When managing people, competence and behavior are often indistinguishable — and that’s a problem for integrators that want to maximize performance.


Many managers automatically link competence and behavior together. As a result, when an emlevelsployee is doing something incorrectly, managers fail to ask, “Is it because they’re not trained well, or is it because they’re choosing to behave that way?”

The difference is important if a company is to get the most out of its employees.

(Important note: When I use the word “incompetent” herein, I am not judging or disparaging, just describing a person’s inability to perform a task properly or up to established standards.)

Competence is the ability to function to standards established in a documented process.

Behavior is the manifestation of the motivation behind performing the process.

My wife and I have two sons. When they were just seven years old, I did not ask them to wash the dishes by themselves; that wouldn’t have made sense. But if they did want to try washing dishes, and dropped some plates, this wouldn’t have been poor behavior, they just weren’t competent enough yet to do the dishes. Now, people will say, “Well you shouldn’t expect them to be able to do the dishes when they are young children.” I absolutely agree. However, we sometimes expect people in their twenties, thirties, forties, or fifties (you know—adults) to do work they have never done before. And because of their age, we expect them to do the work correctly the first time. When they don’t, you’ll hear, “They’re not doing it right; they need to be properly motivated” or “They’re just not that good.” Those are incorrect assertions.

People need to be trained, mentored, and allowed to learn the same way we allow our children to learn.

Just because adults are older and have motor skills, coordination, and other learning experiences under their belts, they can often learn at a much quicker pace. But we should not expect perfection right away or chalk up poor performance to poor behavior.

Many people are not competent to do the work they are asked to do. Again, that is not to confuse incompetence with stupidity, as many people do. They are not purposely doing something poorly; it’s just how they’ve been trained (or not trained) to perform the functions or tasks. They have not been told the job’s purpose or value; there is no direct linkage to a measurable outcome; and they are not allowed to ask questions, just to do what they’re supposed to do.

Performance Improvement Through Motivation

Basic behavior is either the willful alignment to established standards or the willful disobedience of those standards.

Behavior manifests itself from the motivation behind how an employee does what he does once he’s part of a process — it’s his attitude and corresponding actions.

Ignorance has to do with competence, not behavior.

Entitlement, laziness, and ambivalence manifest themselves as behavior.

What managers should be on the lookout for in terms of competence should be based on an employee’s ability to perform the process; the employee’s behavior will be based on his willingness to adhere to that process.

Referring to a previous blog post about process standardization and improvement, if I give you a Bunn Coffee Maker, I need to teach you to put in the filter, then the coffee, make sure the pot is underneath, and then pour in the water from a separate container. The crucial step is putting the pot underneath before pouring in the water. If you ignorantly put water into a Bunn machine the same way you do other drip coffee makers, and coffee starts coming out all over the counter, would you be behaving poorly or did you just not know the process?

In managing people, the challenge is determining which applies in situations like the Bunn coffee maker example. Unless I investigate more thoroughly to understand what occurred, I might think something about your behavior, like maybe you’re always making messes, when it fact it had nothing to do with behavior — I just didn’t explain that the Bunn operated differently.

Now, if you purposely did not put the pot underneath in order to make a mess, or purposely smacked the pot hard into the machine — even though you knew better — and cracked it, that would be a behavior. This is where motivation structure must come in, in terms of providing incentives to behave in a way that is aligned with the values and the ethics of the integrator and discouraging behaviors that don’t align through disincentives.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this article, Aligning Behavior with Values and Ethics, so you can achieve the ultimate performance improvement in your integration business.


This article comes from our partners at Navigate Management Consulting, and has been published with their express permission.

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