By Andrew Harley
Most readers of this article may own a car and many will drive a car on a daily basis. We get in, start the car, drive off and arrive at our destination. Very few of us are aware or conscious of the complex mesh of knowledge, experience, judgement and co-ordination that are involved in what, for many of us, is a basic, routine daily task. There is a name for this – it is called “unconscious competence”. This term describes behaviour that is so deeply embedded in our routine that we do not know that we know how to do it!
Now driving is a fairly basic example. When we shift our attention to what happens in the workplace, the picture does not appear as clear. Although the underlying principles are the same, the most basic of jobs has an element of unconscious competence. The more senior the role, the more performance becomes a function not just of what is done but of the way in which it is done. High performers demonstrate exceptional levels of unconscious competence. While this is taken for granted when the economy and organisations are in a “steady state” it demands close attention in times of discontinuous change.
Traditional careers are a bit like driving a car. We join an organisation, progress at variable speed to our destination – retirement. Along the way, we acquire experience, knowledge, skills and some wisdom. If, however, we ask individuals about what they do, the chance is that they will answer in terms of their role or responsibility. Typically this will be “I’m Head of Logistics” or “I’m responsible for the Marketing Department”. These responses are spontaneous; they reveal how the individual sees him or herself. The label is the job title, an allusion to what they are there to do and why they are in the organisation. This response does not acknowledge of what they are capable or, critically, at what they are unconsciously competent.
Everyone makes their job their own. Subtly they shape it to fit their own skills and experience. The job itself is not subverted; rather it is adapted so that the individual finds the easiest way for him or herself to deliver the required results.
Essentially, each of us has a unique set of gifts that we learn to deploy in the context of the job that we do. The boundary between what we do and what the job is becomes hazy. For most, the shorthand of “I’m an accountant” substitutes for the acknowledgement of a genuine description of capability.
When the world changes, however, it is barely adequate to retain the label “Accountant” when the market is awash with hundreds of “Accountants” all looking for a job. Taking a less cataclysmic view, is it sufficient to expect an accountant to make the transition to Finance Director? Perhaps not! In both cases, decisions to appoint will be made not on the basis of a job title but on a judgement about how someone might do the job. The more senior the role, the greater the impact of “how things are done” not just “what is done”.
The individual’s capability, the “how” they do things, is the exercise of their knowledge, skills, experience and judgement. The job context has an influence but this is more about the impact of organisational climate and culture on the individual and the degree to which it fits with the individual’s preferred way of working.
As change quickens in pace and security of employment is in flux, the people best placed to grasp the opportunities will be those who know best their capabilities and can match their knowledge, skills, experience and judgement to new and different roles.
An interesting observation is that, when asked about what they have achieved most people struggle to identify anything significant. This is not because the achievement is absent but it is associated with “just doing my job”. Experience from working with a wide range of different individuals argues compellingly for a simple self-assessment process to begin to reveal the “career assets” – the transferable knowledge, skills, experience and judgement. In outline the process follows this kind of flow:
- Think of targets, goals or objectives met;
- Examine what you decided to do and how you did it;
- Identify what would have happened had you not acted;
o what you did,
o how you decided,
o how you got resources,
o who you had to persuade and how.
The results of your analysis should describe your career assets. This understanding of career assets allows the individual to make informed decisions about where and how to invest their effort in the future.
So far, this piece has focused on the individual and their fit to the organisation. The same applies to organisations and the extent to which they understand the human capital represented by the workforce.
In the same way that the individual is at the mercy of external factors, so is the organisation. An understanding of the capability of an organisation’s human capital can be a key strategic lever in meeting the challenge of a changing environment.
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Andrew Harley is a Senior Associate at DavittCorporatePartners – Corporate Psychologists