Is your green the same as my green? Pitfalls in competency framework design

Pinning down what is required from employees to achieve the business strategy is a no brainer. Without having a consistent agreement as to what employees should be developing, what employees prioritise might differ from what leaders expect to be prioritised. One person’s green is not the same as someone else’s green. 

Whether that definition comes in the form of a competency or capability framework, a set of behaviours and attitudes, or something else is difficult to establish. This isn’t helped by the interchangeable and (sometimes) incorrect use of terminology across organisations.

Nevertheless, the aim of the game is simply to define what is required to achieve strategic goals and to make sure that there is a clear and consistent understanding of those requirements between leaders and employees.

Easy yes? Well perhaps not. If a framework is well designed, it can take a significant amount of time to get leaders aligned to sign-off on a set of competencies.  But the bit after is where the hard work starts. Competency frameworks fail when leaders, managers and HR assume it is being appropriately applied in recruitment and development, without taking the time to integrate it. It’s a surer bet to launch a boat without a rudder. 

Problems with integrating and applying competency frameworks 

It’s this next part of the process that I think is deserving of greater attention – and with far greater consequences if it isn’t done right. And that is the interpretation of the framework. How does it actually apply? Is it fully integrated into the employee lifecycle? And do people have a shared understanding of how the framework elements can be demonstrated?

Here’s an example based on some of the assessment issues I’ve seen. Imagine ‘Drive for Results’ as a category on a competency framework, against which two managers are being assessed:

Manager A sets out the project targets for success and provides a directive breakdown of the tasks their team need to undertake. They have a gun-ho, motivating communication style and challenge individuals’ performance whenever it looks like they are slipping on targets.

Manager B outlines a broad strategy. They use a coaching style, asking the team questions to get them to propose what they think can be achieved and how it’s going to be delivered. They take a step back, let the team crack on but make it known team members can come to them for support as needed. 

Now take into account that the panel are all male and have a similar managerial style to Manager A, who is also male. Manager B is female. Who do you think got the higher rating? The interviewers had too narrow a focus on how they believed ‘Drive for Results’ could be demonstrated, with ‘same-as-me’ bias creeping in too. Behavioural descriptors are needed to broaden interpretation.

I’ve picked out gender in the example but it’s a barrier to diversifying talent in general. For example, how might white, male investment managers with a particular educational background interpret examples provided by candidates with different ethnic and educational backgrounds? 

A framework outlines skills, behaviour and knowledge requirements but it’s the dialogue around the framework that gets you the real value. For example, what might sound-decision making mean for someone in the Finance department vs. an Area Manager of a retail chain? 

And which parts of the framework should any one individual be focussing on? It’s unrealistic to expect all employees to develop strengths in all areas. But then, I’ve seen employees and leaders quickly dismissing elements they felt were not relevant, when it’s precisely those elements that would benefit their development (and their colleagues’ sanity).

How to embed a competency framework 

It would be horribly prescriptive to try and document all of the possible illustrations of a competency framework, although these tomes do exist in some organisations. The more effective route to integrating a framework is to get people talking about it. Unearth real examples of how the skills and behaviours  play out in the day job, ideally involving a diverse group of people so that interpretations can be challenged. 

Here are some methods I’ve seen work really well in organisations to breathe life into a competency framework:

  1. Storytelling: Feature individuals (ideally influential movers and shakers in the organisation) from across roles and levels in internal communications, talking about how the behaviours,skills and/or abilities play out for them and how they intend to develop certain areas. Short video clips work nicely. 
  2. Peer review groups: Get people together who are involved in recruitment, people management, promotions etc. so they can discuss the sorts of things they expect to see, share examples and test each others’ interpretations. 
  3. Self-audit development tools: I’ve worked with organisations to develop online tools that enable employees to reflect on their strengths and weaknesses in relation to the competency framework for their role and career aspirations. The tool links through to suggested development activities, relevant to their needs. These tools are invaluable if you want people to drive their own development.  
  4. Manager training: Line managers have a particularly important role to play in coaching and supporting their direct reports’ development. Ensure managers understand how the framework can be used for development and performance management. 
  5. Gatecrash team meetings: Or at least politely offer to attend existing team meetings to give an overview of the framework and to answer ‘what’s in it for you?’. Once employees realise how beneficial it is for structuring their personal development, it will be taken much more seriously. 
  6. Integrate supporting documentation into all HR processes: Provide templates, examples, guidance and Q&As for things like interview scripts, job adverts, appraisals, 121s etc. 
  7. Brand it as something else altogether and get it properly designed so that it is visually engaging. Presenting something as a competency or capability framework in a tabular format tends to result in eyes glazing over. 

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