Published Editorial

Competencies can mark out performers

  • Share

The Economic Times


NS Rajan
Partner & Global Leader
People and Organization

Our understanding of what leads to successful performance at work has evolved over time. In ancient Athens, the heart of Greek democracy, eloquence was regarded as measure of success. Psychologist Alfred Binet, when asked by the French Government in early 1900s to identify students most likely to experience difficulty at school, devised the first intelligence test which became a basis for the IQ measure that is in vogue today.

Interestingly, the study of the genome unravelled how our instinct, intelligence and personality are hugely influenced by our heritage. Deep within the marvelous world of the 23 chromosomes that comprise the human genome, some are responsible for the imprint that they uniquely leave behind; chromosome number 6 for intelligence, 7 for instinct and 11 for personality. What is inherited also tends to endure and perhaps remain less amenable to change.

Human potential is a complex composite of instinct, intelligence, personality, knowledge, skills, motivation, attitude and behaviours. We are continually shaped by our genetic inheritance, family, friends, peers, education, and our work as well as life experiences.

The pioneering work of research by the Harvard Psychological Clinic in the 1930s, summarised in 'Explorations in Personality', was the beginning of future studies of personality. Later researchers proposed the Big 5 factors of personality, widely used in assessments, comprising extroversion, emotional stability, agreeableness, conscientiousness and openness to experience. Most personality tests have been questioned for validity, and observed to be discriminatory and too broad in scope, whereas the areas of job performance are fairly narrow and specific.

Around 40 summers ago, a breakthrough article by Harvard University professor David C McClelland titled, 'Testing for Competence Rather than for Intelligence', published in American Psychologist in 1973, questioned the merit of relying on intelligence alone as a predictor of job success.

Adecade after the discovery of McClelland, his colleague Professor Richard Boyatzis advanced our understanding of competencies in his book 'The Competent Manager: A model for effective performance, 1982.' Competencies, an underlying characteristic of an individual comprising 'knowledge, skills, and attitude,' are describable and measurable, and separate superior performers from the average. Corporations have since embraced competence as a cornerstone in their attempt to define employee potential and to enhance future performance more predictably by investing in them.

Organisations too, like an individual, have a DNA of their own with a persona and bedrock of vision, values and culture that differentiate them. Employees, as individuals, reflect the collective calibre of what an organisation hopes to achieve. Competencies provide the basis for investing in them when set in an organisational context. The scientific process of competency modeling, measurement and deployment pave the way for continually enhancing collective capability. Competencies have gained currency since they are valid tender and convertible; a modern day alchemy, perhaps.