Dazed and Confused: With competencies

At an American bank that I worked for a couple of decades ago, in one instance, the India CEO (a white gent, an expat) literally threw the competency booklet at my boss and me while cursing and ordering us out of his room – that is the kind of rage some ‘HR frameworks’ can generate amongst business leaders. While a complete breakdown of this kind is rare, I have not seen them happily embrace a competency-based appraisal method. Ever. They moan and groan, kick and scratch, and occasionally, throw things.

A more recent example: A marquee auto major reached out to us early this year to partner in a competency project. The brief was clear: HR had presented a framework to the business leaders that hadn’t gone down well. It needed an overhaul. The competencies had to be re-written in an employee-friendly lexicon as the seniors believed that a large number of people would not even understand or assimilate what was being said. Enter consultant. The CEO here was less theatrical than the American one, and after sharing his misgivings on the output proceeded to explain why the plan was not meeting favour with his direct reports.

Not sure if this sounds familiar to you but I see a pattern here. Over the years, I have been an active member of about a dozen core competency initiatives held in orgs across industry sectors – they were either my employers or our clients. The prevailing sentiment amongst the biz leaders, often not articulated openly, had been along the lines of – Ooof, here comes HR with more work. Help!

I don’t blame them. Chances are, till now they were happy to mark Excellent, Brilliant, Promote, this guy has fire in the belly, that gal is a go-getter etc. to complete appraisals; or if they were higher up in the pecking order, get HR to fill in the forms online/on paper for them. You are now asking the same folks to work harder at it – they will NOT love you for it, they will fight you tooth and nail.

Yet disregarding the resistance, we must soldier on because that is the right thing to do and that is what we get paid for. Hum honge kaamyab!


And, as you were expecting to hear, there are plenty ways to water down that defense and level the playing field.  Here are a few weapons from the arsenal that when used effectively, tot up fewer casualties.


  1. Creation: Write the competencies in simple, everyday language. The desire to begin each sentence with ‘Consistently demonstrates, Exhibits or Possesses’ is overwhelming but almost no one I know uses that vocabulary in the workplace in daily speak. Besides, it irritates everyone – they find it pompous and repetitive. Bear in mind men and women today use emoticons to express themselves, and that transcends age, gender, socio-economic status and education levels.
  2. KYC: Do not expect all managers to have superior writing skills. That is not what they were hired for. Hence, when they are asked to type out 7-8 pages for each of their direct reports twice a year, they get annoyed. Know this roadblock exists and find creative solutions. Use technology. Share a menu of possible sentences they can use as indicators for each proficiency level, akin to automated responses but at a higher level of complexity.
  3. Communication: Use as many illustrations/examples as you can find. Indicators and contra-indicators, in other words. Put the whole exercise in the context of the employee’s regular day at work. The recipient will be much more open-minded if you can demonstrate you know his/her world in thoughtful detail.
  4. Activation: Make colourful and stylish index cards with the competency definitions as giveaways that people can pin-up on their softboards. Create 2-min videos for each competency using animation. Upload them on to your Perf Mgmt module in the HRMS. Sugar coat the bitter pill. Evoke interest in dry, scholarly matters. Here’s a fun video on the topic from the Mecca of management lessons: https://hbr.org/video/5146717725001/the-explainer-core-competenc
  5. Adoption: Announce rewards to managers for the best-written competency appraisals. Use the winners’ writing as models in your training activities with due credit. Make it competitive – biz managers love to win!

I always like saying that we HR folks need to be masterful marketeers too.

We are required to pitch and position early on in our careers and honing these skills become a critical part of our development programs.  So now when I think back to that awful day at Nariman Point, I wonder if HR could have done anything differently to socialise the competency model with the CEO! Scenes from The Devil Wears Prada spring to mind unbeckonedRelated image



*Dazed And Confused: A song by rock legend Led Zeppelin.

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