Effective organisations rely on competent people being able to act with confidence. Operations can’t run effectively if people shy away from acting or making decisions and equally they can’t run safely if the hierarchy or culture discourages people from speaking-up or challenging when they see something that’s wrong.

It’s no surprise then that a growing number of Regulating bodies are now looking for evidence not of people having attended training or clicked through some e-learning, but of a “Capable and Confident workforce”.  That’s a wholly different set of KPIs and criteria to consider.

Why is this becoming an area of focus for the Regulators and the Organisations that seek to comply? It simply because a record of having attended training or indeed of passing a test at the end of e-learning, is not translating into people consistently adhering to policy and confidently applying processes.

You don’t need to look too far into the archives to find Share Price calamity, Regulatory Fines and CEO’s facing serious career-threatening action among some of the largest and most august organisations.

Put simply, a record of having attended training or having taken e-learning, is no longer sufficient in terms of evidencing due diligence around maintaining a competent and confident workforce.

Of course, being confident in your own ability is only one part of the equation. Arguably confidence without capability or competence is a potential calamity; a “rocket without a stick” as an old colleague used to say.

It’s interesting to note that very often those who present themselves as highly confident in their own ability are often not as capable or “currently competent” in terms of their knowledge as they would like to think or indeed, as they lead others to believe.

Our own work (across nearly 20 years of assessing people), evidences that on average in any work force, up to 30% of people claiming to be highly confident in their knowledge fundamentally misunderstands at least some crucial element of policy or process they are required to follow.

Interestingly, this 30% often comprises those who have been in role for some considerable time. They are often in leadership roles, are usually the most vocal and the people to whom others are most likely to gravitate and follow.

This phenomenon has been well researched and evidenced over the last 30 years by Anders Ericsson and is well documented in his recent book “Peak; The Secrets from the New Science of Expertise”. His work evidences that as people’s confidence in their own ability grows, as their time in post accrues and as the “reverence” with which they are regarded increases, the currency of their competence tends to diminish. That means we have groups of people in positions of authority and power or at least leading and influencing teams, who are not as “up to speed” on current processes and procedures as they think they are.

That’s not because they are deliberately flouting the regulations, it simply because they’ve stopped being properly tested and stretched and because they’re rarely, if ever, challenged.

And what does that mean in real and practical terms?

It means in healthcare there are surgeons who are not as up to speed as they think are and few people are confident enough to challenge them – see “Black Box Thinking”, by Matthew Syed and most specifically the harrowing story of Elaine Bromiley.

It means there are Captains of Cruise Ships that take unbelievable risks to impress their girlfriends, nobody challenges them, and people die. Take just a moment to scan through the reports of the Costa Condordia disaster to see for yourself how compound errors, assumptions and over-confidence readily spiral into disaster.

It means companies (global brand names included) develop cultures that allow or at least don’t challenge illegal and fraudulent business practices, resulting in catastrophic share price impact and fines that take years to pay off.

And on a more day to day, level it means customer service is poor, employees don’t develop and aren’t supported in achieving their objectives, important operational and service KPIs aren’t met and the business questions the effectiveness of “all that money they spend on L&D”.

The fact that up to 30% of any workforce might have misplaced confidence and go on to lead others to act or behave outside process is a real concern for organisations when they see that evidence for themselves. The problem is most of them never will. Why? Because the assessments they usually ask people to complete simply don’t ask the right questions in the right way and they rarely if ever, reflect the level of confidence.

Instead and in reality, most assessments simply seek to evidence that people can recall enough of what they’ve just been taught in order to meet or pass a benchmark. Call me cynical, but clearly these tests are designed to assess memory recall or the ability to guess well and really provide no level of assurance that people can and will apply the knowledge consistently, accurately and with confidence when required to do so.

There’s another, potentially even more powerful, consideration when you look at the other end of the spectrum. That’s the percentage of people who are highly competent but are not aware that they really know “their stuff” or are not confident in applying what they know.

Using traditional knowledge recall tests, you will never uncover these people because traditional assessments don’t test understanding or application of knowledge in a broader context and they don’t ask or test the likelihood of them actually doing what they say they will do.

The risk here is that you have highly capable people who are easily over-ruled by the more vocal 30% of confident but wrong people and we see this time and time again in hierarchical organisations (see Black Box Thinking). This is compounded by the fact organisations can’t identify these people in order to address it.

The more positive message to take away is that this highly competent but under confident cohort are the hidden and under exploited talent in your organisation just waiting to be coached into confidently “leading” and developing their careers. These are the rising stars you can invest in and develop now.

It is then perhaps time to change the “exam question” to focus not on how many people we can get through learning and to pass the recall test, or indeed how much learning we can buy, sell or supply. After all, that’s not what the business is asking for, what the regulators want to see, what your customers or service users care very much about or indeed what your employees need or want either.

Perhaps the new exam question should be, “Does everyone in the workforce know and understand what we need them too and are they capable and confident in applying that knowledge consistently and accurately, regardless of how the situation presents itself or the pressures or drivers around them change?” And if not, what is it exactly we need to give them, show them or help them with to achieve that?

Let’s change the emphasis back to the original imperative of learning. Everyone benefits when employees are capable, competent and confident in what they do.

Owen Ashby
Head of Strategic Alliances – Cognisco Ltd.

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