Some Words on "Competencies" by Don Tosti

One of the reasons I have been so involved with ISPI is people like Don Tosti. Don and I served on the ISPI Board together for two years and I learned so much in just casual conversations…all related to the business of ISPI of course…informal learning just where you might expect it…involvement in a professional society!

Here is his portion of an exchange on Competencies that is in the ISPI discussion groups ( – ProComm – Motivation, Incentives, and Feedback (MIF): Models of Motivation: Are competencies motivating?


The term competency originally referred to ones ability. In other words your skill and knowledge. If you look at most sets of competencies virtually everyone is able to perform them. So by the original definition everyone is competent.

The question is really is not can they do it but do they do it with sufficient likelihood, frequency and ease. That is most often how differences are measured and those are measures of fluency not competency. (This is a major source of misunderstanding).

The original term for these behaviors was practices and it was around long before competencies (e.g. Litwin and Stinger 1976).

The search for critical practices gave rise to competency studies to determine what differentiated the high performers from low and moderate ones in a particular organization.

These were done by measuring fluency and using factor analysis to isolate the twenty or thirty such practices. I worked with Litwin in the early 80’s to determine more efficient ways of determine such critical practices. That’s when we came up with the idea of practice sorts. So if it not ability, what does effect existing level of practice fluency?

The big five performance system variables give the answer. The most important variables are the conditions — the physical and most importantly the social environment. We have generally found the company culture to be the most significant factor in determining the fluency level.

Expectation and directions is next: incentives (including pay) are next… and finally the individual performer preferences account for the greatest differences between individuals.

We have found the best way to increase the fluency of the so called competencies is the same as in any activity which requires fluency, like basketball, playing a musical instrument or learning a language it is called practice and feedback.

Unfortunately the feedback is —-poor in most organizations and when it is given it is too little and too often confound with evaluation and pay.

By the way – Hay group latched on to competencies because their old business model was failing. They used to advocate pay scales based on the number of people reporting to you which of course led to empire building. They needed a new gig so they changed the more appropriate term critical practice fluency into competencies by redefining it to justify their scheme of selling pay systems.

Let us not play the game. Let us refer to these behaviors as critical practices not competencies. They are very important part of performance but they have been badly handled by the HR world.


The big five are the 5 variables of the performance system:
1 the conditions (the physical, social, and organizational environments
2 input/direction (that which directs and/or initiates action)
3 performer (skill, knowledge, preferences)
4 Motivating consequences (e.g. balance of + and -)
5 Formative Feedback (Fit, focus and timing).


One of the most important element in intrinsic motivation in the work place is not task related but depends on how people are treated. Does management treat the employees in a way that creates many cynics and spectators? Unfortunately competency programs often heighten the atmosphere of disrespect, fear, and failure and therefore may actually be demotivating.


Again—the above are words from Don Tosti…from the ISPI web site discussion groups—use the Search function to locate this and other writing by Don Tosti!

Participating in the ISPI Discussion Groups does not require a paid membership…only registration on the web site. Hope to see some of you in SF next week at the ISPI and IFTDO Conference!

For more information, go to

And Don can be reached via email at:

One comment on “Some Words on "Competencies" by Don Tosti

  1. Pingback: Enterprise Competencies – Not All Are the Same | EPPIC - Pursuing Performance

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