Distinguish Competence From Behavior to Maximize Performance

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Type: Article, Report or Whitepaper

Topics: Project Management

Date: September 2012

By Bradley A. Malone, PMP

This is the 13th in an ongoing series of organizational project management maturity articles by InfoComm University™ senior instructor Brad Malone.

When managing people, competence and behavior are often indistinguishable — and that’s a problem. Many managers automatically link the two together. As a result, when an employee isn’t doing something correctly, managers fail to ask, “Is it because they’re not trained well, or is it because they’re choosing to behave that way?” The difference is important if a company is to get the most out of its employees.

Competence, as I see it, is the ability to function to standards established in a documented process; behavior is the manifestation of motivation behind performing the process. (Important note: When I use the word “incompetent” herein, I’m not judging or disparaging, just describing a person’s inability to perform a task properly or up to established standards.)

My wife and I have two sons, a seven-year-old and an eleven-year-old. I’m not going to ask my seven-year-old to wash the dishes by himself; it just wouldn’t make sense. But if he did want to start washing dishes — and did so himself — and spilled or dropped some plates, he’s not behaving poorly, he’s just not competent enough yet to do the dishes.

Now, people will say, “Well you shouldn’t expect him to be able to do the dishes all by himself, he just turned seven.” I absolutely agree. However, we sometimes expect people in their thirties, forties or fifties (you know—adults) to do work they’ve never done before. And because of their age, we expect them to do the work correctly the first time. When they don’t, you’ll hear, “They’re not doing it right; they need to be properly motivated” or “They’re just not that good.” Those are incorrect assumptions. They need to be trained, mentored and allowed to learn the same way we allow our children to learn. We shouldn’t expect perfection right away or chalk up poor performance to poor behavior. 

What also tends to happen is that companies tend to overwork their most competent people, giving them additional roles and responsibilities. As a result, responsibility for training new employees often falls to a companies’ least competent people — the ones who aren’t too busy. Because no one wants incompetent people on their projects or in their operations, those people end up training the newest employees in all their poor practices. In this way, some companies create a model of tolerating and rewarding mediocrity or incompetence.

Many people are not competent to do the work they’re asked to do. Again, that’s not to confuse incompetence with stupidity, as many people do. They’re not purposely doing something poorly; it’s just how they’ve been trained (or not trained) to perform the functions or tasks.

Behavior Through Motivation

Basic behavior is either the willful alignment to established standards or the willful disobedience of those standards. Behavior manifests itself from the motivation behind how an employee does what he does once they’re part of a process — it’s their attitude. Ignorance has to do with competence, not behavior. Entitlement, laziness and ambivalence manifest themselves as behavior. What managers should be on the lookout for in terms of competence should be based in process.

Referring to my earlier article on process standardization and improvement, if I give you a Bunn Coffee Maker, I need to teach you to put in the filter, then the coffee, make sure the pot is underneath, and then pour the water from a separate container. The crucial step is putting the pot underneath before pouring in the water. If you put water into a Bunn machine the same way you do other coffee makers, and water starts coming out all over the counter, would you be behaving poorly or did you just not know the process?

In managing people, the challenge is determining which applies in situations like the Bunn coffer maker example. Unless I investigate more thoroughly to understand what occurred, I might think something about your behavior, like maybe you’re always making messes, when it fact it had nothing to do with behavior — I just didn’t explain that the Bunn operated differently.  Now, if you purposely smacked the pot hard into the machine, knew better, and cracked it, that would be a behavior. This is where motivation structure must come in, in terms of providing incentives to behave in a way that is aligned with the values and the ethics of the company and discouraging behaviors that don’t through disincentives.

Aligning Behavior with Values and Ethics

In my experience, there are a couple good references for aligning behavior with values and ethics. I find references that teach foundational knowledge without a lot of buzzwords or trendy gimmicks are the ones that work the best because they stand the test of time. First is the Situational Leadership model, as defined by Ken Blanchard, a renowned author, speaker, business consultant and expert in leadership and management. The Situational Leadership model explains in a very straightforward manner how to train and develop people based on their developmental level, not based on whether a manager personally feels comfortable interacting with them. There are four primary leadership styles based on task behavior (directive) and relationship behavior (supportive):

  • Telling: giving specific instructions and closely supervising (high directive, low supportive)
  • Selling: explaining your decisions and providing clarification (high directive, high supportive)
  • Participating: sharing ideas and facilitating the decision-making (low directive, high supportive)
  • Delegating: turning over the decision-making and implementation (low directive, low supportive)

I would love to delegate dishwashing to my seven-year-old, but that would be irresponsible. In order for him to build confidence — both from a competence and relationship perspective — I would have to move through all four quadrants of the Situational Leadership model based on his growth and development needs, not based on my schedule or desires.

The second reference has to do with motivation and behavior. Aubrey Daniels, Ph.D., an authority on applying scientifically-proven laws of human behavior to the workplace, captures cause and effect in a straightforward manner in his book, Bringing Out the Best in People. Daniels specializes in creating effective performance-measurement systems. Every behavior needs to have consequences. These consequences can be used to increase a specific behavior, through positive reinforcement (getting something they want) or negative reinforcement (taking away something that they don’t want). There also need to be consequences that decrease certain behaviors, through punishment (getting something they don’t want) or a penalty (losing something they have and want). 

In a nutshell, those four dynamics drive everybody’s behavior. The challenge comes in the fact that those types of consequences don’t necessarily drive other’s behavior like they drive my behavior. What I find in many organizations is that leaders try to motivate their people based on the motivation structure that works for them (the leaders) instead of the motivation structure that resonates with their work force. They must understand from their employees’ perspective which of those four models creates the correct motivation structure. It may be the opposite of what works for the leaders.

Carrots and Sticks

In the last 10 years, especially in the United States, we’ve taken away most of the consequences that decrease bad behavior. I’m not saying that it’s mandatory to reintroduce penalty and punishment into the mix, but the carrot-and-stick approach was around for a long time because it worked when applied appropriately. When you take away the stick, even if you never want to or have to use it, then you allow a number of people to get away with behaviors that are not in alignment with the behaviors the organization wants. 

Managers in many organizations also condone poor behavior by not addressing it appropriately using the correct structure. The moment managers are silent about a specific behavior, they’ve condoned it. They also don’t grow their people’s competence in a supportive and productive manner that aligns with the desired processes.

This kind of deficit has a lot to do with an organization’s culture and how its managers either take or abdicate responsibility for their role in determining strategy, portfolio, projects and processes. It also has to do with whether they give their people the opportunity to experiment when improving processes or make them afraid to make a mistake and shut down both creativity and forthrightness.

Leaders in mature companies make sure that everything aligns with the vision and mission of the organization, as well as the values and ethics of that organization. There is a predictable and understood model for growing, developing and rewarding competence, and a motivation structure that rewards positive behavior and eliminates negative behavior. Through a concerted, collaborative effort, many companies and organizations reap the fruits of this structured and transparent alignment.

Bradley A. Malone, PMP, is an InfoComm University™ senior instructor and president of Twin Star Consulting, an organizational excellence and program management consulting company serving multiple industries worldwide. He holds the Project Management Professional (PMP®) designation from the Project Management Institute (PMI) and is one of PMI’s and InfoComm’s highest-rated instructors. Please share your thoughts with him at