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Why motivation is crucial for developing competence

What is the link between motivation and competence?

2021 May 14 | by Arduino Mancini Motivation and needs

Let’s go through an exercise.

Take a sheet of paper and a pencil.

Now write your definition of the concept of competence:

  • What is it?
  • How would you explain it to someone who has no idea of what it might be?
  • Can you describe it as easily as you talk about it?

Try it for no less than 5 minutes or until you have written something you are happy with.

If you managed to produce a definition that you find acceptable in 5 minutes, you are among the very few people who have succeeded in the task; I didn’t…

If you are still there, with the blank sheet of paper in front of you and the pencil in your hand, don’t lose heart: the exercise is complex and in three minutes your ideas will be not so confused.

I often flip through books written by HR experts who mix the concepts of competence, knowledge, talent and skill.

In this article I would like to clarify the concept of competence; I apologize in advance to those who should not find in my words sufficient scientific accuracy.

A definition of competence that I found to work well is the one offered by Spencer & Spencer*, which I made more concise with this wording:

an intrinsic individual characteristic that is causally linked to performance in a task, in a given position within an organization or in a specific situation, which is measured according to a predefined criterion.

From this definition follow some essential points for anyone wishing to develop competence:

  • competence is valuable in a specific social or organizational context. A good lawyer in The Neederlands is unlikely to be as effective in China without specific training;
  • competence must be measurable, as it is linked causally to a performance, and measured according to a predefined criterion;
  • if competence is not detectable, its existence cannot be proven: and this enables to state that competence, when it exists, can be detected. This point is crucial because it links competence to a change and, therefore, to an outcome;
  • competence is an intrinsic individual characteristic, and its components are essential to its observation and detection.

Now let’s pause on this last point to identify the 5 components of competence:

  1. specific knowledge. Body of knowledge that enables a person to manage a role or task;
  2. personal trait. Takes into account the psychological trait and physical characteristics, it can tell us if we are suited to do one thing rather than another;
  3. skill. A summary of capabilities and abilities, representative of a person’s probability of performing a job successfully, or succeeding in a particular task;
  4. motivation. Inner drives that cause a person to achieve certain goals rather than others. Motivation is critical because it drives action and encourages the display of competence;
  5. self-concept. The individual’s view of himself/herself in a given social or organizational context. Consistency between individual values and those related to the specific context is critical to competence.

Not to forget talent, – often defined as a person’s natural inclination to do a certain activity better than a lot of others – I thought it appropriate to define it as a combination of personal trait and skill.

If we agree on these definitions and look at the picture above it will be clear to you that

personal trait, specific knowledge and appropriate skills will contribute to competence development only if supported by motivation and self-concept.

What can we conclude from this?

When you hire a person you are paying for his/her time, but you have no control over his/her motivation. And…

without motivation, there is neither competence nor the performance you expect.

Don’t you think so?


*Competence at work – Models for superior performance – Lyle M. Spencer, Signe M. Spencer – Wiley, 1993

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