trait, e.g. gregarious and energetic, and this may be a great strength of yours. There may be circumstances you encounter which inhibit this strength continuously and make this person derail by forcing them to behave in ways that are uncharacteristic and damaging. For example, they start to go out for drinks far too often, during lunch and then after work, they spend too much time talking to colleagues and socialising rather than doing work, they try to get involved in company social events and miss meetings and deadlines.
But that’s just one tool and it’s not used widely enough to be recognised by the wider working world. My concern is that people go out and buy self-help books on personal success and how to be the next millionaire but they’re not being told the full story of what list of traits are not talked about.
To further this line of thinking, I’m going to make a rather bold statement. We wouldn’t have experienced the financial crisis across the world if all those workers in the banking industries truly exhibited the qualities of highly effective individuals, being genuine and not looking for personal financial gain. Instead, those industries promote and expect behaviours along the lines of: look out for yourself, get a big bonus, don’t collaborate, keep information close at hand, amongst others.
So where does this take us? If a company wants its staff to truly be displaying the qualities that seem to be in high demand, it needs to be explicit about that in a variety of different forms. The company should have a set of values that are clear and understandable by all. There needs to be a behavioural competency framework that outlines what’s expected of everyone in a very practical way. There has to be a clear and unbiased promotion process, succession plan and skills matrix. Review periods have to be mandatory and the opportunities for learning and development made available to every member of staff.
I’m not saying all companies are bad at doing this. If anything the Great Place to Work Survey by the FT shows us clearly that there are a lot of companies striving to get it right and perception from their staff show this to be the case. What I am saying is this needs to be built into every company so that we can have the kind of effective business and quality of workforce that we seem to be looking for.