Competence or Greatness?

There is a huge difference in productivity between competent and great employees. This question causes organizations to rethink their approach to employee development.

I often ask clients a challenging question: “Do you want competent employees or do you want employees who are working to be great?” There is a huge difference in productivity between competent and great employees. This question causes them to rethink their approach to employee development. If you want a successful organization, it is important that you strive for greatness and teach your team how to strive for greatness, as well.

Recent neuroscience research suggests that focusing on competencies produces a very different, and less desirable, neural response than focusing on positive images associated with achieving greatness. Focusing on competence typically leads to a discussion of what people are lacking in their interpersonal skills, management acumen, and/or sensing abilities. While competencies in and of themselves are important descriptions of tangible capabilities, focusing on individual competencies frequently leads to a “we can fix you” mentality. Focusing on “fixing” a person’s behavior and performance has two negative neural effects: It causes a release of neural chemicals associated with “fight or flight,” both of which are undesirable responses, and it provides additional neural repetitions of the undesirable behaviors leading to more of the same behaviors. Ultimately, focusing on competencies is detrimental to the development of the person and the organization.

Through our work with various companies over the years, we’ve found that a person’s performance and attitudes are more than just the sum of a few skills or competencies. People who are truly great at what they do always excel at the standard job requirements, but they do so with a wholeness of being that is driven by a higher purpose—the idea that you’re creating a higher social good for those around you and maybe even the world. In contrast to the neuroscience of competencies, the neuroscience associated with working toward a higher purpose suggests that dopamine gets released, leading to more openness to new ideas, faster learning, greater motivation, and enhanced productivity.

Top performers, driven by a higher purpose, consistently work to build their skills and acumen. Their main focus is to not just be OK at what they do, but to be great. They go to bed every night thinking, “What can I do tomorrow to be even better?” Top performers consistently strive to go above and beyond the bare minimum. For them, it’s not just about bringing home a paycheck. They truly care about their job and how they affect others around them. As a result, they are happier and more productive than their average co-workers.

Fulfilling a Higher Purpose

For example, we worked with a pharmacy chain where the top-performing pharmacy managers thought of themselves as “a critical part of the family emergency response system.” Average performing managers thought their job description was to simply make their quota, which, in this case, was 120 prescriptions per day. They did not see their job as fulfilling a higher purpose; for them, it was just a job.

This difference in thinking produced very different results in the overall performance of the pharmacy. The top performers didn’t focus on what and how much they were selling. Instead, they focused on how well they were caring for their “family.” This is the difference between competence and greatness.

There are some simple ways to help your employees transform into greatness. First, keep in mind that a simple change in mindset and language can get people focused on the things necessary to become great in their role, rather than focusing on the things they need to fix about themselves.

To help make the competent employees become great employees, you can follow a simple but very robust model:

Set the Bar for Greatness, Motivate and Engage, and Practice to Sustain

To set the bar for greatness in your organization, assemble a few of your organization’s top performers and ask them why they love their work. Have them brainstorm a list of all the reasons and then process that list down to a short, simple statement everyone can relate to. Have them articulate the steps they went through in their development to be great. And have them think about activities others could experience to build their skills.

Next, share these ideas and statements with others in your organization and have them reflect on these powerful ideas. Let them rewrite these statements in their own words and apply the suggested learning activities in their daily work. Invariably, these statements become highly personal statements of individual purpose and are well aligned with the greater organizational purpose. This process will allow all of your employees to internalize that higher purpose of your top performers and focus on what truly matters, which usually is about creating a compelling, social good.

Greatness starts with changing the vocabulary and attitudes from competence to greatness. It takes practice and patience to develop new these behaviors and attitudes, but it will happen. Just give the process time, and your organization will see extraordinary benefits. Achieving greatness is worth the investment.

Rick Grbavac is the vice president of Cerebyte, Inc. (, a company focusing on creating high-performing organizational cultures. Since joining Cerebyte in 2002, Grbavac has worked with a wide variety of clients in domains including: product development, IT project management, construction, manufacturing, insurance and leadership. Grbavac earned his MBA from Pepperdine University and his BS in Business Administration from the University of Oregon. He is co-author (with Dr. William Seidman) of “The Star Factor.” “The Star Factor” presents Affirmative Leadership, a methodology for discovering what your top performers do differently and leveraging that wisdom to others. He can be reached via e-mail at