Friday, June 26, 2009

Biology of the Brain: are all competencies biological?

Outside of the skeletal-muscular abilities that enable performance on the job, every other competency that support our ability to perform our job may well be based on a biological function. Pheremones have been shown to elicit hormonal responses (colloquially known as arousal). We are most agreeable with people who remind us of our parents, suggesting that we might be trying unconsciously to sustain favorable genetic traits (though this also results in perpetuating cycles of abuse). Oxytocin is released in the brain when we are with the one we love, resulting in a calming effect (an emotion described as love). We also now know that memories are created by the formation of proteins, and memory is key to learning.

Anyone who really wants to excel in the application of competency-based human capital management must take the time to learn more about the function of the brain and how it affects human emotions, learning, personalities, and behaviors.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Competency Categories

Has the term "competency", as it refers to personal factors that enable individual performance, become too broad? Let's begin by asking the question, "What factors are NOT competencies?"

First, we can eliminate the external factors. Those are "facilitators" of performance. (The opposite would be "barriers" to performance just as the opposite of competencies would be "weaknesses".) External factors (e.g. resources, processes, information, rewards, etc.) can have a clear impact on the ability and/or willingness of an individual to perform, but the term "competency" includes only the factors that are elements of an individual person's make-up. External facilitators of performance are not competencies.

So what is a person made of? And which of those elements affects the capacity to perform? Through my research and experience I have identified the following categories:

Physical (body or brain) traits that enable performance are called abilities. If a task requires one to lift a certain weight without aid of an external resource then the "performer" must have the capacity to lift weight. This ability is comprised of the muscle strength required, as well as the appendages required, to lift. The brain must also be able to interpret the instructions. Therefore, intelligence sufficient to grasp and act on the instructions is also an ability. However, intelligence, as a physical function of the brain, is not the only mental trait that is critical. For example, judgment is a competency that is based on knowledge rather than intelligence. Data storage is different from intellectual horsepower, but they are interdependent on one another when we need to leverage them.

The brain stores facts and generalizations about the world around us. For example, some of the information that we store allows us to understand and speak a language. Information comes from our personal interpretation of each event that unfolds in our life. Experience itself is not a competency so much as the knowledge we have gained from each experience is. This is most clear when we find that someone has learned a lesson from an experience that is contrary to what we expected. Do you know anyone that has graduated from college or passed a specific certification test, but who is not as good at a job as someone who learned from the "school of hard knocks" (general life experience on the streets)? Performance requires us to collect data and convert it into usable information so knowledge is a competency.

Skills are techniques that an individual has learned and intentionally applies to a given situation. The three most common academic skills are reading, writing, and arithmetic (computation). However, there are also gross motor skills such as riding a bicycle. An example of a combination of both skills would be using a specific software application (reading and typing). Many interpersonal traits are also learned skills (e.g. listening is a skill, hearing is an ability). Once a person becomes fluent at a skill they no longer consciously practice it. They just do it. When someone does not know how to do something that they never even knew was possible, they are unconsciously incompetent. After they learn of the skill's existence they are consciously incompetent. As they learn the skill they pass from being a novice to being proficient to being an expert. At some point they may just begin to use the skill without even thinking about it. That level of unconscious competence may be called a habit, but habits are also things that we unconsciously do in response to some stimulus as part of a regular routine. For example, Pavlov's dogs salivated when he rang the bell because they associated the bell ringing with being fed. Skills rely on knowledge and ability because you must have memory of prior experiences, if any, with the skill and the ability to execute the skill in order to use or improve the skill.

Instincts are things that we never learned, but that we innately know how to do. Pavlov's dogs were not born salivating when a bell rang. However, they did know how to mate once they reached a certain point of maturity (without anyone teaching them). Unlike skills, you cannot increase your levels of expertise in a given instinct. Reflexes are not instincts, they are reactions of the nervous system, which makes a reflex an ability. Instincts are independent of memory, experience, and all other competency categories. Physically, learning is required to strengthen connections between synapses when abilities are developed, but instinctual behavior does not improve neurological wiring. Examples of human instincts include the facial expression associated with the person's emotional state (e.g. smiling when happy), staring at the threat when becoming aggressive, eyebrows flinching when recognizing someone or something, and how someone's posture changes when they are mentally preparing to leave. Instincts are responses to stimuli that we cannot control or unlearn so they are not useful when we are analyzing performance, but they are related to many performance situations (e.g. body language when delivering sales pitches).

Urges that are present at birth or develop over time, but that can be overridden by logic are called drives. Drives are genetically influenced behaviors (e.g. fight or flight). People are influenced by drives much more than by instincts because we have eliminated many of the instincts that lower animals possess. Genes can be influenced by external stimuli over multiple generations and we have simply bred out the lack of control. We now choose to succumb (as opposed to not having a choice) to urges that are instinctual in most animals (e.g. maternal - we give up children for adoption, territorial - we sell our houses, imprinting - we get divorced). Drives can be critical to performance because half of any performance equation is the "willingness" to perform.

Willingness to perform is also based on our values (e.g. there are certain products that some people simply refuse to sell). Values are deeply held beliefs that are manifested as preferences or susceptibilities. Values generally fall into the following categories: moral, ideological, social, and aesthetic. Values influence the development of other competencies, but are separate from the other categories. While many values are collectively shared by common groups (e.g. religious ideologies), they are also modified based on personal experience (e.g. materialism is most prevalent in people who did not actively participate in groups in their youth). Values are often manifested as norms that are reinforced by one's cultural upbringing (e.g. the value of respect during mourning is expressed by the norm of wearing black).

Attitude is another category that impacts a performer's willingness. Attitude is the liking, dislikeing, or conflicted combination of liking and disliking something. Attitudes are reactions to our beliefs, which have predominantly developed over time based on our experiences. Attitudes are more susceptible to change than personality and other people can persuade us to change an attitude through communication. Attitude is an important competency category because not only is it physical (just like long-term memory, attitude resides in the affective and cognitive nodes in the brain), it is a critical element of decision-making - commonly referred to as intuition or "gut reaction". The more important the performance is to you, the greater the impact of attitude has on your performance.

Everyone has a past. Even within the same family we have unique experiences that shape our perception of the world and the preferences that are manifested as our personality. Like several of the other categories, personality can and does change over time. Personality is not fully understood, and thus, there are a variety of theories about the causal factors behind someone's personality, what elements constitute the description of a personality, and how one can measure a personality. The Big Five is the closest that psychologists seem to have come thus far in creating a model that identifies how personality affects our ability to perform (and even then, only one of the five factors - conscientiousness - seems to be strongly correlated to performance). Though it is extremely complex and not well understood, it is generally accepted that performance requires certain preferences or personality traits.

Skills and intelligence are often enhanced by the performer's mental state. This has given rise to the popularity of such concepts as emotional intelligence. Mental health includes competencies that are both personality traits and emotional states. However, these are clearly unique constructs. Hunger and sadness are not points along a continuum. Hunger is an ability because it is physical in nature. Sadness is an emotional state (which certainly may have been induced by a physical state) that probably resides within the limbic system and/or prefrontal cortex. Emotions can trigger physical traits, such as sadness leading to tears, but they are separate attributes because tears can be released when the dominant emotion is joy. There has been recent research into specific chemicals in the brain that are described as the root of romantic love. Though that research may help clarify some of the root causes of emotions, it does not mean that emotions are simply abilities because they are far too complex to be described as such.