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  • Szilvia Olah

The Incompetence of Competency Frameworks

Competency framework is predicated on the idea that performance can be predefined regardless of who is doing the job. It completely dispenses with the fact that performance in the same job is idiosyncratic.


Athletes use different techniques, yet, they are all at the top of their league. Lionel Messi almost left the world of football at the age of 12 because they kept forcing him to focus on perfecting his right foot, causing him to struggle and making him feel incompetent. His father grabbed him and left the club. Later, they called him back and never ever asked him again to play with his right foot. We know where that led him. He had been multiple times the best football player of the year.


Trying to mould everyone into the same shape ignores the fact that there are no well-rounded people, and we must learn to accept this. Some people are good at something, and others are good at something else. But this doesn't mean they cannot achieve the same outcome their role requires them. I know very successful sales managers who conduct business negotiations very differently.


I know waiters who are not very good at describing the dishes on the menu, yet, they have the highest upsell because of their ability to connect with people. There are leaders who run highly successful businesses even though they hardly ever talk or interact with their staff. And here, I don't only mean money as the measurement of success. Staff are informed, engaged, and happy. How they can achieve that when the competency framework clearly says otherwise?


Standardising the process instead of the outcome is the greatest mistake of competency frameworks. The standardization of processes works in factories where goods production takes place, and it makes sense there. But not with soft skills and, to a certain degree, not even with knowledge.


Adopting an outcome-led approach to performance measurement is the key to productivity.

I go as far as to say that the competency framework hinders performance.

Why? I can clearly recall my manager (long time ago) explaining the performance management framework to emphasise the fact that the company is very much looking at how people achieve their results. That is great (but not by telling me how to do it)! However, she added, sometimes people do their best (according to the competency framework) yet don't achieve their KPIs. In this case, we evaluate performance based on the behaviours that are outlined in the framework. I almost fell off the chair, thinking maybe the only reason they didn't achieve what they were supposed to because we hammered off everything they needed to perform. It also sends a message that as long as you follow protocol, it is ok not to "perform". Here I mean the real performance. The one that is measurable. Let's be honest competencies are very vague, subjective and, therefore, impossible to measure! I always wondered how my company measures my critical thinking, self-awareness, self-development or resilience. What would be the measurement of my resilience? I get on with challenges, and I am flexible? Maybe I just don't want to complain, but it is killing me inside, and I am looking for a job. Maybe I have given up, and I just go with the flow. Would it be considered flexibility?


There is so much that is wrong with competency frameworks, but the biggest of all is that it chisels people's natural competence away. The problem with trying to fit a square peg into a round hole is not so much the time, energy, effort, and frustration of forcing the fit, but you damage the peg. It is easier to fit the job to the person than a person to the job. So find the right people and you won't need the hammer.




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