Competence of star performance

David McClelland in a 1973 paper in “Testing for competence rather than intelligence” argued that the traditional academic aptitude, school grades, and advanced credentials simply did not predict how well people would perform the job or whether they would succeed in life. Instead, he proposed that a set of specific competencies including empathy, self-discipline, and initiative distinguished the most successful from those who are merely good enough to keep their jobs. To find the competencies that make for star performance McClelland suggested we first look at stars and determine what competencies they display.

His paper launched an entirely new approach to the measurement of excellence, one that assesses people’s competencies in terms of the specific job they are doing. A ‘competence’ in this tradition, is a personal trait or set of habits that leads to more effective or superior job performance – in other words, an ability to add clear economic value to the efforts of a person on the job.

That insight triggered research on several workers, from clerks to top executives and in all types of organizations particularly in the United States of America. Significantly, in all the findings, a common core of personal and social abilities had proven to be the key ingredient in people’s success: Emotional Intelligence.


What is Emotional Intelligence?

Daniel Goleman, incidentally a student of McClelland, defines emotional intelligence in the phenomenal New York Times Best Seller by the same title as: “The capacity for recognizing our own feelings and those of others, for motivating ourselves, and for managing emotions well in ourselves and in our relationships.” According to Goleman the concept describes abilities distinct from, but complementary to academic intelligence, the purely cognitive capacities measured by Intelligent Quotient (IQ).

Often there is widespread misunderstanding about emotional intelligence. Goleman, thus clears some of the common misconceptions.

First, emotional intelligence does not mean merely “being nice.” At strategic moments it may demand not “being nice,” but rather blunt and confronting issues head-on. Second, emotional intelligence does not mean giving free rein to feelings – “letting it all hang out.” Rather it means managing feelings so that they are expressed appropriately and effectively, enabling people work together smoothly toward their common goals. Also, women are not “smarter” than men when it comes to emotional intelligence, nor are men superior to women. “Each of us have a personal profile of strengths and weaknesses in their capcities.”

As the business environment changes, so do the traits needed to excel. Data tracking the talents of star performers since 1960 in the United States reveal that two abilities that mattered relatively little for success in the 1970s have become crucially important today: team building and adapting to change; and entirely new capacities have begun to appear as traits of star performers, notably change catalyst and leveraging diversity. New challenges demand new talents.


What Employers Want

It is believed that in the world of 1960s, and 1970s (about five decades ago), people got ahead by going to right schools and doing well there. But the world is full of well-trained, once promising men and women who have reached the plateau in their careers – or worse, derailed, because of gaps in emotional intelligence.

In a national survey conducted for the US Department of Labor in 1989 of what employers are looking for in entry-level workers, specific technical skills are now less important than the underlying ability to learn on the job. After that employers listed the following:

l       Listening and communication skills

l       Adaptability and creative responses to setbacks and obstacles

l       Personal management, confidence, motivation to work towards goals, a sense of wanting to develop one’s career and take pride in accomplishments

l       Group and interpersonal effectiveness, cooperativeness and teamwork, skills at negotiating disagreements

l       Effectiveness in the organization, wanting to make contribution, leadership potential.

In another development, a study by Karen Dould and Jean Liedtka of what corporations are seeking in their MBAs they hire yields a similar list. The three most desired capabilities were communication skills, interpersonal skills, and initiative.


Domains of Excellence: The Limits of IQ

Given how much emphasis schools and admission tests put on it, IQ alone, according to researchers, explains surprisingly little of achievement at work or life. One research for example, concludes that when IQ test scores are correlated with how well people perform in their careers, the highest estimate of how much IQ accounts for is about 25 per cent. This means that IQ alone leaves 75 per cent of job success unexplained – in other words, it does not determine who succeeds or fails.

Paradoxically, IQ has the least power in predicting success among the pool of people smart enough to handle the most cognitively demanding fields, and the value of emotional intelligence for success grows more powerful in the higher the intelligence barrier for entry into a field. In careers like engineering, law, or medicine, where professional selection focuses almost exclusively on intellectual abilities, EI carries more weight than IQ in determining who emerges as a leader.

This paradoxical importance of EI in cognitively demanding disciplines is a consequence of the difficulty of entering them in the first place. In professional and technical fields the threshold for entry is typically an IQ of 110-120. The result of having to jump such an initial entry barrier, Goleman observes, is that since everyone is in the top 10 per cent or so of intelligence, IQ itself offers little competitive advantage.


The Second Domain: Expertise

Whatever our intellectual potential, it is expertise – our total body of specialized information and practical skills, that makes us good enough to do a particular job. In large part, expertise is a combination of common sense plus the specialized knowledge and skills we pick up in the course of doing any job. Expertise comes from “in-the-trenches” learning. It shows up as insider’s sense of the tricks of a trade, the real knowledge of how to do a job that only experience brings.

Expertise is a baseline competence. You need it to get the job and get it done, but how you do the job, the other competencies you bring to your expertise determines your performance. “Are you able to translate your expertise into something that is marketable, that stand out? If not, it makes little difference.”

Supervisors of technical and professional workers, for example, need to have some degree of expertise in the area; it would be nearly impossible to manage such work without reasonable understanding of what people are doing. But that expertise is a threshold requirement; the abilities that distinguish the outstanding supervisors in technical fields are not technical, but rather relate to handling people.

So to a degree, experience and expertise, like IQ matter – but there is much more to the story when it comes to excellence.


The Third Domain – Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence skills are synergistic with cognitive ones; top performers have both. The more complex the job, the more emotional intelligence matters, if only because a deficiency in these abilities can hinder the use of whatever technical expertise or intellect a person may have. “The aptitudes you need to succeed start with intellectual horsepower, but people need emotional competence, too, to get full potential of their talents. The reason we do not get people’s full potential is emotional incompetence.”

An emotional competence is a learned capability based on emotional intelligence that results in outstanding performance at work. At the heart of this competence are two abilities: empathy, which involves reading the feeling of others, and social skills, which allows handling of those feeling artfully.

Our emotional intelligence determines our potential for learning the practical skills that are based on five elements: self-awareness, motivation, self-regulation, empathy, and adeptness in relationships. Our emotional competence shows how much of that potential we have translated into on-the-job capabilities. Emotional competencies cluster into groups, each based on a common underlying emotional intelligence capacity. The underlying emotional intelligence capacities, according to Goleman, are vital if people are to successfully learn the competencies necessary to succeed in the workplace.

 By Captain Sam Addaih (Rtd)

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