Building a culture of competence

Competence – in conjunction to other factors – is what makes a company successful. Every manager’s dream is having competent and motivated employees, that follow company’s vision and goals.

Humans are humans though, with their strengths and weaknesses, and sometimes the culture desired by the employer does not match the reality of day to day life. Getting back on the right track in terms of a constructive culture of competence requires in these cases taking deliberate actions. But which ones? Here are my thoughts on this subject.

How do we build a culture of competence?

A manager’s role is to provide results, by making decisions and influencing behaviours. There can be constructive, productive behaviours that need to be encouraged, and harmful behaviours that consume everyone’s energy and time. Let’s start with the latest.

First, by discouraging the unwanted behaviour

Complaining makes humans socialise easier. When someone has a rough night as the kid had fever, and when sharing they find out that someone else in their group had the same issue – it feels like receiving support; and that makes people feel closer to each other. The problem however, is that – in the lack of something stronger to focus on – it generates a spiral of complaint, regardless of the topic, and this is a huge demotivating factor in terms of work.

Anything that happens in life has good parts and not so good parts. Take winning the lottery as an extreme example, studies say that lottery winners declare bankruptcy in 3 to 5 years, and overall 30% of the winners go bankrupt. I guess lottery winning is not that much of a dream anymore once knowing this, right? It’s a matter of choice in seeing the good parts in everything, and be happy and thankful about it, or seeing the bad parts and be frustrated and sad.

My favourite parable here is the one with the farm that has flowers and a nice house in the front, while in the back there are stables and animals. Above this farm a bee flies, and the bee will be seeing and visiting the flowers in front. Above the exactly same farm, a fly goes by. What will the fly see? You know the answer, and it does not smell like perfume. It’s our choice what we focus our attention on, and sharing this parable makes people understand that there might be a different choice to the one they’re currently taking.

Second, by encouraging the good behaviour

From time to time I ask myself, and the people around me, the following question: “What is awesome about this environment we’re into?” or “What is something remarkable that we/you did during the last week or month?”. Surprisingly (or not), it takes a long time until I usually receive a concrete answer to these questions, it takes an intense focus to identify the “awesome” parts. In the same time, when asking “What’s wrong in what we do here?” I usually receive at least one answer in less than one minute. Funny thing how this human mind works.

Another reason for this difficulty in identifying our accomplishments can be the undervaluation of ourselves or our work, compared to others. When an expert recognised by their group has difficulties identifying his or her top performance it’s clearly this case, and then my question adjusts a little: “What is something that you do much better than the others?” and then the right conversation begins.

Asking these questions generates a thought process that each one of us should perform regularly: identifying the “awesome” parts in our professional lives, that we should focus on repeating and expanding. Becoming self-aware about our performance makes us proud about our work, makes us share the results and actions with everyone around us, and this feeling of accomplishment makes the others want to be like us. When we’re preoccupied about how to become an expert and help the others become experts and see how good it feels to reach that level of expertise, suddenly complaining about the hard night – or anything else – seems pretty much trivial, doesn’t it? We’ve got better, constructive things to fill our mind with.

Once we know what “good behaviour” means, usually by having conversations with top performers, we need to publicly recognise it in order for others to follow. Each organisation has its own ways of recognising performance, and the range varies from a “well done!” said or written, to reaching a broader audience when congratulating the performers.

Besides the recognition, the organisation needs to provide ways for anyone – with hard work and study – to reach that level of top performance. This includes training roadmaps for each discipline, expert conferences, knowledge sharing sessions hosted by the top performers, knowledge sharing in day to day work at the team level – I personally consider this the most effective training method, and in general explicit support on competence and performance topics.

In conclusion,

Competence – and subsequently generating results – is something that can be achieved and improved, by investing energy and time (and eventually budgets) in the right actions. If we only rely on the human desire to progress, we risk of getting stuck somewhere in the mediocre area.