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Competence: A Requirement for Success

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization. 

By Anthony Buller
April 14, 2017

Despite how motivated my four-year-old son is, I don’t allow him to mow the yard. He can play with his plastic push mower all he wants, but the real thing? Of course not. I cannot empower him to mow because he is not competent to mow.

Some take offense at the word competent but it accurately describes how others perceive our capabilities. Competence, as I’m using it, is defined as the sum of a person’s knowledge, skills and abilities. This definition applies throughout the four quarterly columns I’m writing about achieving public organization success through empowering individual success. The first of those columns is available here: Successful People Equals Mission Success, Buller, PATimes, January 13, 2017.

In that first column I offered a formula that drives to the heart of what it takes for an employee to be successful: Success = (Competence + Motivation)*Empowerment or S=(C+M)E. So about SCMEyou: Are you competent? Can you confidently state your leadership has an accurate perception of your competence? And, can you identify any ways that your actual or perceived competence is reducing the extent of empowerment you have been granted by your leadership?

What about your staff? You have formed opinions about the knowledge, skills, and abilities of your teammates. These opinions effect how much you are willing to empower them. After all, you shouldn’t empower the incompetent. Conversely, if someone is competent, then you have half the needed ingredients for empowerment (the other being motivation as described in the next column).

Four Challenges for Leaders

Challenge #1

View competence as a variable that can change and consider an employee’s competence as something you can influence. That’s the view of a leader. You can work with employees to improve their competence, especially if motivation exists on their part. You can counsel, resource and invest in them. But don’t take it all on your shoulders!

Competence, especially others’ perceptions of competence, is owned by the individual. This means an employee who is motivated and wants to be empowered should take personal responsibility to prove and improve their competence. But as a leader you have to leverage your awareness of the variables of competence and motivation to build both. You do this so that you can empower them to perform at a successful level.

Challenge #2

Recognize your perceptions of an employee’s competence can be wrong (maybe it’s motivation that’s the problem) and have the good grace to allow for personal development in your employees (have a ‘reset’ button).

Challenge #3

Recognize sometimes a little empowerment is what gets the other variables to improve. This is especially true for motivation, but it’s true for competence as well. We often do this naturally as part of the employee development process. You let employees steadily do more and more. But there are also many employees out there who are not experiencing empowerment and are not deemed successful. Leaders seek to bring these employees up to a successful level too and sometimes that involves a slight risk by empowering them.

Challenge #4

Be respectfully candid with employees about success and especially how perceptions of competence and motivation influence your ability to empower them. If you’ve been reading this and saying to yourself that this is really basic stuff, I’d ask: then why don’t more supervisors do it? To a great extent, it is hard for managers, and perhaps especially government managers, to themselves feel fully empowered to address employee shortfalls. It’s hard work. It comes with risk. But those leaders striving for organizational success embrace these ideas and seek to empower employees, which is a way to say that they seek to improve competence and motivation to the extent that the employee can be empowered. It’s best to start this with honest, respectful and open dialogue with an employee.

I mentioned my four-year-old and how he wants to mow the yard. He is very motivated but lacks competence. Imagine if we fast-forward nine years and he’s a thirteen-year old with all the competence he needs to mow. But then, when he’s thirteen, he won’t be motivated. It’s never this simple with employees of course, but the point is hopefully clear: competence and motivation are both needed before you can empower a person.

In the first column linked to above I introduced the formula. In this one I described the variable of competence and offered four challenges to leaders. In the next quarterly column I’ll describe motivation and its relationship to empowerment.

If you want an action item after reading this column here are two: (1) ask yourself how you are perceived, and (2) ask yourself how your perceptions of your employees influence your success.


Author: Anthony Buller has a decade of experience with the federal government and can be reached at [email protected]

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