Competency Drift

By Claude Balthazard, Ph.D., C.Psych., CHRL
Vice-President, Regulatory Affairs and Registrar at HRPA

Competence is important but it is not enough—it is not enough to provide safe and effective services to the public and clients and it is not enough for HR professionals to be, and be seen as, true professionals. To be clear, this is not to say that competence is not important—it is; the point is that competence is not enough. A good place to start fleshing out the argument is with a model put forth by George Miller, an expert in the assessment of clinical competence in the medical education context, some time ago.

Miller was reflecting on the assessment of clinical competence in the context of medical education. Although Miller was thinking in terms of assessment, his model also represents steps in the acquisition of professional competence, and he introduces a new idea at the top—that competence is not enough.

Now Miller’s terminology needs some explanation, so let’s quickly work through the levels of his model. The first level refers to what an individual knows. This level is about knowledge, referring to basic facts, the kind that are often assessed by multiple-choice tests. The next level Miller refers to as know how. It refers to knowing how to use the knowledge which comprised the first level. This could be described as process knowledge—how to analyse and interpret information, reach conclusions, and develop action plans. The next step Miller calls show’s how—the ability to demonstrate one’s know-how. Finally, Miller’s fourth level is does—what the individual will actually do in real life outside of the assessment context.


The work of Zubin Austin, PhD., Professor at the University of Toronto, is helpful in understanding the gap between being able to demonstrate competence when required to do so and actually demonstrating competence in a day-to-day context. Dr. Austin coined the phrase ‘competency drift’ to refer to what sometimes happens to professionals.

What if we were to define competency not as “the quality of being adequately or well-qualified physically or intellectually” but instead defined it as “demonstration that you are firing on all pistons, giving it your all?”

Austin’s main idea is that there are many professionals who are “adequately or well-qualified physically or intellectually” but who are not “firing on all pistons, and giving it their all” on a day-in, day-out basis.

There are many things that may be going on. Professionals with experience may begin to lose their edge, they may become a bit lazy or complacent about their competence, and they may suffer from burnout or become jaded and cynical. Although some of the factors that contribute to widening the gap between competence and what a professional actually does on an everyday basis are related to length of tenure as a professional, other factors may be present from day one.

In Austin’s view, the opposite of competence is not incompetence but disengagement. According to Austin, there are many causes of professional disengagement:

  • Day-to-day professional practice is tough…and getting tougher
  • Decreasing professional autonomy
  • Increasing demands for output leading to burnout and fatigue
  • Increasing litigiousness on the part of those impacted by the decisions made by professionals
  • Generally, there has been a decline in the trust and respect for professionals amongst the general public

If there was a single word to refer to what it takes to overcome professional disengagement, it would be professionalism—but not the everyday popular notion of professionalism but professional-strength professionalism.

Professional-strength professionalism

Right off the bat, we need to put out there that there is a difference between how the term professionalism is used in everyday discourse and how it is used in the professions. In everyday discourse the term professionalism refers to behaviours that one would expect of professionals—courteous, reliable, respectful, honest, responsible and competent. In the context of professional regulation, the concept of professionalism is deeper and more than just a nice to have. Professional-strength professionalism is an essential aspect of protection of the public.

“Neither economic incentives, nor technology, nor administrative control has proved an effective surrogate for the commitment to integrity evoked in the ideal of professionalism.”

Sullivan, 1995

“But ultimately, public protection depends on the culture of self-responsibility and accountability that goes with professionalism. And if the regulatory process loses some of its ability to support the professionalism on which public protection depends, that’s a problem.”

William Lahey, 2011

Two differences come to mind between the popular meaning of professionalism and the professional-strength professionalism proposed here—the popular meaning of professionalism focuses on behaviours whereas the regulatory-strength meaning of professionalism focuses on fundamental values, and intrinsic motivation such as a fundamental commitment to integrity.

This provides a new definition of professionalism—professionalism is what enables professionals to ‘fire on all pistons, and give it their all’ in the practice of their profession every day and over time. Professionalism is what keeps the gap between competence and what a professional will do on an everyday basis to a minimum.

Now it is not as if there is a lot of research on the difference between HR professionals who lose their professional edge as opposed to those who are able to maintain it despite it all. However, it is highly unlikely that HR professionals are immune to competency drift—so we will likely need to extrapolate from other professions. Dr. Austin noted that the following professionals were at greatest risk for competency drift:

  • Older practitioners (>25 years post-graduation),
  • Practitioners who work in sole proprietorships; and
  • Internationally educated professionals

It would appear, then, that the presence of a professional peer group is an important factor in sustaining professionalism and mitigating competency drift.

What does this all mean for HR professionals?

Being a self-regulated profession means that as a profession and as individual professionals, Human Resources needs to recognize and manage issues such as competency drift. This is part of our obligation to the public. Interestingly, of all the complaints against HR professionals filed with the Association, very few have to do with incompetence. Overwhelmingly, complaints relate to issues where the professional knew better and would have been able to describe the right course of action if they had to. In other words, at least in relation to professional complaints, failures of professionalism would appear to be more important than failures of competence.

One of the costs of self-regulation is perpetual vigilance in regards to those factors that relate to the quality of professional services delivered by members, both at the Association and the individual professional level.


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