This week on the Distance Leader Podcast show 0109, we’re talking about different definitions of performance and leadership competencies. Here are some of our guiding questions:

  • How is a competence different than a skill or an aptitude?
  • What are some common competency approaches currently used in work environments?

You’ll hear it more and more in HR conversations: Competency-based hiring, competency definitions, and competency-level training. What exactly does the term “competency” mean? To uncover the definition, we’ll need to take a trip to the past.

What is a competency?

The short answer is simple: Outcomes-relevant measures of knowledge, skills, abilities, and traits and/or motives. This is a definition developed in 1973 by David McClelland. In 1973, McClelland questioned the reliability and validity of intelligence and aptitude tests in his paper. At the time, the United States had invested in the idea of standardized tests to assess and track students into colleges and employment. For example, police officers in Boston were being given vocabulary tests to determine if they were “right” for the job. That would have been great if the vocabulary was for police-related terms. However, the terms were totally unrelated to police work. What, then, were they measuring?

Alfred Binet and French Schooling

In the early 1900s, Alfred Binet was commissioned by the French government to explore student intelligence. Whether it was for students who needed additional support or were somehow more competent than their peers, there was no easy way to measure intelligence. Until Binet developed his approach to measuring intelligence, there was not really a good way to measure innate intelligence. French law required every student to attend school, so knowing which students would need remediation was extremely important. Binet and Theodore Simon developed a “mental age” approach that was designed to show which students were “below,” “above,” or “at” the physical age in their demonstrated intelligence. 

Since Binet’ and Simon’s work was heavily connected to schools, the concept of intelligence was also connected to grades and grading. Even though Binet himself did not believe that his testing was effective in every situation, as intelligence changed over time and could be impacted by something as simple as vocabulary differences, his theories were adopted with great abandon in the United States. Lewis Terman, working at Stanford University, developed a hybrid of the intelligence test, called the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale. You probably know it as the intelligence quotient, or IQ, test: The IQ score was calculated by dividing the test taker’s mental age by his or her chronological age and then multiplying this number by 100. 

The long arms of the (intelligence) law

Schools in France and the US jumped on board with this quickly. Having a way to objectively measure students either before or during their entry into the educational system was considered a real advantage, especially since students who were not “smarter” on the IQ tests never had the option to take any higher-level courses. Grading became a corollary to IQ tests, indicating whether or not students were performing at an “average” level or above or below the average. The military used IQ tests to identify which roles recruits could fulfill, and colleges and universities decided that they could also be part of the process by developing standardized tests.

The roots of standardized tests go back to the beginning of the 1900s, and there are numerous court cases and research studies that show the bias of standardized tests have on English learners, people from poorer backgrounds, and people with less robust education. Whether it’s vocabulary, reading and writing skills, or experiential processing skills, standardized tests have been used to “grade” people for over 100 years.

Meanwhile, back to David McClelland in 1973…

McClelland realized that traits or skills were too inexact to determine the right people for roles in an organization. A test of abilities often just showed good that the candidate had good test-taking abilities. A review of experience could be inexact or inaccurate. Where was the measure for the potential in a position? If you could train the right person in a role that was suited for them, a candidate might be able to go far beyond skills or experiences, and contribute more to the team and the organization.

Essentially, the idea of competencies emerged as a combination of both skills and abilities. By critically assessing the concept of intelligence and aptitude tests, McClelland indicated several objectives when looking for a better mechanism to explore human potential.  

The emergence of competency frameworks

Here’s the core of McClelland’s work: He felt that competencies could establish evidence for intelligence and aptitude to infer effective skills and behaviors for specifically defined roles. What resulted was a path of inquiry that changed the way social scientists looked at performance, learning development, employee fit in a job, and leadership abilities. In short, it was the beginning of the field of competency research. 

Practically, it meant that you were looking beyond the surface in a job role or position candidate. Instead of searching for the right assessment scores on an instrument to identify the best student, teacher, or employee, McClelland believed there were combinations of abilities, defined as competence or competencies, that may make a person successful, including communication skills, patience, moderate goal setting, and ego development.

So what does that mean for distance leaders?

Quite a lot, actually, but it will change from organization to organization. There are very few competencies that are transferable to every workplace, but there are several common competencies. To define competencies, you have to first understand what the organization needs and what it aspires to accomplish, and then consider the roles, skills, experience, and responsibilities or candidates who might be able to fit the organization in that way.

Here are some starter competencies that might be especially appropriate for distance leaders:

    • Communication. Candidates should be especially effective at determining the right way to communicate various types of information effectively with multiple delivery approaches.
    • Project management. Being able to identify, establish, maintain, and conclude projects is a critical distance leader role in many organizations.
    • Employee support. Being able to develop rapport with virtual workers requires a unique set of skills and aptitudes, especially when problems arise among employees or between work groups.
    • Problem solving. Candidates should have the ability and experience solving problems in environments related to the job role.
    • Work-Life balance. This implies that the candidate will be able to maintain high productivity through effective boundary setting and time management. 

One final note

Many people might look at those competencies and think that they are all innate qualities of the person in a particular role. That can be true, but training can also provide critical skills and experience in each of these competencies in a way that will make that employee a better distance leader. Research has demonstrated that motivation and training, when combined, are a powerful approach to building competencies. Nobody was born being able to use a Gantt chart; learning skills is a natural process. Deciding which skills to learn is where competencies can be grown. 

The bottom line

Today’s podcast was a very, very brief overview of competencies, or outcomes-relevant measures of knowledge, skills, abilities, and traits and/or motives. The history of competencies goes back into intelligence testing in the industrial age, leading to “grading” approaches that may not be the best ways to establish the right “fit” for a role or position in an organization. Instead, being able to understand the right competencies for the culture and job functions could yield better hiring and performance results.

Photo by David Siglin on Unsplash

0109-What are competencies?

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