Face it: competency theories don’t work

Bad HR
theories never die, they only fade away. Shaky concepts and basic design flaws
are put down to “difficulties in implementation”.

We choose
to keep such theories alive rather than face the fact that we have ardently
pursued something that has promised so much, yet achieved so little. And
because of the personal and professional credibility invested in such ventures,
we are unlikely to admit openly that the theory just does not work.

There are
several contenders for the worst HR theory title but the concept of management
competencies is top of my list. But then, we all knew this at the outset
because we even debated whether to call them “competences” or “competencies” –
an obvious indication of a poorly developed methodology.

The
practice of management competencies always presented many insuperable problems.
First, find a group of high-performing managers. Next, analyse their skills,
behaviours, aptitudes and so on (competencies) and find a cluster that sets
them apart. Then, analyse all managers’ competencies to identify where they are
deficient and use this as a basis for individual development plans. Meanwhile,
link your reward system to competencies and keep your fingers crossed that
there is a correlation between competence development and business performance.

One
sensible test of any new theory is to view it in the negative. So, is the
negative of competence “incompetence”? In other words, is competence a black or
white issue or is there a grey area called semi-competence? In this case, would
you like to be flown by a semi-competent pilot or be operated on by a
semi-competent surgeon? Should managers be allowed to manage before they are
totally competent? What if a particular bit of the jigsaw is always missing?

The biggest
flaw in competence theory is the specious concept that the best-performing
managers must have something in common. Any management population will exhibit
just as many differences as similarities and the biggest differentiators of all
– drive, judgement, leadership and initiative – are precisely the things that
are innate and less amenable to development.

We have
heard all these arguments before but did we ever hear any convincing answers?
Maybe it’s time to re-frame the basic proposition. The perfect manager does not
exist and no two managers are identical.

Perhaps the
focus of managerial development should not be a blueprint of perfect
competencies but individual, measured, managerial performance. Maybe we have to
accept the reality of managerial imperfections and aim for higher performance
levels within such constraints.

The theory
and practice of competencies have not delivered and any validity they may have
had is fading fast. The kindest thing would be to put them out of their misery
so that we can make a fresh start.

By Paul
Kearns, Senior partner, Personnel Works

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