Why a Strong Corporate Culture Trumps Competency Models

Guest Contributorby Karen Phelan | Posted | Performance Management

Why a Strong Corporate Culture Trumps Competency Models

Popular culture has of late been embracing the findings of behavioral and cognitive science.

Just look at Daniel Kahneman's recent book, Thinking Fast and Slow, his semi-autobiography describing cognitive biases, heuristics, and errors of judgment and memory that's been on best seller lists since its publication.

Another unlikely best-seller, Nudge, by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, describes how to influence human behavior through small actions, and counts the British government as an adherent.

However, businesses, which are usually at the forefront of adopting new people management practices, have been very slow to embrace cognitive and behavioral science.

Are you leveraging the power of circumstances?

For instance, in Nudge, Thaler and Sunstein describe the power of circumstances in motivating specific behaviors. Their most memorable example is using a fly target in public urinals to reduce "spillage." Their central theme is that using simple nudges to change behavior is more effective than trying to change traits, like an appeal to improve cleanliness. The underpinning of nudges is the fundamental attribution error - a cognitive bias of thinking - where people tend to explain behavior with traits or attributes while ignoring the situation.

Meaning, we focus on the person and the way that person is rather than when and where they exhibit a particular behavior.

An example is the adage, "Once a liar, always a liar." Who among us has never lied? Even the most honest people admit to lying to avoid hurting the feelings of another or to get their children to finally go to sleep. In certain situations, it's not only acceptable to lie, it's expected. (No, those pants don't make you look fat.)

The reality is that people's personality traits typically exhibit themselves along a spectrum. For example, extroverts will find themselves quiet and introspective in certain circumstances and the life of the party in most others.

Are you stuck in a world of trait-based competency models?

Yet organizations still rely almost exclusively on trait-based competency models for leadership development, personal development, and even performance management.

I can attest to this as a former employee of two Fortune 100 companies, where every year I was assessed by my peers, direct reports, and managers on a slew of competencies as part of an annual review, and then assessed again on different competencies as part of my development. In contrast, we rarely, if ever, discussed how to change the environment or the culture to cultivate the traits we wanted.

Let me digress momentarily to discuss personality traits versus competencies. Traits are supposed to be the way you are; a part of your personality and having some permanence. Skills and competencies however, are things (aka behaviors) you can acquire or learn to do.

However, I'm not sure if this distinction really exists. Here's what I mean.

Most competency models have a section on "good people skills." If you dive into the roots of good people skills, they are often described as "being friendly, kind, caring, and empathetic"- typical personality traits. Yet, they are also behaviors that can be learned.

Similarly, when it comes to "strategic thinking" as a competency - analytical, big picture perspective, and innovative - these are all traits we ascribe to people. Yet they too can be learned.

But more importantly, these traits can be fostered by our situation. If you surround a person with kind and caring individuals, that person becomes more kind and caring.

And the findings of behavioral psychology show that social pressure and circumstances play as big a role as our personality in determining our behavior.

Which brings me back to competency models.

Invest in cultivating the right culture rather than the right competencies

Businesses are spending way too much time, effort, and money devising comprehensive models of the ideal leadership traits, assessing employees on these traits, especially where they are weak, and providing coaching, feedback, and training programs to learn specific traits when they could just promote the desired actions by nudging people along.

Think of it this way: rather than trying to change people's personalities, we could just take advantage of social pressure and the environment to change behaviors.

Where we should be investing our efforts is in creating the culture that promotes the behaviors we want in our organization.

Your turn: What do you think about the value of cultivating culture rather than competency models?

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