Secrets of a Brighter Workplace


Tips on how to understand, recruit and keep the best people for your business


Eight mistakes to avoid when designing your competency framework

Watch your step!

Done well, the competency framework is a hugely valuable tool. It sets out a common understanding of the behaviours an organisation desires from its employees. Many organisations are creating values frameworks – another way of describing desired behaviours based on the values of that organisation.

This feeds into and shapes discussions about individual and team performance, personal development, recruiting the right staff for the business and improving the brand and customer experience.

So often, however, the time and effort that goes into designing the framework is wasted. And it ends up lying unloved and unused at the bottom of a drawer.

All because of some avoidable common mistakes. Mistakes that could potentially undermine how useful that framework is to the business.

I’ve worked with many organisations designing competency, strengths or values frameworks. And this often involves helping them to steer clear of these mistakes. To ensure the resulting framework has a real impact across all areas of their business.

Here are eight common mistakes people make when designing a framework – and how to avoid them.

1. Not doing your research

Often I find that HR departments have developed a competency framework or a values framework without fully consulting with the wider business.

Clearly the expertise to develop a framework tends to lie within HR but this doesn’t mean it should be done behind a closed door.

The problem is that without thorough consultation, your framework might not apply successfully across all parts of the business. It might be fine for recruitment but be almost impossible to apply when thinking about personal or team development.

Or it might be that the framework is appropriate for the whole business, but the lack of consultation means that employees and managers feel it is something that’s being done to them, rather than with their involvement. Meaning they have less buy-in, less enthusiasm for making it work.

Recently I encouraged a client to conduct focus groups with stakeholders from across their business to feed into the development of their competency framework. These sessions had multiple benefits, not just in terms of making sure the framework was applicable across the business and that people felt involved in the process. They also meant that the framework reflected the language used in the organisation and was unique and specifically tailored to the needs of that business.

2. Using jargon

Those of us who work in HR have a tendency to use jargon that is not always obvious to the outside world. We all know what ‘employee engagement’ means but does someone on the shopfloor? A current buzzword is ‘authenticity’. But what does this actually mean in plain English?

If your framework is to be useable beyond the confines of the HR department it needs to avoid jargon and employ simpler terms and words that everyone can understand.

3. Is it measurable?

So often I see attitudes, feelings, even thoughts expressed as competencies. But what people believe, feel and think are not observable or measurable.

For instance, you might want your employees to be ‘passionate about leadership’. But what do we mean by passionate? How will we measure someone’s levels of passion? Different people will demonstrate passion differently – some by their vocal enthusiasm for the subject, others by quiet diligence and commitment.

So, you need to construct a competency that delineates what that passion looks like, e.g. demonstrates an interest in leadership approaches and evidences the use of different leadership styles. This then becomes something that is observable, and therefore measurable.

And if you’re wanting to describe values – you have to illustrate these as what they look like when they are demonstrated visibly as a behaviour e.g. integrity as a value could be demonstrated by a person being honest and truthful in their work.

4. Overlapping competencies / the same thing said in different ways

Sometimes a framework has a number of competencies that are effectively the same thing, just expressed in a different way.

Sometimes competencies overlap. For instance, you might have a competency about strategic leadership and another one about managing a team. While there is often a natural crossover between two areas, overlapping competencies can make it very difficult to assess candidates effectively.

Check and double-check your framework to eliminate any duplication.

5. Competency labels that don’t reflect actual behaviours

Sometimes we can all get a little fancy when it comes to naming our competencies. Perhaps we want it to correlate with our corporate branding or terminology. Perhaps we get a bit bored with a simple ‘communication’ or ‘ teamwork’.

But since people can interpret things very differently, I’d advocate simplicity and clarity over cleverness, every time.

6. Too many (or too few) competencies

I have seen a competency framework which had more than 12 competencies. But is it possible to assess against 12 competencies, each with a number of indicators, in a job interview? I think not. At least not without great difficulty!

My recommendation is that 6-8 competencies and 6-8 indicators within each competency will make it more manageable.

7. Only describing positive behaviours

Many frameworks only set out the behaviours that are desired in the business, they don’t describe negative behaviours. The assumption seems to be that the absence of that competency is the negative.

But all competencies, values and strengths have a dark side. For instance, collaboration is often a key competency. But too much collaboration can be a bad thing, delaying decision-making and avoiding responsibility.

By describing what you don’t want to see as well as what you do, you can set the boundaries for each competency.

8. Not testing and validating your framework

Once you’ve designed the framework, do you go back to the business to test that it does indeed work? Many organisations don’t.

But it’s important to check and test that it applies across all areas, from recruitment to PDP plans, leadership development to succession planning.

You also want to be sure it not only fits the current status quo but also the future vision of the business – does it have longevity?

It’s also useful to benchmark your framework against other frameworks in the field to ensure its reliability and validity.

Do you have any other examples of mistakes that can cause a competency framework to fail? What steps did you take to avoid these pitfalls? Let me know in the comments below.

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