Why is it better to write the narrative that explains what is meant by a competency as a description of master-level performance? Wouldn't a dictionary definition work just as well?

A definition provides a statement of the meaning of a word, phrase, or term, as in a dictionary entry. Although it may be useful to have a dictionary-like definition of a competency, what is really important is providing a description of what someone who is really good at performing this competency is likely to do.

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Let's take two examples of competencies that frequently appear in lists that predict success in an organization: accountability and teamwork. If you go to the dictionary, you'll learn that accountability means, "Liable to being called to account; answerable." You'll learn that teamwork means, "Cooperative effort by the members of a group or team to achieve a common goal." Both are accurate definitions; neither is helpful in guiding people on what they should do to excel in these two important areas.

Now consider a behaviorally based description of master-level examples of accountability and teamwork:

Accountability. Accepts personal responsibility for the quality and timeliness of his or her work. Believes that the results achieved directly result from his or her personal decisions and actions. Doesn't engage in behavior designed to justify and document decisions for self-protection purposes. Acknowledges and corrects mistakes. Doesn't make excuses for errors or problems.

Teamwork. Fulfills commitments to other team members. Promotes a friendly climate, good morale, and cooperation among team members. Puts team success ahead of individual success. Assures joint ownership of goal setting, group commitments, work activities, schedules, and group accomplishments. Lets other people finish and be responsible for their work. Doesn't hog the credit for others' work. Values all team members. Makes sure that the practical needs of the team are met. Protects and promotes the group's reputation with outsiders. Takes charge when it is necessary to facilitate an action or decision. Creates a feeling of belonging on the team.

There are four great advantages to writing competency statements as descriptions of master-level performance rather than simply providing dictionary-like definitions. First, descriptions guide performance by making it easier for the individual to understand exactly what is expected in each of these areas. All Harry needs to do is to read the description of accountability or teamwork and he will know what the organization expects in this area.

Second, it encourages development. By comparing one's current performance against the description of master-level performance, it allows individuals to see where they should be concentrating development efforts.

Third, it facilitates accurate appraisal. If the competency statements are written as descriptions of master-level performance, and the rating scale provided is one of behavioral frequency (e.g., regularly/ frequently/sometimes/rarely), then it is easier for the appraiser to make an accurate assessment of the individual's performance in each competency area by describing how often the individual performed as a true master. The appraiser is not asked to make an absolute judgment about the goodness or badness of the employee's performance ("Let's see . . . was Fosdick fair, acceptable, or distinguished in his meeting of the accountability expectation?"). Instead, the appraiser is asked to describe how often Fosdick performed as a true master of accountability: Did he act this way regularly or just sometimes? That's an easier call for the appraiser to make.

Finally, it eases difficult discussions. It is easier for the manager to talk about the need for one of his employees to perform more often at a mastery level than it is to bluntly assess her performance as unacceptable. For example, let's say that Mary is not doing a very good job of assuring high quality in her work. Instead of having to say, "Mary, in the area of 'quality management' I rated you as unsatisfactory (the lowest rating on the appraisal form)," the manager can say, "Mary, in the area of 'quality management' I see you performing as a master occasionally (again, the lowest rating on the form). What do you need to do so that the next time we review your performance I'll be able to report that I see you performing as a master frequently or consistently?" Both statements about Mary's performance are accurateshe has been rated in the bottom category as far as her quality management is concerned. But it will be easier for the manager to encourage a thoughtful discussion about how she plans to develop her quality management skills by telling her that he sees her performing as a master only occasionally than it will be if the manager simply labels her performance as unacceptable.

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