Strategy & Leadership

Successful teams: steering on competences or talents?

March 2, 2016

Recently, a manager at a large Dutch company kindly invited the HR department to a meeting. He could not agree with yet another "competence management" decree telling him to write down the things that employees were not yet good enough at. The reply was immediate: he had not yet met the requirements and it was absolutely essential to immediately draw up the required report. And that with a cc to his boss, to the HR manager, and to the CEO. A knee-jerk reaction, and apparently no discussion possible. What is going on here?

In many organizations, competence management has made rapid development. Firstly, if it is done properly, it is determined what is needed to make the organization function. Subsequently, which competences can make a contribution herein. After that we list them and compare the employees with the competence standard to see what still needs to be developed for the competences required.

There are two deep pitfalls that many organizations tend to fall into with their competence management: that of "components-thinking" and that of instrumentalism. The net effect is the demotivation of employees! For really effective groups, the so-called high performance teams, steering on talents instead of on competences is however a condition.

People are no Lexus

Components-thinking assumes that people are also made up of components. So competences are components which together determine how a person functions. Just about the same as the Lexus story: take the best of all existing car components, improve them, and reassemble the improved components to create a single car. Voila, a super car.

But people are no Lexus. Human functioning is endlessly more complex; it requires a person to perform as one unit, while at the same time interacting with team members who are all influencing one another.

There are sheets of paper available containing an imitation of a painting in an extremely large number of small squares. If you color in each square as specified, then the painting will appear. It looks terrible! Okay - for a child, with plenty of goodwill and few demands - it does begin to look a little bit like a painting. However, the real power of the original painting remains hidden. And so it is with people too.

Everything can always be better

And yet every quarter, countless managers are handed forms depicting their employees (and themselves) just as on one of those sheets of squares. As an HR instrument. Whether they would be so kind as to find out which squares are not yet good enough, then they can be developed. The line manager and the employee fill in a form together, instead of having a good discussion with each other. This is really "deficiency-thinking": I see who has which deficiencies, and then I ask that these appear in a Personal Development Plan.

That is another of those instruments: whether the employee would be so kind as to write down what is not going well, what he or she is lacking. Of course, that is not written literally on the form, not with those words, but that is the core question. We have known for years that this demotivates: each year there is something else which is flawed. And if there isn't anything, then just think something up, because the form has got to be colored in. Everything can always be even better.

If you steer year in, year out on what is flawed, then after a while people... are flawed. There is not a single book about human development or behavior that doesn't draw attention to this. And yet not all HR departments seem to want to hear this, witness the earlier example of the email to the HR department.

Steering on talents

A pleasant alternative is steering on talents. And then not by simply replacing the word "competence" by the word "talent", which I saw recently, but by really looking at what people can do well, where they seem to derive their energy from. Anyone with a little bit of managerial sense already knows that about his or her people, and doesn't need to wait for the annual round of performance appraisal intruterviews to do something with it.

Moreover, you will also naturally encounter areas in which an employee has absolutely no talent and from which he also derives no pleasure. In that case, it is not a competence that needs improving, but an aspect of the work for which that particular person is unsuitable. So depending on the task and the possible distribution within a team, this could lead to departure. Rather that, than tinker with something which isn't there anyway. Practice shows that sensible line managers are very well able to distribute tasks and requirements in a team, so that the job gets done. And when it gets done based on talents, then it is done with pleasure too.

Managers too lazy

However, the biggest riddle is the following. If you talk with HR professionals and managers who together keep up a deficiency instrument like this, then they all shake their heads and sigh that they would so much like to be rid of it. They are enthusiastic about every story about talent management. But oh - the others...

How is that possible? The HR professionals say that the managers are too lazy to really steer the development of their subordinates, and so they demand instruments (which they in turn develop). The managers say that they can't get past the HR professionals and have to listen to a kind of staff-dictators (and they do that too, because HR seems to play a secretive role in appraisals). But instead of a constructive discussion, knee-jerk emails start cropping up packed with cc's about what the other is doing wrong.

In organizations where this is going on, perhaps line and (HR) staff should convene a mutual appraisal meeting. And if possible, let's start with the question that you hope will always be at the start of a performance appraisal interview: "Good to see you - how do you do?"

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