Putting Competencies into Action!

As described last month, we worked with organizations to brainstorm and develop and then narrow down lists of key competencies that they value and want to see in their own workplaces; competencies that they want to see every employee, regardless of job function, demonstrate. Having met with large employee groups (sometimes broken down into smaller work groups), we would arrive at the point where we would have helped staff identify 5-7 core competencies to apply to all employees. The number is important. Too few competencies might not give employees a clear enough picture of your expectations. Too many dilutes the value and can muddy the waters. You will need to find the number that works for you.

The next task is to begin to work with employees (either again in large groups or in smaller teams, i.e., managers, non-supervisory staff, etc.) to define the competencies you’ve identified. What does Interpersonal and Communication Skills include for your organization? This is where the customization and ownership really come into play and begin to take shape. Ten organizations might define Customer Service in 10 different ways. We work with employees at this stage to develop definitions that set out their own expectations for this competency. Then, and this is critical, we work with employees to develop examples of what the definition looks like in action. To give a real-client example:

Overall Core Competency: Adaptability

Definition: Accepts change in the workplace with a positive attitude; seeks new ways to implement and improve the work environment; accepts change as an opportunity to improve.


    • Actively seeks information about new work situations
    • Takes advantage of opportunities to be creative
    • Seeks to understand change in work tasks, situations and environments as well as the reasons or basis for change
    • Is aware change can create stress – uses positive stress management techniques

You can see how these might be different for any organization, depending on the current culture, the culture to which you would like to move, and the emphasis and value of certain expectations set out by the employer.

Developing these examples is also a time-consuming but worthy step. What you will end up with is essentially a dictionary of competencies, with definitions agreed to by all and examples of the operationalized competencies. We have taken this step a bit further with clients by developing examples of what the competency looks like in action at both a fully competent as well as an “outstanding” or “exceeds expectations” level, in order to be able to integrate the demonstration of the identified competencies into an organization’s performance management system. Finally, we’ve also worked with organizations to develop job specific examples of the competencies: for example, what does teamwork look like for the Manager of Finance vs teamwork for the entry level administrative series. Having these specific examples, and realizing that you can never identify every example, is a great tool for use in providing comments on periodic performance evaluations and also providing employees with guidelines for what the competencies look like in action.

We have found most success with developing competencies when employees are fully involved and educated in the process. Developing a list of competencies offline and presenting them to employees as a done deal removes their ownership and, most likely, their connection to the expectation. We often work with organizations not only to facilitate the development of the competencies but then to integrate them into job descriptions and performance management systems, so that employees know these 5-7 key competencies are part of the way of life at this employer. As with most things, competencies will and should change. When developing competencies organizations are often looking at moving culture (or continuing to move culture) to a new, desired point. Once that point is approached or reached, you may need to reevaluate and raise your bar, so to speak. You can see that this will only serve to serve as a mechanism for continuous improvement and shared expectations – a common language for all employees to understand and support.

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