Competency frameworks: how can we beat cultural bias towards extraversion?

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Are you an “introvert” or an “extravert”? Chances are, you already know the answer to this question – as it’s the basis of many personality tests, a common topic of small talk and a very simple way in which to classify both ourselves and those around us.

However, when we consider that these two types of personality have a huge influence on the way we interact with both the world around us and other people, it becomes an important factor when it comes to creating cohesive and diverse workforces.

After all, what does it truly mean to be introverted or extroverted? And how do these different labels and personality types effect the way in which we perform at work? 

More about intraversion and extraversion...

When we look at how introversion and extraversion can manifest in people, the best way to consider the two personality traits is by understanding where each draws their energy from.

Introverts source their energy from ideas and their internal world – they can sometimes find social situations quite draining, and favour observation and introspective thought.  Extraverts, on the other hand, source their energy from the outside world. They draw energy from people, activities and things and instead find solitary and analytical work draining.

When it comes to the workplace, both introverted and extraverted people potentially bring with them some unique skills and orientations to workplace challenges. It is possible to say that individuals can also be ambiverts, existing somewhere on the scale between true extroversion and true introversion. Ambiverts possess a mix of traits – however each of us usually has a tendency to lean slightly towards one of the extremes.

This means if we wish to look at things in a simplistic manner, we can usually split people into one of the two (introverted or extraverted) personality types. These labels of course come with implied baggage, particularly when you consider that we live in a world which favours the extravert over the introvert.

Introversion v extraversion at work

When we talk about introversion and extraversion in the workplace, we talk about our preferred way of working. In a workplace environment, we often use personality questionnaires to get a better picture of current employees and potential candidates – and many of the traits we examine for fall into the realms of introversion or extraversion.

However, there is a significant risk that when you look at these results to guide your assessment of an employee that introverts will be written off because it appears – through the test results – that they may not be able to do the job.

This is because, when it comes to the competency frameworks and assessment processes that we use to assess employees, there tends to be a cultural bias which favours the extravert over the introvert.

A competency framework is something we use to show us what success looks like in a certain role in terms of behaviours. It often prioritises things like teamwork and interpersonal skills, and defines the most desirable behavioural characteristics for a certain role.

Unfortunately, competency frameworks tend to place favour on individuals who are extraverts: team players, risk takers, quick decision makers and people who can quickly build strong relationships are all often framed as desirable through competency frameworks as they seem to favour action-orientation.

Therefore, the way we currently frame effective behaviour at work is inherently biased to favour the extravert. Logically, we can see that this can start to become a problem as it puts anyone on the introverted side of the scale at an immediate disadvantage – as competency frameworks underpin everything from development programs to assessment situations and hiring processes, and thus have a huge impact on who we award certain roles and responsibilities to.

Where do we go from here?

This is not an argument to overthrow extraverts around the globe, or completely uproot our ideas of what we think is important from a new colleague: after all, whether someone is introverted or extroverted should not affect their ability to meet deadlines or work as part of a team.

However, looking consistently for people with “big personalities” or “strong presentation skills” without perhaps considering qualities more commonly associated with introversion can limit the breadth of dispositions and types of people we bring into the workplace.

If we want to create truly diverse workforces which foster creativity, progression and innovation, we need to make sure the personalities of our staff members are as diverse as their backgrounds. In order to do this, we should consider altering the way we develop competency frameworks and the assessment techniques that we use: so we foster a wide range of talent that can bring a variety of skillsets to the table.

About John Atkins

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17th May 2017 14:37

Hi John,

Thanks for the article. My answer is that we may be tackling this from the wrong end. I don't have much faith in competency frameworks per se. Rather than care about what personality or behavioural type they favour, I would rather see them phased out as a good idea that didn't work.

If an organisation spends a fortune in recruiting a new employee, then there should have been some serious thinking, at recruitment stage, about why that person was right for the job. Let's imagine, for example, that ABC corporation recruits a technical expert in whatever field ABC operates in. On day one, the expert is given a competency framework which expects him to become a generalist, and denies him the very expertise for which he thought he was recruited.

High on the list of competencies will be 'teamwork'. But our expert didn't become an expert through teamwork, but through solo work. Experts are generally self-motivated individuals with a near obsessive passion for something. They develop the passion through grit, determination and (often) working alone. As long as they lob over the fence the things that the organisation wants, it doesn't matter whether they score 5 on the competency framework in the teamwork section, because that doesn't relate to their work, and dilutes their performance as an expert.

Rather than worry about whether competency frameworks favour extroverts or introverts, I would be more concerned that they favour an outdated, generalised notion of how the world of work should be conducted.

Competency frameworks, along with formalised appraisals are the refuge of the incompetent manager. Good managers give their direct reports feedback as and when it's necessary, document what went well and less well and know what will stimulate their reports to perform well. You don't need the formal objective setting/appraisal/competency framework systems to do this for you - good managers don't need them.

So, for me, the focus is wrong here. The bias towards one group or another is not the issue, but the use of tools which hide, create or perpetuate institutionalised mediocrity.

Many organisations are now moving away from these outmoded tools and developing people who can manage, and in turn giving space for intelligent people to flourish.

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17th May 2017 17:37

John and David - both excellent contributions - thanks!

I have had the privilege of leading a team of exceptional Assessment / Development Centre designers for something over 20 years. You won't see our name out there in lights because clients invariably come to us, typically when they've woken up to the recognition that there is no 'one size fits all' - or even a single philosophy - which can ensure they end up with the very best candidates from a pool of several (or many).

As I reflect on my long career in this sector, I see - rather depressingly - a dearth of suppliers with anything more than a shallow understanding of the principles involved; and - yet more worryingly - a growth in demand for 'simple' solutions which can be peddled out repeatedly by HR administrators with an eye only on volume of candidates and ease of operation.

It is little wonder, in reading applicant blogs, that a growing cynicism pervades candidate experience - or that employers are disappointed in the efficacy of their selection processes when those chosen candidates leave after a few months for pastures new!

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07th Jun 2017 12:40

when those chosen candidates leave after a few months for pastures new!

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