I recently learned an important lesson about generalizing from one set of skills or competencies and assuming that these are indicative of competencies in other areas. I volunteer with a local community  organization where we help those people reading below an 8th grade level to improve their literacy skills. Recently, while helping one of my learners prepare for the GED (a high school equivalency test), he shared a story with me about his GED math instructor. He told me that she was very enthusiastic about his ability to complete the GED in English (he is a 34 year old Mexican). She told him, “You will have no problem completing the English version of the GED exam, your English is so good that I am sure you will do just fine. In fact, the word problems should pose no challenge to you.”

While I have no doubt that her encouragement was sincere and that she honestly believed he would be successful. And based on her experience with this young man, her assessment was her best judgment of how he would perform on the test. However, she had fallen victim to something that many of us do – generalize from one set of skills and competencies to others. I had a similar experience with him when we first began our work together and, absent data to the contrary, also made assumptions about his overall literacy competency.

Jorge (not his real name) had immigrated to America 14 years ago from Mexico and during that time has become quite a proficient and fluent English speaker and listener. He is quite engaging in conversations as well as personally. He has a quick wit and has a broad range of interests that suggest that he is quite learned. While all of these things are true and are the skills that have enabled him to successfully navigate his way in America, it is not the whole story.

Despite his excellent conversational skills, he is very challenged by all the competencies needed to be an effective reader. (comprehension, fluency, vocabulary, phonemic awareness and phonics). In my recent assessments, he tested at a 3rd grade level in most if not all of these competencies. Needless to say, this reading level is far below what is required to successfully complete the GED.    

Being aware of his baseline reading competency has enabled me to design a development process that includes content that is relevant to his personal life needs but is at an appropriate grade level. This scaffolding approach will enable him to build the foundational skills needed to eventually reach a reading level essential for successfully completing the GED.  

The important lesson learned from this experience is to not assume that a person who demonstrates competency in one area will be equally as competent in others areas. This led me to think about the number of times I have observed similar errors in judgement in organizations. Perhaps one of the most common errors is the frequently made decision to promote excellent hourly workers in manufacturing facilities to the role of supervisor. This decision is often predicated upon the fact that the employee has demonstrated a positive work ethic and has the technical proficiency to do the job. While admirable, these do not equip a person to be an effective supervisor. Without proper coaching and management skill-building, these individuals frequently fail. Being an effective supervisor requires a very different set of skills, the majority of which deal with organization and managing people.

I think there are a few key takeaways from my experience with Jorge:

  • Even if your intentions are good, be careful with how much you encourage others to take on tasks or responsibilities for which they may not be prepared.
  • Do not generalize from one set of skills or competencies and assume that these correlate to abilities in other areas. For example, verbal proficiency does not directly correlate to reading competency.
  • Capacity for learning one set of skills or competency does not necessarily mean capacity for learning other skills.
  • Ensure you are clear about the competencies required to excel in a role or area and then design learning to match these as well as the learners preferences.
  • Guard against cognitive bias, that if we believe something is true, even if we have only a sample of information, we will act as if it is fact. Encouraging others to take risks based on a small sample of data can be very dangerous.
  • Empowering others before they are ready can have exactly the opposite effect; it can make them feel powerless.

What do you think, we would love to hear from you?