June 24, 2018

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Avoid Pitfalls When Developing Competencies & Feedback Systems

Sales Manager to his employee: "You need to learn how to do relationship selling." Employee's response: "What exactly does that mean?"

Executive to one of her managers: "You need to be more of a leader and less of a traditional manager." Manager's response: "What exactly does that mean?"

The world of work is changing so fast, it's difficult to communicate changing expectations quickly and clearly. This is especially true in areas such as sales skills, project management skills and leadership skills. The changes expected in these areas aren't easy to observe and measure and, up to now, most companies didn't attempt it. But with competition heating up and hierarchies melting down, the focus on performance and career development has become more intense. For this reason, "competencies" have become a new tool in the workplace.

Competencies are clearly spelled out expectations for a certain role (a leader) or a job (sales associate). They go far beyond a job description to create a template for "ideal" performance. This tool can then be used for things such as hiring, day-to-day coaching, training and development and performance reviews.

Once individuals know what the expected competencies are, the next question is, "How am I doing on them now?" Many organizations put the competencies into a format that can be used as a feedback instrument. Then they use it to gather "360 degree feedback". This refers to getting feedback from people all around you; your boss, your peers and your employees.

Gathering feedback from other colleagues has many advantages. In addition to his or her manager's feedback, it also reveals what peers and employees think. It is more comprehensive and less prone to individual bias, since there are multiple perspectives. For example, a manager, who may have thought that his boss was just being picky about his communication skills, will begin to take it seriously when everyone around him is also suggesting that he needs improvement in that area.

But there are pitfalls to avoid when setting up competencies and a feedback system like this. If it isn't done well, the damage control will overshadow any good that may have come from it. Here are some things to consider:

  • Create a participatory process, where representatives help to establish the competencies and how they will be used. If this process is done "to them," rather than by giving them some control, there will be more resistance during implementation.

  • Make the competencies as specific to the job as possible. The more generic they are the less effective they will be. In addition, it is key to word the competencies in behavioral language, so everyone knows what the competency means. For example, instead of "Effective sales skills," include some behaviors, such as, "Builds trust through accountability, honesty and follow-though," or "Looks for additional ways to help clients solve their business problem before, during and after the sale," or "Makes realistic commitments for themselves and the team, and does what it takes to keep those commitments."

  • Use the feedback for coaching and development rather than a for a performance review or to weed out ineffective managers. Although it can eventually be folded into the performance review process, it creates less defensiveness if people have a chance to work on their skill gaps before they are evaluated on them. It isn't fair to surprise employees with a performance review on expectations they haven't seen before.

  • No matter how open the culture is, people are reluctant to be honest unless they can give feedback anonymously. Later, if managers are genuinely willing to discuss their feedback openly, individuals will come forward with their personal feedback and advice. Initially, each manager should collect data from a minimum of three or more peers and three or more employees so that confidentiality is preserved.

  • Time and trouble can be avoided by using an experienced third party to guide the group and to independently gather and tabulate the feedback for each manager. When we help organizations with this process, we find that people are more willing to be honest when they know that a neutral party is doing the tabulation and individual feedback reports.

  • Give the data and any summary report back to the manager, not to their boss. Hold managers accountable for creating an action plan that they will co-develop with their manager. The plan should include how they plan to leverage their top strengths and how they plan to improve their weaker areas. The plan should also include how the boss can help with that development.

  • An overall report on the organization's strengths and development needs can be used to determine what the training priorities are, what should be included in a core curriculum and where training dollars should be spent.

  • An independent third party can provide help to a manager who is struggling with his/her feedback and what to do about it. If they are unfavorably surprised by what their peers or employees think, they will probably appreciate guidance in how to approach their colleagues for more clarity.

  • Managers should meet with their manager at least once a year to go over their action plan and discuss progress. The best career development happens on the job, so it’s important that manager play an active role by coaching their employee, giving them new and challenging assignments that will play to their strengths and develop weaker areas.

Companies are realizing that more sophisticated performance management has a bottom line pay off and individuals are demanding more coaching and development on the job. Systems like these can be a win/win for everyone.

Confronting poor performance, or difficult behaviors, is difficult for many managers. Joan Lloyd’s How to Coach & Give Feedback learning system is a step-by-step approach to help you help your employees make changes in their performance that will enable them to succeed on the job. Actually reduces defensiveness and encourages open communication. Now available in CD!

-Joan Lloyd

Joan Lloyd has a solid track record of excellent results. Her firm, Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding. This includes executive coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, customized leadership training, conflict resolution between teams or individuals, internal consulting skills training for HR professionals and retreat facilitation. Clients report results such as: behavior change in leaders, improved team performance and a more committed workforce.
Joan Lloyd has earned her C.S.P. (certified speaking professional) designation from the National Speakers Association and speaks to corporate audiences, as well as trade & professional associations across the country. Reach her at (800) 348-1944,, or

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