Home-made competency models – a clown’s suitcase?

Posted 28 August 2015 by
Rob Bailey - Principal R&D Consultant at OPP

“We’ve got our own competency model” sounds like an innocent phrase, but can be worrisome to an external consultant. Not all competency models are created equal, and even good ones can present a challenge to those of us who have to assess people against them.

When Occupational Psychologists like me work with businesses that have created their own competency models, there can be something of a clash of interests. It’s mostly due to our different intentions: businesses often want to describe every possible aspect of a job and to do it in a way that feels rich, contextual and shows the range of skills required to perform well. This works for me too, but I want to achieve it whilst keeping each of the competencies ‘clean’ and discrete, because I am mindful of what it takes to assess them meaningfully.

Here’s a fictitious example of a couple of competency models that shows the kind of competency that makes my heart sink:

Strategic Sales
Uses market analysis to create, then deliver, a strategic sales vision, clearly communicating this vision to inspire employees at all levels. Leads own team in exceeding the sales targets.

The above example contains at least five different competencies: analytical problem solving, strategic vision, clear communication, inspiring others and managing others.

“What’s wrong with that?” you ask.

Well, the problem deepens when you get to the next competency:

Visionary Problem Solving
Uses analytical problem-solving to create a compelling strategy for the business, then clearly communicates this vision to inspire employees at all levels.

We see pretty much the same competencies recurring here. In practice, competency models like this have two problems:

  1. Skills such as managing others and creating a strategic vision can require conflicting dispositions. Our research finds that people with warmer personalities tend to be rated more positively with regards to their management skills, while ratings for strategic vision appear to be higher for more emotionally cool individuals. As a result, combining these two competencies can cause individuals to yield a bland assessment score, as the results on both average each other out.
  2. With multiple competencies overlapping throughout the model, the results of every competency can look similar. Some competencies which occur less often, but are equally important, can become overshadowed.

This is why competencies in the OPP Job Profiling Kit are themed very tightly. For example, you’ll find the content in ‘Analytical Problem Solving’ is about just that – and nothing else. Additionally, we know how this competency relates to our range of personality and aptitude tests (for example, it requires abstract thinking and aptitude for numerical and verbal reasoning).

Experience has taught me that when I turn up at a client’s office clasping my pack of competency cards, I shouldn’t feel awkward about telling them that they have a ‘difficult’ or ‘muddled’ competency model. Instead, I can now say, “I see why you’ve structured your competencies this way. These are how your competencies relate to ours and here are the psychometric tools or assessment methods that measure each of them most effectively.”

Using an existing model (the OPP competencies) depersonalises any perceived criticism and there’s no need to talk about overlap between competencies – the client can see that for themselves. It’s also clear how my approach will fit the client’s needs: once the assessment is done, the results can be regrouped according to the client’s structure and then presented back in the familiar, comfortable, language that the client has found to be effective.

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