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Using Competencies To Identify And Empower Top Performers

By Christine Lamothe on December, 19 2016
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Christine Lamothe

When it comes to your employees, the 80/20 rule often applies, with the top 20 percent of your employees delivering 80 percent of the workforce value.


The ability of top performers to generate exceptional value makes them highly prized, and your organization likely invests considerable resources in attracting, identifying, and grooming high-potential individuals.

But are your talent processes really designed to identify and empower those standout employees?

Many organizations fumble the task, elevating poor candidates or overlooking excellent candidates for a multitude of reasons, including poor evaluation tools or cultural bias. In one study, more than one in three employees who had been identified as high-performing leaders were rated below average in leadership effectiveness by managers, peers, and direct reports.

Even when top performers are identified accurately, they’re not always retained. In a survey of 880 high-potential employees conducted by the Corporate Leadership Council of the Corporate Executive Board, more than one in four said they planned to change jobs within the next 12 months.

Competencies can help you address these challenges by supporting a cycle of activities that include identifying what top performers look like, communicating those expectations to them, and recognizing their performance with continuous feedback and rewards.

Identifying top performers 

“How will I know it when I see it?” Managers are often unclear on what performance excellence looks like, and without the right definitions, identifying high performers can be a subjective process.

Competencies deliver clarity by providing detailed definitions of the abilities, skills, motivations, knowledge, and traits that top performers demonstrate on the job.

  • Competencies define performance excellence in clear, objective, observable terms. This enables both managers and employees to visualize what those behaviors look like in the workplace and identify those who are exhibiting those behaviors.
  • Competencies go beyond the what of a typical job description or task list to describe the how: how do top performers achieve success? For example, an employee might have achieved a particular goal, but alienated the entire team in the process.

Communicating the expectations

While defining excellence is the foundation for identifying top talent, it’s equally important to communicate those performance expectations to managers and employees alike.

Here again, competencies can facilitate the process by describing those expectations clearly and transparently in job descriptions, assessments, and performance reviews.

But while these touchpoints are essential, they aren’t enough to effectively reinforce or change workplace behaviors. Managers must think beyond the annual or biannual performance review and start providing continuous feedback.

It’s easy to overlook this process for top performers, because they tend to be self-sufficient and self-motivated. But they still need to be coached in order to grow and evolve, and they still need feedback to feel engaged and acknowledged.

A 2016 survey of 22,000 leaders conducted by Zenger Folkman found that those who scored in the top 10 percent on giving feedback had employees who were three times more engaged than employees with leaders scoring in the bottom 10 percent.

Even negative feedback is helpful, so don’t be afraid to tell high performers what they could do better. A 2009 Gallup poll found that negative feedback resulted in better engagement levels among employees than receiving no feedback at all.

The bottom line is that even top performers need to know how they’re doing and receive frequent input to help them improve.

Recognizing and rewarding performance 

Bersin research shows that companies that regularly recognize their employees outperform those that don’t. Yet many organizations miss out this crucial step. Employees—even the “superstars”—crave recognition.

That recognition can be as simple as a thank-you for a job well done. It can be privately expressed or delivered in a public setting, and it can include monetary compensation or a more symbolic gesture.

The important thing is to connect that recognition-and-reward system to validated job competencies. By rewarding the specific behaviors that result in performance excellence, you reinforce those behaviors and help top performers understand what works best.

When your organization defines high performance clearly and gives managers the tools to provide top performers with continuous feedback and recognition, it enables those valuable employees to hone their job performance, become better mentors to others, and start replicating their impact across the organization.


Want to learn more about using competencies? Get started with our Competency Toolkit:

Download your Competency Toolkit using the form below.



Post last updated: June 27, 2019.

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